(Whats Wrong With) The Lone Star State

Just over a week ago, I started my last project with Houston Parks and Recreation, working at the Lake Houston Park.  This is my second project down in Houston, Texas, as I was here for my first round project back in November and December and will be finishing my year with AmeriCorps NCCC in the same city.  While it is exciting to be back to where I began my service, I cant help but notice how Texas, the Lone Star State, stands out like no other. 

(notice:  This is a rant.  If you do not agree with everything I say here, I respect your views, but I don’t really want to argue about it.  If I offend you, I am not attacking anybody, I’m speaking against the idea that has I have seen present int he minds of many Texans.)

Look at the popular nickname for Texas, the Lone Star State.  Just the idea that comes out of that statement is enough to make me cringe.  I’ve heard many people state that Texas is better than everyone else because “Everything is Bigger in Texas!” or “We take care of our own.”  The general opinion that I get from talking to people throughout this state is that Texas doesn’t need everyone else.  They are better off on their own. 

In their own constitution, they can break away from the United States and become their own independent country.  I’ve heard many people boast this statement, but I wonder how long they would last without the help of Federal Programs, money and support (especially military).  If they truly are better without the rest of the nation, why don’t they act upon this boast? 

We, our AmeriCorps NCCC team, arrived a number of weeks late to our project because of our response to the tornadoes in St. Louis and in Joplin, MO.  We were informed that when Hurricane Ike hit several years ago, Texans didn’t have to wait on FEMA or Federal Assistance, but started to “take care of their own”.  despite Federal assistance taking just as long as it did in Katrina, they had their act together and did not receive any news coverage. 

(There were many flaws that were in that statement that we kindly did not point out.  Like the fact that Houston did not have a levee that broke, nor is it beneath sea level, nor is it within a couple of miles from the Gulf of Mexico.)

We, as a team, found it difficult and frustrating because several individuals basically told us that the work we were doing on disaster relief (and that AmeriCorps has done in the past) was not of importance because we missed what we were “supposed” to be doing. 

Yes, we did not arrive to our project on the initial date that we were supposed to deploy, but the biggest responsibility for the NCCC is Disaster Relief.  When Natural or Man-made disaster strikes, that incident becomes our fist priority.  Kids camps, environmental work, and everything else comes second. 

The problem with Texas isn’t the people, it’s the superiority complex that the state gives them. 

In Joplin, I worked side by side with members of the Texas Environmental Corps, members of AmeriCorps that have been working throughout the state of Texas doing invasive species removal and disaster response.  Unlike many Texans, they have been the only ones that do not seem to have a superiority complex. 

Yes, the community of Texas is great, but it would be better if it stopped looking inwards on itself and started focusing outward to how it can help make this nation greater than what it currently is. 

God Bless and PEACE


A Day For Fathers (Of All Types)

On Wednesday, 15 June 2011, I received the news that my sister’s twins were born.  I am excited to say that both are doing well, though a bit tiny considering that they were supposed to be due early September (they came somewhere between week 26 and 27, not exactly sure though). 

My brother-in-law is ecstatic (almost giddy with excitement) and has been posting pictures of his new-born son and daughter up on Facebook every chance he gets.  You can see the joy on his face in each picture and can hear it in his voice whenever you talk with him.  He is a proud father, as he should be. 

A year ago, my own father was surprised by a call from a son whose journey had taken him miles from home, across the sea and into the ‘dark continent’.  Now, he is enjoying the first week of being a Grandfather.  Throughout the years, he has provided each of us (my brother, sister and myself) sound words of encouragement, advice and warnings.  Though a little blunt at times, he has always been there for us, and will be there throughout our lives (and the lives of his two young grandchildren). 

A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.  There is a tradition in the Catholic Church (and possibly other denominations) where the parents ask two individuals to be God-parents of the child.  As of Wednesday morning, I now have a god-daughter (making me her God-father). 

My own God-father is an amazing man of faith who has taught me valuable life lessons (mostly about women and dating) which I promptly ignored.  He, like my own father, has always been there supporting me throughout my journey and has a knack of spoiling me (along with my brother and sister) rotten.  Though he is not related to us by blood, he is just as close (if not closer) than family. 

As this is a message about fathers, I cannot forget the support of my own Grandfathers, constantly keeping myself in their prayers.  Nor can I forget my Father in Heaven, constantly leading and guiding me on my path through this journey of life.  Though I sometimes cannot see where he is leading me, I know that his guiding hands have also kept me from danger. 

So, to all the fathers out there, of all types, this day is for you. 

God Bless and PEACE

Smoke on the Horizon

As my AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team, Sun 6 out of Denver, CO was heading down I-24 on spike travel down to Lake Houston, we were forced to take a detour due to wildfires.  Just south of exit 11 (Trinidad possibly, but not sure) we here forced to turn around and go around the fire zone. 

When we got off the interstate we could not see any fire, nor could we spot smoke in the distance.  As we continued through the detour, off on the horizon I spotted smoke rising off the ridge.  I was fascinated. 

There is something about wildfires that draws me in.  That brings me to life.  Closer to God. 

For me, wildfires remind me of God.  They are uncontrollable, destructive, violent and awe-inspiring at the same time.  They have power that is unstoppable and natures pure energy. 

Yes, they are something that happens in nature.  That would happen whether or not humans were there or not, we’ve just made everything worse. 

And as I watched the smoke rise off the horizon, I couldn’t help but feel God’s presence.  Even as it slowly slipped farther and farther into the distance, I kept looking back wishing I could be on the front lines, experiencing the smoke, the flames, the pure power of the fire storm.

God Bless and PEACE

Looking Back to a Year Ago

A year ago, I embarked on a journey that took me thousands of miles away from home and brought me closer to the faith that I embrace.  It was the beginning of an adventure that took me from the sandy shores of West Africa to the hills of Togo, from the huts of third world citizens to the Operating Rooms of the M/V Africa Mercy. 

I saw two worlds collide.  And somewhere in the middle I saw the hands of God working in the dark continent.  I saw it in the doctors bloodied hands as they performed surgeries every day, in the willingness to serve as individuals constantly came and went, in the friendships that were formed and continue to grow as  paths have parted. 

In those three months last summer, I found myself open with God, growing in faith daily, and full of an unspeakable joy.  While my journey carried my feet farther than they have ever gone before, the path my heart and mind took was one of greater purpose and growth. 

I look back and I can tell you stories of what happened.  Stories of how people treated one another with love and kindness.  Of how a community opened its hearts and hands daily.  How in the local markets of Lome, Togo merchants would thrust their wares in our faces, shouting for our attention. 

I can share story after story and still not be able to fully comprehend everything that happened, because these experiences cannot be put into words. 

Since then, I have continued my journey back in the states alongside the individuals and teams of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).  Just the same, I can share stories and experiences of working with Houston Parks and Recreation, of Wildland Firefighting training alongside the El Paso County volunteer firefighters, of the snowstorms that pounded Tulsa, OK, of the fuel mitigation work up in Crown King, AZ, of the controlled burns in and around Williamsburg, MO with the Missouri Dept. of Conservation (MDC), or of the tornado response in both St. Louis and Joplin. 

No matter how much I speak, words cannot capture all of it.  Anyone can tell you how bad it was, what we learned, or what it felt like to be in theses situations, but I cannot begin to explain how I’ve grown as an individual and Christian. 

These experiences will stay with us, haunt us for the years to come, because they have become part of us, part of who we are.  And sometimes, words just cannot capture the feelings that we experience as we begin to grow. 

I know many people in the missions field, in service programs, living life.  Each of them has grown in their faith by the experiences that they have had in these various paths of life.  But every single one of them cannot fully explain how they have grown. 

With this in mind, I caution you to take care when these missionaries, these adventurers return.  Listen to their stories, but listen deeper than their words.  See how much they have changed and you will find that you may no longer know the friend, brother, sister sitting in front of you. 

God Bless and PEACE

Images Across Missouri

For the past three months, I have been out in Missouri alongside of Sun 6, an AmeriCorps NCCC team based out of the Denver campus.  We started our journey in Williamsburg, MO, working with the Missouri Dept. of Conservation (MDC).  We enjoyed the hard work of controlled burns, trail building, invasive species removal and chasing frogs. 

From there we responded to the Good Friday Tornado in St. Louis, where we worked beside the St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC), Earth 2 (another team out of Denver) and All Hands Volunteers.  We did a lot of manual labor, swamping and dragging limbs and debris to the curb so that the city could pick it up, chain saw work, and learning from experience. 

Less than 24 hours after the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, MO, we arrived and started helping set up the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC).  We were joined by two more teams out of Denver (Water 4 and 7, i believe), members of the Conservation Corp of Iowa and Minnesota, Environmental Corps out of Texas, and several other smaller AmeriCorps programs (Read and Learn, Habitat for Humanity, Teach and Serve, to name a few).  We were doing a lot of the volunteer management, running the operations, and behind the scenes work in the VRC. 

Below are a series of photographs that capture the whole experience of the past three months (including the 36 days on disaster):

 All of our boots, covered in dirt, ash and… well… you don’t want to know.  All the Corps Members (in NCCC) are issued steel toed boots in the beginning of the year, now they are torn up and weathered. 

 This was the highlight of my time in Williamsburg:  the night burn at Marshal I. Diggs Conservation Area.

 A hard hat and sweater left on the ground in St. Louis.  It just caught my  eye and defines (for me) what we did there.

 A portrait of one of the St. Louis ERT members, hard at work in the VRC in Joplin.  Most of the work that I did in Joplin was in the VRC, entering data.  This is an example of the behind the scenes work that never gets recognized. 

 One of the WCC guys as a squad leader out in the field.  Many of us did not have experience leading 100+ volunteers on our own each day, but the dedication of the AmeriCorps members out in the field made me proud. 

 Another portrait, this time one of the Directors of AmeriCorps St. Louis.  This was probably the only time he wasn’t directing all the organization of AmeriCorps, but out in the field listening to the stories of victims and survivors. 

 I finish off with this self-portrait, knowing that who I am now is just a shadow of who I once was.  These experiences have changed me and I am still processing everything that I have experienced in Williamsburg, St. Louis and Joplin. 

God Bless and PEACE

The Debris of Life

All throughout Joplin, MO one can see the damage and destruction caused by the tornado of 22 May.  One can see the structures that are missing walls, roofs or both.   Foundations standing alone beneath piles of debris.  For miles and miles, the damage stretches on and on. 

Throughout this chaos, a new form of graffiti has emerged.  Hundreds of structures marked by rescue workers and families.  Notes of hope and gratitude, warning and loss.  Signs that read “All OK” or “All Safe” or “We’re still here” over top of X’s that mark the progress of the Search and Rescue crews. 

As I have been venturing out into the path of the tornado, I have been attempting to document some of the spray paint and graffiti.  Below are some of those images:

Joplin High School (renamed Hope High School with Duct Tape by volunteers) received a direct blow from the tornado.  Located in the middle of the path of destruction, the structure still stands, but the damage has been severe.  Many walls are missing, parts of the roof collapsed in, windows blown out, but at the same time, books and pictures still line the walls and bookshelves in the exposed classrooms, one even has origami figures still hanging from the ceiling. 

This location is one of the many staging grounds for supplies, volunteers and the Search and Rescue teams.  (note:  All volunteers need to register at MSSU.  Please do not just show up at a staging ground, expecting to head out.)

This little bit of graffiti was one of many we saw in some of the hardest hit residential areas.  One house had a sign reading “House / Basement for Sale” except that the word “House” was crossed out.  It’s good to see a little bit of humor throughout this path of destruction. 

Above is an example of the evidence of the Search and Rescue teams.  The X’s can be seen throughout the damage, marking almost every structure and vehicle that received damage.  Each is accompanied by a series of numbers and letters, revealing who searched and what was found.  Several buildings and structures have several of these X’s, the result of the thorough checking and re checking of the Search and Rescue teams. 

In the area at the top of the X, the name of the group is put.  Many of these are Fire Departments (FD) or Sheriffs Offices (SO).  To the left is the date.  To the right is what was found.  A blank or 0 marks that the structure / vehicle is clear.  Below is other important information that is either a hazard or should be known before entering the house.  Examples include “Gas line broken” and “Flooded”. 

Not all the graffiti is positive.  Some are warnings.  Yesterday, we saw a little girl sitting outside her home holding what looked like a BB gun.  The sign next to her said “Looters will be shot.”

All across the city, you can see this message written on walls and signs.  It was something that started in response to the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC)’s claim that the tornado was the wrath of God because of the sins of the people.  While the WBC claim that God hates Joplin, residents, Christians and volunteers everywhere are proof that God’s love is present here in this city. 

I finish with this piece that stood out to me.  It is a message that resounds across the city and across out lives.  God does have a plan.  We may not understand what it is, nor why things happen the way they do, but they happen for a reason. 

So, I’ll leave this with you.  Think about it.  Process it.  And begin to understand that God will always be in control. 

God Bless and PEACE