Face to Face

The story of Jacob wrestling with God is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Why? Because this is how Israel gets its name. This is the guy whom God’s people will be named after. This is the guy that later Israelites will look back at and say with pride that they are following “the God of Jacob.” This guy who betrayed his brother and fled his home – who messed so many things up, who was both the deceiver and the deceived. The one who burned all his bridges and ran away, has now come home to his brother, looking for forgiveness. That is God’s person right there, and I think that’s great.

I am convinced that God loves messy people. God is not afraid of our stuff; in fact I think God kinda likes to be waist-deep in the muck of our lives with us. That’s why God meets Jacob by that stream in the middle of the night when he is sitting there all by himself. Even if his mysterious attacker hadn’t shown up, I think Jacob would have been wrestling that entire night, as he sat and thought about facing the consequences of his actions, which to me is undoubtably one of the worst feelings in the world.

Jacob was a man who was desperate for a blessing, one that was his own – not another stolen blessing, but his own calling, and he finally gets one when he is coming home to make amends – he becomes Israel, the one who wrestles with God. I think that’s why I like his story so much, I feel like I can relate with him. I too like to look up at the stars at night and wrestle with God over my life, my choices, my questions, and my feelings.

But what if I were to tell you that you also have come face to face and toe to toe with God in human form? God may not have snuck up on you in the middle of the night for a wrestling match or broken your hip, but I’d be willing to bet that God in your neighbor has caught you off guard at some point in your life. God is all around us in the form of other human beings who are also a home to God’s Holy Spirit, also made to look like God. God challenges us through other people, which is exactly what our group found in Biloxi.

Poverty in Biloxi is not like poverty here in Medina. There are unsheltered people and people living in poverty here, but in Biloxi the issue is much more in your face. Many people in Biloxi live year-round outdoors, sleeping on benches and beaches, finding shelter and food where they can, and there are lots of different reasons for it. Rightly so, our youth immediately asked the question, “Why is it like this?” “Why don’t we do anything about it?”

Many of the people living on the streets of Biloxi are disabled or have had difficult circumstances in life. Some are veterans, most have experienced abuse and trauma, and all of them are affected by a lack of safe and affordable housing in the gulf coast, and the history of racism there that has kept white folks ahead of their neighbors of color.

Back Bay Mission meets the wide variety of needs in their community by offering a wide variety of services, so we had many different jobs at the mission throughout the week. We worked in the day shelter where people can sit in an air-conditioned space, get their laundry done, use computers, make phone calls, and take showers. We met the volunteers and social workers there who give their clients the tough love that this work entails.

We helped people to shop for groceries from Back Bay’s food pantry, the only client-choice food pantry on the gulf coast, which gives their clients the dignity of choosing their own groceries from the pantry shelves. This wise practice actually cuts down on food waste from the panty because people are not given food items that they do not want to eat in the first place.

Each day came with new construction projects and new challenges. Most of us were learning to use power tools for the first time when we replaced rotted boards on some out-buildings at the mission, but we quickly became experts and went on to rebuild a whole bench for them. Then we went out to a person’s home, where we took on the biggest project yet, to build them a wheelchair ramp and rip off the currently rotting porch. Every day at about 1pm it would start storming – I think from the sheer thickness of the humidity – which was an extra added challenge for us until it let up in the late afternoon.

On Thursday, we spent most of the day cleaning out apartments for the Community Care Network, which signs leases for individuals who can’t get approved, and sometimes has to clean up their stuff when they suddenly leave. All of this taught us about just how many needs there are for people who are living in poverty. How complex those needs are and how difficult they currently are to solve. We saw just how much work must get done by volunteers in order to improve people’s homes and lives, and that none of it happens without people who step up to serve.

The other really cool part of our trip was learning about the history and culture of Biloxi. Just for fun, we went to a gator ranch, rode a fan-boat, and held baby gators (even though some of us weren’t too sure about that at first – another opportunity to be brave).

We also had the privilege of hearing the story of Clement Jimmerson, a lifelong resident of Biloxi who was only 14 years old when his family participated in the Wade-In protests to desegregate Biloxi’s beaches on Easter Sunday in 1960. He told us about how excited he was just to buy a swimsuit, and to swim in the water with his friends, until the day turned violent. That day is remembered now as the Bloody Wade-In, and it would take 8 years of battling in court to finally desegregate the beaches. We heard that story from him and then we went to the beach ourselves. Afterwards we reflected on the fact that until just 55 years ago, people of color would not have been allowed to have the fun that we just did, because racism is not ancient history, and what happened in the past is still having a big impact on us today.

These are just a few of our stories from this week which was packed with adventures and new experiences. The kids will tell their own favorite stories at the 10:30 service, so you can go to our Facebook page, our podcast, or our website later today to hear them tell us about their experiences in their own words. But, here’s what I know happened: All week long, we came face to face with God in our marginalized neighbors. Human beings with complicated lives, just like us, but exposed to completely different circumstances. It was tough at first, to see so much need. It made our hearts hurt that we could not fix it all in our one short week there. At first it seemed like we were face to face with a great sadness, but as the week went on we realized that what we were actually face to face with, was God.

God in the man singing in the shower at the day shelter, overjoyed for his 15 minutes, and brimming with gratitude. God around the folding tables and chairs set up by loaves and fishes, where people chatted as they ate their breakfast together. God in the volunteers who live in Biloxi and are always showing up to help distribute water, snacks, and socks to those who need them. God in the person whose home we built a ramp for so that it might be easier for them to get inside with their wheelchair.

God was even found inside of our own group. In Liz Wolff who made sure that we were hydrated, fed, bandaged, and encouraged by the notes she wrote on our sack lunches. God in Jeff Welday and Logan Malone as they carefully instructed our teens on how to use saws, and drills, and post-hole diggers safely, and in their patience as they helped the teens to make these projects happen with their own hands. God in Stacie Yates as she connected with folks everywhere she went, spreading smiles and lifting spirits. God in our teens, who saw God in each other all week long, as the Holy Spirit was at work in us and through us.

We witnessed God in strangers, and in alligators, and in the ocean. We even saw God in the afternoon thunderstorms that cooled things down and gave us an excuse to take a break from the hot, hot sun. And when we faced challenges, like waking up early every morning in a different time zone, or fighting off the biggest insects we had ever seen, or the emotional toll of being so far away from our homes, families, and pets – we supported each other. And I think in part that’s because we got to witness the same thing happening at the mission.

Many of the people who work or volunteer at the mission were once recipients of its care. We were witnesses to how the mission staff cares for each other, and for their clients, so much so that those clients keep coming back and remain a part of the community even when they no longer need help themselves, because they want to become a part of this mission to help others.

We took on some hard stuff together, and God was in the muck with us, supporting us, wrestling with us, and transforming us. Because when we come face to face with God, it changes us. Just like it changed Jacob forever. He had a new name and a new blessing; a new purpose and a new vision for his future. And I really doubt that his encounter with God was anything that what he would have expected. God is funny like that, always showing up in the least expected way at the least expected time. Not a giver of easy answers, but a God who joins us in facing our issues with our heads, hearts, and hands.

We all had some unexpected encounters with God in Biloxi, and as a result we will be forever changed. So thank you for sending us, thank you for supporting us, and thank you for cheering us on from Ohio. Your love and prayers were felt all the way on the other side of the country, impacting the lives of people that you will never even meet, which is the beauty and power of this whole church thing we are a part of.

For these youth, the blessings they experienced in Biloxi will stay with them and guide them for many years to come, blessing others through them into the future and beyond. May it be so that everything we do for each other will have such deeply powerful and long-lasting impacts on the world in Christ’s name, because that my friends is what we are here to do. Amen.

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