This is not really about Africa

I wrote this after a week in Long Beach, Mississippi last fall:

Like many other Vanderbilt students, I had been itching to do something-anything-to help the victims of August’s hurricanes. Sure, a couple canned goods and a check to the Red Cross was great, but I wanted to sink my hands into the mud that Katrina had left behind. And like most students, I had no idea how. I decided to go with the local Methodist/Episcopalian group on their Fall Break trip to Long Beach, Mississippi mainly because one of my friends invited me. I expected little out of the weekend. At best, I would be able to lend a yet-untrained hand; at worst, we would be in the way.

Camp Coast Care in Long Beach, Mississippi, however, floored me. An Episcopal and Lutheran outfit, the volunteer center covers a large swath of the Mississippi Gulf coastline. Started by a single priest in week two of the storm’s aftermath, the camp has grown to a 150-bed headquarter for volunteers. A basketball gym borrowed from a high school, funds from the Episcopal Diocese, the organizational know-how of Lutheran Disaster Relief, and volunteers from Maine, Oregon and everywhere in between have come together to provide food, medical care, household goods, clothes, construction and demolition teams to residents of Harrison County, Mississippi. Volunteers get a place to sleep (or bring their own tents or campers), three meals a day, and a daily assignment.

And it is that simple, really. I spent two days clearing pine trees from lots and homes, and another greeting and registering storm victims as they entered the complex. At the end of three days, we packed up and left, making room for more volunteers from Indiana.

Just before the weekend, I had been reading Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard for one of my religious studies classes. Kierkegaard is a Christian existentialist. Existentialists, roughly speaking, believe that life is ultimately meaningless, without purpose or direction, or that any meaning that we perceive is overlaid onto that otherwise meaningless existence. We exist, that’s it. Sorry.

Some existentialists get a little more optimistic: we can, they might argue, create meaning ourselves. The Christian half of “Christian existentialism,” from what I understand so far, implies that Kierkegaard brackets existentialism in the sense that yes, the world as it stands is meaningless and we live in a constant state of angst and despair; however, the Christian knows that this state is simply the absence of God in the world.

I haven’t made up my mind on Kierkegaard or existentialism yet (or Christianity, for that matter). I tend to agree that life seems to be more of a cosmic crapshoot than anything else. Never have I heard any sort of theodicy (explanation of evil) that can keep gaze with, for example, the suffering of the street boys I met in Lima my freshman year. Things just don’t make sense. “The rain falls,” said one now-famous Jewish mystic, “on the just and the unjust alike.”

But what I saw in Long Beach, Mississippi this weekend was a group of people creating meaning in a ten-block deep, forty-five mile wide wasteland of meaninglessness. There was hope in the eyes of people who had lost their everything and everyone, and there was love in the hands of those of us who reached out toward them. Somewhere, in that intersection of need and aid, meaning existed. I do not know if, like the existentialists, meaning was arbitrarily created. Maybe we found that which already exists apart from us, as a theologian might argue. But I watched despair turn into hope this weekend, and I am eager to watch that again.

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