"Some of the people on the mission trip complained of sleeplessness and lack of motivation after they returned. Pastor Sue Artt of St. Paul United Church of Christ in Nashville calls it a 'spiritual restlessness' and remembers April of 1999 when she first experienced those same feelings.
She was an oil company executive living in Colorado, when two students went on a killing rampage at Columbine High School. That crisis shredded the lives of countless people, some of them friends of Sue Artt and her daughter, Meghan. Families and friendships, communities and entire churches were left bleeding long after the gunfire fell silent.
"That began my spiritual restlessness, and it didn't end for me until four years later when I entered the seminary," she recalled. "Spiritual restlessness is really God's presence in our lives."
And so when some of the 16 people she recently led to Biloxi, Mississippi, to assist Katrina victims complained of the same symptoms, Pastor Artt could diagnose it from personal experience. The local residents were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August on the second anniversary of Katrina's devastation. Some things have improved, but for tens of thousands of that area's neediest residents, their 24-month struggle is no where near finished.
"In any major crisis like Columbine or (the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City) or Katrina, the needs are very apparent in the first year, and the resources rise to meet those needs," Pastor Artt said. "Then the resources drop off in the second year, but the need remains." Of 70,000 homes lost on the Gulf Coast to the hurricane's fury, only 7,000 have been rebuilt, she said. Many are still living in FEMA trailers, and bankrupt insurance companies provide no help and no hope. "These people are rebuilding their lives on bits and pieces," she said, adding the little assistance still flowing into that ravaged area today comes mainly from faith-based groups – Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.
Working through the UCC's Back Bay Mission, the local volunteers did repairs on three houses, restocked $1,700 in supplies at a Back Bay Mission food pantry and served 400 meals at a Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen.
Laboring in extremely hot weather with no air conditioning, the group rehabilitated three homes, including one for a 94-year-old woman whose only means of expressing her gratitude was to ask the workers to sign her family Bible. The pastor said the week-long mission was a life-changing experience for everyone. "We go back as much as we gave," the pastor said, relating one incident in which a woman stepped up to hug each member of the local group because they were wearing Back Bay Mission t-shirts. "It wasn't for what we had done, bur for what someone else from Back Bay Mission had done before we got there," she said.
"God calls us to be more generous and more humble and live in more gratitude. Some of our group said they would never complain again." Pastor Artt and her congregation are looking for other opportunities to serve, perhaps meeting the needs of folks right here in Washington County. "As Christians we're called to serve all of God's creatures. Anywhere people are suffering and in need, we are called to serve. By doing that, we are answering God's call."