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Mon August 28, 2006
"Bent But Not Broken" in Biloxi
By Catherine M. Welch
Wilmington, NC – Two block from the Gulf of Mexico, dozens of volunteers pile into First United Methodist Church. Wilmington resident Murrie Lee is one of the volunteers, he's on his 6th mission trip to Biloxi.
Like most people, Lee watched Hurricane Katrina devastate the region on his TV set, and sitting in a quiet corner of the church sanctuary, he tells of how he felt an immediate need to be useful.
My heart was very heavy at that time and I wanted to do something but I didn't know what in the world I could do or how I could go down there, I just worked behind a desk for 36 years.
Then a plea for help came from the Methodist church, and Lee knew it was his chance to help.
Once in Biloxi, he was less sure of his usefulness. In times of doubt Lee leans on his faith to guide him, and through his life he's found solace in a painting called The Helping Hand.
It depicts an old sea captain in a boat and along side him is his little grand daughter and she has her hands gently on the oar and she's helping her grandfather row the boat. The parable to that to me is that the old sea captain is Christ and he's allowing us his servants like the little girl to help him out.
Rocked by the destruction and debris that littered Biloxi, Lee started to wonder if his two hands were enough to make a difference.
One of his last jobs on that first trip was to clear out a lot on the Back Bay. For hours he picked through household items: a microwave; a vacuum cleaner. And then something in embedded in the ground caught his eye.
"And as I looked down in front of me something reflected in the dirt and I picked up a little round picture about 4 inches in diameter and the picture was a replica of The Helping Hand, the same picture that has hung in my home for over 25 years. So at that moment I knew that I was doing what I should be doing, God wanted me to be there, he was please with what I was doing and that's why I have come back time and time again, because there is so much work that has to be done down here.
Lee found that keepsake nearly a year ago. Nowadays he stays mainly in the kitchen, with his wife Teresa to feed the dozens of volunteers .
With a good chunk of Biloxi torn down and cleared out, skilled labor is now needed to build it back up. The volunteers do what they can: the painting and the landscaping, but the church's disaster recovery team now focuses on providing project management navigating the red tape of arranging permits and coordinating contractors for worn out residents who hardly need another headache. Residents like Frenchie Duhawn
Inside a white wooden coastal cottage Lee and Duhawn check out recent repairs. From the outside, this 83-year-old house looks unscathed. But Katrina filled it up with more than seven feet of water.
Completely gutted and stripped back to the studs, Duhawn is ready to move with the insulation and dry wall, instead he sits and waits for his next round of inspections.
See we got the insulation but we can't put it in until they come and check everything, and out there we got the sheet rock.
Lee met Duhawn during his first mission trip to First United Methodist Church, and while he's met dozens of people over the last ten months, he feels a special bond and makes a point to see how he's doing.
What amazes Lee is Duhawn's last-minute survival of the storm. He rode out Hurricane Camille 37 years ago, thought he could do with same with Katrina, then had to flee at the last minute to a friend's second story apartment across the street.
And then the water got higher than Camille and we was on the porch and all we could do is watch the water rise in this house. Had a brand new truck outside, rise over that, the alarms would go off on the truck, everything shorted out, and you couldn't do a thing about it, you know. But we didn't think it would be that bad cuz we just had the clothes come back the next day. We came in here everything was just tell my wife, that's more than what we were born with, got some clothes, not much.
Back at First United Methodist church, a handful of choir members warm up by singing lyrics scrolling across a big screen karaoke style at the front of the sanctuary.
The church lost its pipe organ to mold, the hurricane also left water stains on the ceilings, rows of warped pews and damaged stained glass windows.
The steeple was left intact, but the hurricane bent the cross on top of it. Leaving Biloxi residents with a symbol of sorts to look up to. And as Murrie Lee says, it serves as a reminder those piecing their lives back together that they are bent but not broken.
It symbolizes what the spirit is, don't lose hope, don't lose hope.