Sermon by Phyllis Rhinehart

Sept. 13, 2015

Micah 6:6a & 8

“Mission Beyond Our Walls” (Back Bay Mission)



(Click the title below to see the Powerpoint Show)



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We talk a lot about giving to others and being the face of Jesus in the world but exactly how can we do this?  What does service to others mean?  It’s actually quite easy and very enjoyable.

Dick and I are going to share with you our recent experience serving at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi.  We spent five weeks there this summer; it was our fifth trip.   And since several people have asked why we went and what is Back Bay Mission, we thought you might like to see our vacation pictures.

Back Bay Mission is one of the mission opportunities supported by the United Church of Christ.  It has been a presence on the Gulf Coast since 1922 when the UCC went to help the Greek fishermen and their families.  The work camp program that we are most familiar with began in the 1960’s when college students began coming down on their spring break to help fix up the mission. Volunteers still come in from UCC churches all over the United States.  They spend a week at the Mission rebuilding homes on the Gulf Coast.  In the aftermath of Katrina when the entire campus as well as most of Biloxi was destroyed, the work camp program became a vital part of the recovery of the Gulf Coast.

Back Bay Mission has been totally rebuilt and reshaped due to the dedication and passion of then Director Shari Prestemon, along with financial and emotional support of the United Church of Christ.  I could spend hours telling you stories of the love that poured in to the mission after Katrina.  Churches had fundraisers; individuals gave money and supplies for the people of the Gulf Coast, one former work camper sent a modular home to house the volunteers. Before that, the work campers stayed in a trailer, which was quite an adventure (right Mary Beth, Darryl?). That was the first year our church sent a team of work campers. Our church sent another group to work in 2010, but it was on that first visit Dick and I were hooked.  We knew this was something we wanted to do again and again.

Now when the work campers come to Biloxi, they have a beautiful new Mission House. (No more trailers)  It has bunkroom for 48 campers, a commercial kitchen that will allow all the campers to fix meals and a dining hall that will seat 60.  It’s both highly functional and welcoming.
When the Mission was rebuilt it was expanded to include a lot more services for the people of the Gulf Coast.

A vital part of the Mission is the Micah Day Center. This is a facility dedicated to our homeless clients.  There is no homeless shelter on the Gulf Coast.  In the Micah Day Center, the homeless are given the opportunity to shower, get their clothes washed and have something to eat and drink.  They are given a fresh set of clothes once a month and hygiene kit, as well as medical and dental care.  The center also provides our clients with an address so they can receive government assistance or other correspondence.   There are also computers available for their use.

There is a large contingency of homeless veterans on the Gulf Coast that need housing and other services, in addition to the Day Center, Back Bay Mission has two programs for homeless veterans.  One is called Home Port, which was started by Back Bay but is now being managed by the Department of Veteran Affairs.  The other is called “Home at Last” which provides housing to homeless veterans.  This ongoing ministry has grown to become the longest running and largest permanent supportive housing for the homeless veterans on the Gulf Coast.  Home at Last has 17 housing units and provides outreach and support to over 300 individuals annually.

Also, we have the Client Support Services, which supports the Food Pantry.  The staff also assists with utilities, money for prescriptions, identity cards, and many other services.  It is a vital part of the Mission.

So now you know what services Back Bay Mission offers, but what specifically do Dick and I do there.  Well we go as “long term volunteers” and stay in the Volunteer House along with the other long-term volunteers.

My primary responsibility is to support the work camper.  I feel my job is to make the week that the volunteers spend with Back Bay Mission the best experience it can be.  I am there to welcome them to the campus and show them around.. We have a meeting on Sunday night and explain the rules: keep the door code private, where to find the grocery store, the best restaurants and I have to mention the shrimp?  (Oh my gosh, the shrimp are caught right there on the Bay and brought to the Fish Market immediately.  It is so good. ) I tell them where to find a local church service on Wednesday evening, (if they want to go) Where LeBakery is, (again another local treat that can’t be missed) as well as preparing them for the week ahead.

I also work in the office to handle inquiries from groups who want to come work at Back Bay and those who cancel their trips.  I fill in wherever I am needed such as working the Food Pantry, covering the phones, running errands.

Now while I am slaving away in the air-conditioned office, Dick has the job of working with the volunteers at the job site.

We thought we would show you a picture that pretty much sums up what the people of Biloxi had to endure.  See this picture, check out the water line on the house.  This gentleman survived the water rising up to that line by standing on a couch that was floating in his living room.  (Notice that I said survived.) That was just one home of many in that district.  Back Bay Mission was there for this gentleman and many others to refurbish his home. In this picture you can see our church members working on a home in the area. And in the next one we went back later and it was being completed.

A lot of people think that since Katrina was 10 years ago, there isn’t much for the work campers to do, right?  Wrong. The Gulf Coast is one of the most economically depressed areas in the US.  The task of rebuilding the Gulf Coast is ongoing.  So many people living in the area are still without decent housing.  Many homes are in need of repairs, a roof, or a ramp built to access their house. We are repairing some of the work that was done by some of the groups that came down and hastily repaired homes so the people could get back to their lives.  We have a list of around 50 projects that are in varying stages of repair.  And are turning people away everyday for lack of funds and time.

Dick, Craig, and Benji (a staff member and Craig’s assistant) take the group to the job site every Monday morning.  They instruct the volunteers on the task at hand and make sure they can operate the tools. I have to tell you that on our last visit, I went to the job site and there was this young woman working an auger, digging a posthole for the ramp.  Very impressive, but I remember at our first work camp visit I was using this big nail gun.  Craig was watching closely, but it was sooo cool.  You never know what you are capable of until you try.

They also make sure each work site has all the materials needed to complete the job, and make sure the work that is done is acceptable and will meet the building code.

They also keep an eye on the workers for heat and fatigue, so they don’t hurt themselves.  AND they preach safety, safety, and safety.

On the weekend or after they close the job site, Dick maintains the tool trailers, putting tools away, making sure the tools are in good working order.  It’s an ongoing project for sure.

There are so many reasons why we continue to go to Back Bay.

We have become part of the Mission Family.

Craig Steenkamp who is the Associate for the Work Camp Program calls us Mom and Dad.  (That turns a few heads because he is from South Africa and our southern accent doesn’t quite sound the same.)

We get to meet the best people.   The volunteers who come to Back Bay are so loving and giving.  For example; this year, our first week there, Jill Cartledge (who is the case worker) was very worried about the Food Pantry.  She showed me how bare it was and said she had already spent more than half her budget for the year (this was in May) and didn’t know how she would replenish it.

Our next group was a Catholic Girls High School and their fathers from St. Louis Missouri (one of the few groups that are not UCC) who had been coming as work campers for several years.  Some of the girls had graduated, gone on to college and were in their careers, still they came most every year.  As soon as they arrived, they went to Jill and asked; what do you need, we’ve been saving since last year and want to help.  Jill gave them a list; they went to Wal-Mart and bought enough groceries to help fill the pantry.  The next week a group from Wisconsin had had a capitol campaign and pledged to Back Bay (as we did a few years ago) they presented the director with a check, then the youth group from Vero Beach filled the pantry a couple of weeks after that.  Now, not every group can afford to do this but it’s an example of the spirit of the work campers. They are not only working to rebuild homes, but also making sure the mission keeps serving the people of the Gulf Coast.

This is the Back Bay Mission as we have experienced it.

Maybe you are interested in volunteering at Back Bay Mission, if so let me know (I can hook you up), or maybe you can’t physically help rebuild a home but consider what you can do.  Whatever your interests are, just know that there are volunteer opportunities available everywhere, if not in Biloxi, then Daily Bread in Melbourne or volunteer here at the church. Last week I was talking to Craig and we concluded that unless you come to the mission and immerse yourself into the lives of the people here, you just don’t get it.  I encourage you to try it, you won’t be the same.

We feel privileged to have been invited to come and stay at Back Bay mission.  I can assure you that the rewards we receive exceed our efforts. And did I mention the shrimp?

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