Called to help rebuild, we became part of a new family




John and Mary Mueller, who for several years headed up the Hurricane Katrina response of Brethren Disaster Ministries, are shown here kneeling behind a handmade cross with a group of volunteers who helped rebuild homes following the storm. A Katrina survivor had fashioned the cross from wreckage of his fishing boat. He refinished the opposite side of the cross, to signify his new life in Christ.

John and Mary Mueller, who for several years headed up the Hurricane Katrina response of Brethren Disaster Ministries, are shown here kneeling behind a handmade cross with a group of volunteers who helped rebuild homes following the storm. A Katrina survivor had fashioned the cross from wreckage of his fishing boat. He refinished the opposite side of the cross, to signify his new life in Christ.

By John and Mary Mueller

When we watched the news in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast, we were pretty sure that Brethren Disaster Ministries would be available to help with the rebuilding. We had no idea that it would mean a major change for us, that it would bring us into an experience that we now consider to be one of the highlights of our lives. 

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Feeling a call to help, we went to the Brethren Disaster Ministries project site at Chalmette, La., in March 2007 for what we thought would be a year of service.

Rather sheepishly, we admit now that when we looked at the map and saw how close Chalmette was to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans we wondered what we were getting ourselves into. There had been plenty of television coverage about the crime and looting in the area, so we started to question both our sanity and our safety.

We needn't have worried. As we drove into the area that first Sunday in March, a feeling of calmness came over both of us. We knew we were in a good place, and, odd as it may sound, we could feel the goodness of the community and the people even as we were in the car driving the deserted streets and seeing the devastation for the first time in person.

The television coverage did not adequately prepare us for what we saw!

Later we found that the majority of the residents were living in FEMA trailers gathered any place where they could hook up to utilities. We ended up living in and housing our volunteers in trailers parked right along with the storm survivors, allowing us to be immersed in their community at a much deeper level than we had experienced at any other disaster site. We became part of the community, and consequently our time in St. Bernard Parish is part of our lives, not just another experience.

Another thing we were not adequately prepared for was personally experiencing Southern hospitality! We fondly remember how Miss Karen insisted on feeding all the volunteers every day. This was a lady who lost everything and had three generations of her family living together with her, trying to recover. Yet, despite our protests that it wasn't necessary, she insisted on cooking--and cook she did! Spaghetti, fried chicken, seafood--again and again she would be asked for her recipes and we would all roar with laughter as she always began her answer, "Well, you start with a pound of butter...."  Karen’s is just one of so many stories.

It would take four years, not the one year we had planned to stay, before we felt the ministry had achieved the goal of helping the community rebuild to a level where residents were once more able to make it on their own. At one point we remember thinking, how will we ever be able to leave this place? Partly because the rebuilding task seemed so daunting, and partly because we had developed so many deep friendships in the community. 

But the day did come that we saw the local rebuild committee all nodding their heads as we reported that Brethren Disaster Ministries had neared the end of its time in their community. We had finished our mission to help them rebuild, and they were now sufficiently recovered and strong enough that we could go on to serve another need in some other part of the country.

When we drove out of town, it was with the promise of visiting our friends again someday, and keeping in touch via phone and e-mails, which indeed we do. 

We are grateful for having had the opportunity to expand our “family.” 

-- John and Mary Mueller are receiving a Points of Light Award for their work leading the rebuilding program of Brethren Disaster Ministries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Find the news release about the Points of Light award, titled "Daily Point of Light Award Celebrates Volunteers During the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina," at www.pointsoflight.org/press-releases/kaiser-permanente-and-points-light-honor-exceptional-disaster-relief-volunteers-award .

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