Last week, I was in New Jersey.
I have one word for the whole experience: UNREAL.
If I had a dollar for every time I muttered UNREAL under my breath, or even out loud, providing relief to those affected by Superstorm Sandy would be a piece of cake.
What was so unreal about it?
I don't even know where to start.
The fact that two months ago I had no inkling I'd find myself in my dad's birthstate.
That I'd be standing on hurricane rubble, for the fourth time in my life.
That my heart would be so deeply affected by those who survived the storm, or by those on our team and others who came to help.
Where do I even start?
They are UNREAL.
This organization is incredible.
They are organized, efficient, compassionate, loving, and most importantly Christ Centered.
And they do it all "In Jesus' Name"
My heart bursts with joy reflecting on what they are doing on the East Coast.
You have probably heard them from Operation Christmas Child.
They also do work in Sudan.
And they have the most amazing Disaster Response Team.
If you want to help, I wholeheartedly and eagerly suggest SP.
Our team had a bit of a "no room at the inn" situation, but the Lord was so faithful, and the people of the Tom's River Community, including Trinity Fellowship Church and Ocean County YMCA opened their "stables" to us, and we were able to partner as day volunteers with SP.
We flew into Philly on a Red-Eye, and with the help of plenty of caffeine, adrenaline, and the Holy Spirit, we were able to get right to work the afternoon we arrived.
We were hosted by the most amazing church.
And fed like the world was ending.
New Jersey gave southern hospitality a run for their money.
There was food for dayyyyzzzzz out there.
And we slept in the sanctuary.
While a bible study went on.
I don't think they realized we were in there.
But we were exhausted. So, we slept, mid prayer request.
The following day, we were back at SP HQ getting our assignments. We'd be back to the same neighborhood from the previous day.
And with our fearless leader Ed.
Who seemed gruff and intimidating at first.
But honestly was a soft-hearted servant of Jesus, who genuinely loves people.
Marge and I got to work hammering out tile.
It was one of those jobs that feels so satisfying, each time a big chunk of tile came out, we'd both shriek with joy. And then Marge got contracted out for Hazmat Duty, so Kimberli took over and we finished the job.
And by lunchtime, the first house was completely mudded out. Inside and out.
Here is where I should tell you more.
The home is owned by Eugene and his wife Anne.
He has metastasized cancer.
Their home is on a beautiful waterfront.
And Eugene contacted SP to help him with his home, because he didn't feel as though he had much longer to live, and needed to make sure his bride would be taken care of for years to come.
While he was at Chemotherapy, we were able to help serve him by tearing down the damaged home.
Just thinking about it makes me utter, "unreal".
And when he returned, we presented him with his home.
Cleaned out, cleared out, every possible speck of hurricane removed. Even from the gravel driveway.
Every piece of damage or debris we could remove, we did.
And this is where Samaritan's Purse is awesome, the homeowner is presented with a Bible, and a message of hope.
We got to work on another house that same afternoon. A woman named Ellen, and some of the girls on our team got to go in and spend time with her sorting through her stuff before our crew came in to rip out walls, insulation and floors.
One of those girls was Kimberli. And she has such a heart for people.
While I could hammer tile out of a tub for hours, she could sit and hear the survivors' stories just as long.
She has a huge heart for people, and so she approached me about how we could bless Ellen and her family.
The following day we would finish work on Ellen's house, and thanks to someone who sent me with some cash to be used as needed, Kimberli and I got to go on a shopping spree for two Junior High aged girls and their mom.
Zebra print, Hello Kitty, lip gloss and candy filled our cart.
So did journals in which Kimberli would share the good news and hope of Jesus Christ with these girls.
I was inspired by her heart and love for the Lord and His people.
A gift card for dinner, and a new sweater for Ellen.
Kimberli was BOLD in sharing the Gospel with this family. It was a joy to witness.
We got moved to another house, in the same neighborhood. When I returned from Target, I found the team, and their fashionable gloves, mudding out once again.
Also, I like the way Jersey labels things.
After our standard car lunch break, Marge and I took a quick jaunt down the street to explore a bit more of this little waterfront neighborhood we had been spending so much time in.
And then....we had second lunch.
At Frankies Franks.
It's not every day you find a hot dog food truck.
And it's a good thing we stopped...because the afternoon was about to hold some intense labor.
Such as collecting decks that had detached from homes when the water rose, and when it receded, had landed two houses over.
First, our team removed this deck...after several different attempts, finally, with a chainsaw.
Because as I would learn shortly, many chainsaws make light work.
And then, across the water, joined in breaking up another deck, with a team from Pennsylvania.
And their three chainsaws.
And while the chainsaws roared, I did a little more exploring. Picking up pieces of someone's home, finding photographs, warped and damaged, but still, something, under rocks, and shells, and debris.
And as the day turned to dusk, and we wrapped up helping a man we had only met an hour or so earlier, Ed, our foreman, gave our team a neat opportunity. Dave, our pastor, was able to do a Bible Presentation. And things got bold. Ed and Dave shared the good news of Jesus Christ, and it got real.
This is why Samaritan's Purse, and their volunteers do what they do.
Sure, fixing homes, and cleaning up messes, and ripping out destruction is awesome, and practical, and it makes a HUGE difference. But what really matters, is eternal things. And that day, in this small circle, real questions were asked.
Reality was faced.
I think this day was the highlight, the apex, of this trip.
That in the midst of pain, and loss, and heartache, God is moving and working, and doing a million things.
In the lives of Jim, Antony, Eugene and Anne, Ellen, "#55" and all of the people we had the privilege of meeting and serving.
The days that followed were awesome. We got to worship with our host church, an amazing body of believers, who seem to be living our own motto of "a heart of love and a life of service" out in a way that was encouraging and inspiring.
A faithful church, who met in school for 14 years before having their own permanent building. A body of believers who eagerly and abundantly provided for a group of 14 wackadoodles from California. No questions asked. A church that I pray Hope might turn into when we "grow up".
The mall in the daytime, and looking for something to do at night, we all headed out for our very first Wawa experience. We were like kids in a candy store. Quite literally.
And, looking for a little leisure, we headed over to a local arcade center.
Which sadly was shut down for the night, where we found the manager up to his eyeballs in party room clean up.
What else were eleven of us going to do but offer to help.
So, we helped our new friend Andrew, swap tables and chairs throughout three different party rooms.
It was actually really fun - and turned his several hour task into one that only took 10 minutes.
He was so grateful that he turned the arcade back on for us! Tokens and tickets abounded!
And he had his chef make us a pizza. Which turned into two pizzas, garlic knots, and a buffet of pasta.
Like I said, THEY FED US, real New Jersey Hospitality.
It was one of those kinds of things where you go out with one type of expectation, and are blown away with the much more awesome reality of what actually ends up happening. Even in something so unrelated to a hurricane, we were able to help encourage a few people who were struggling through the day to day.
And if you ask anyone on our team, you will probably hear that our last work day was hard.
We were faced with our own challenges, a different foreman with a different style, a new team of workers, and simple exhaustion.
But God is faithful. And he works in and through us. Despite our own shortcomings.
There was much beauty to be found in that day, while in the midst of it, and reflecting upon it.
God will use anything and everything to refine us.
And finally, before we left the East Coast, we had one last adventure as a team.
New York City.
By way of Seacaucus.
On the subway.
To Port Authority Terminal to the World Trade Center to Times Square back to Port Authority Terminal and finally back to Seacaucus.
And we lived to tell the tale.
Swirling skies and a sunset of unreal colors guided us back to Philadelphia, and closed out our six days on the East Coast.
A fitting reminder of God's goodness, faithfulness, creativity, sovereignty, and LOVE as we reflected on a week full of blood, sweat, and tears...
...For His glory, and our good.