May 30, 2018
The #MyWheaton blog shares first-person stories from Wheaton students and alumni.
Caroline Harbour '18 is working on a bachelor's in English with a concentration in writing. She calls Houston, Texas home, and she shares here about her experiences on the 2018 Houston BreakAway trip.
“I was born in this van. I will die in this van. I will never leave this van.”
We were into hour seventeen of a twenty-one-hour drive from Wheaton, Illinois, to Houston, Texas for the 2018 Houston BreakAway trip, and we had reached the loopy stage of tiredness in which everything is funny and people you just met that morning feel like they’ve been your best friends for years. Over the last seventeen hours, I had slowly worked my way through my entire Spotify playlist, played several rounds of "would you rather" with my fellow students, and slowly began to realize just how unprepared I was for what was going to happen in the coming week.
I’d done missions work before, but only at day camps and Sunday schools, where the only things you really had to know were how to play children’s games and make macaroni crafts. I had no idea what I would be asked to do on this trip, and the thought was a little terrifying.
When I told my parents I had signed up to help rebuild houses damaged in Hurricane Harvey over spring break, their first words were, “That’s great! …Um, what will you be…doing?” Oh, probably just shoveling mud and stuff out of flooded houses, I assured them. We’re just going down there to lend a hand to an already existing relief effort; I’m sure they won’t have us doing any actual construction work. They know we’re just college students and most if not all of us have probably never done construction before. We won’t be expected to go down there and actually build things. Right?
Wrong—I discovered within five minutes of arriving at our first job site.
We were assigned to work in a house owned by a woman named Elouisa, a home that had been flooded after the hurricane, along with every other house in her neighborhood. When we got there, it looked perfectly normal from about chest-height up, above where the water had reached. But, everything below that had been torn out down the studs, so there were gaping holes where her walls should have been and ripples of water damage warping her floors.
As soon as we arrived and unloaded our materials, our supervisor, Jim, handed me a staple gun and a boxcutter and told me to get to work installing new insulation. He quickly ran us through how to do it (cut sheets of insulation, pull off the outer layers because the rolls they gave us are too thick, stuff them into the spaces in the walls, and staple them in place. Okay, I can do this, I thought.) Other teams got to work cutting sections of drywall to drill into place or pulling out sections of damaged tile that needed to be replaced. Work was slow the first day as the house rang with shouts of “Jim, can you come help us?” amid the clanging hammers and whirring drills. At the end of the afternoon, I piled back into the van to head back to the church that was hosting us, covered in drywall dust and itchy insulation fibers.
I confided in the girl sitting next to me, who had helped me install the drywall most of the day: “I hope we’re doing an okay job at this. This is her house, what if we screw this up?”
Over the next few days I learned how to use a power drill, a tool I’d never touched before in my life. I installed insulation in almost the entire house and worked on a team with Wheaton geology professor, Dr. Mosier (who, by the end of the week, I was referring to as Steve), to reinstall fresh drywall in the bathrooms and closets and rip up all the damaged floorboards and tiles in the bathroom.
While we worked, Elousia set out coffee for us and Shane, a young man about our age who was renting a room in her house, kept up a steady playlist of rock music to help liven up the steady construction noise. Shane made conversation with us about our school, our lives, and why we’d come to Houston. I asked Jim if we’d get any further along than replacing the walls and he said probably not.
When we got back into the van the second day, I looked up and down the street at all the other houses in exactly the same state as this one. If it took ten people one week to replace the drywall in one house, I wondered, how long would it take to restore this whole neighborhood?
How would this work ever get done?
At the end of the week the gaping holes had been replaced by fresh, insulated drywall, and where there had been piles of debris and broken tile, there was now clean concrete waiting to be covered with new carpet. The house still had a long way to go before it was fully repaired, but it was markedly improved from when we’d first seen in five days before.
As we crowded around Elouisa and Shane to take a picture before we left for the last time, it occurred to me that this is what it is to be the hands and feet of God.
I came into this situation feeling as ill-equipped as I possibly could have to do the work required of me, but in the swing of hammers and sweep of brooms, God showed up. In our training sessions in the weeks leading up to the trip, the speaker from Send Relief, the organization we worked with, told us “We’re not going down there because we have all the answers. We’re going down there to lend a hand and to learn.” Mission work isn’t always about being the most prepared; it’s about being the most humble and the most willing to be used, even if the way God uses you is to do something you thought you would never in a million years do.
In the van on the way to Houston, I felt nervous because I had no idea what to expect or whether I would be able to do what was required of me. Halfway through the week, I felt discouraged because the small progress we were making felt so insignificant compared to the need that still existed. But saying goodbye to Elouisa, Shane, and Jim at the end of the week, I felt at peace, because God had taken care of this week, He was taking care of us, and He was taking care of this community, and I knew that would never stop.