A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, I was volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service in New Orleans. Electric power hadn’t been restored, and there was smelly standing water and mud everywhere.
We were assigned houses to muck out — to remove everything and gut them down to the studs so they could dry out and be rebuilt.
I was a crew leader with a group of five, working long days in smothering heat and humidity. The house we were working on was in an impoverished part of the city. We didn’t have a chance to meet the homeowner. Almost all the residents were still evacuated to other cities.
It was in this setting that Jesus appeared to me.
We had been working about an hour when an elderly Black man approached. He walked with a cane, slowly and stooped. As a younger man he might have stood 6’4”, but he was nowhere close to that now.
From a distance, he called out, “Hey boy, come over here,” and gestured with a long finger motioning toward him.
Drawing near, I noticed his clear, soft eyes as he spoke slowly and deliberately.
“What you boys doing to Miz Jackson’s house there?”
“We’re cleaning it out so it can be repaired.”
“How much y’all charging her? She’s a poor woman.”
“We don’t charge for our work; we’re volunteers.”
“You ain’t charging nothin’?”
“No, sir. We are with Mennonite Disaster Service. It is our mission to help folks with limited means.”
He was silent for a moment and then said, “I gots to think on this for a bit.”
With a labored gait, he made his way down the sidewalk toward his home. I returned to work.
An hour later, carrying an armload of material to the curb, I heard again: “Hey boy, come over here.”
I joined him on the sidewalk and answered several more questions.
“We are a service agency of the Mennonite church. No, we don’t all get around with horses. Yes, we are Christian, not a cult. No, we don’t charge the homeowners to help them.”
Again he replied: “I gots to think on that.”
This engagement repeated five times. Each time brought more questions about who we were and why we did what we did.
Each time he looked me in the eyes with a gaze so magnetic I was powerless to look away.
At the end of the day, the man called me over once again. This time was different.
“This is good work you are doing,” he said. “God’s work. This looks like God’s plan for how people should be treated.”
He took my hand between his two large hands and with another deep gaze asked: “Why would you drive all the way from Kansas to care for an old [colored] woman you’ve never met?”
Except he didn’t say “colored” but another word that’s not mine to repeat.
I was so taken aback that I don’t clearly remember my reply.
After a few more moments of his holding my hand, we parted. He never came back in the remaining days we worked there.
I wrestled with the encounter and the question he posed. It wasn’t so different from what MDS volunteers are often asked. But it was the way he asked after a day building up to it.
It took me some time to recognize the real question was not about that specific workday. The real question was — and is: “What’s in your heart?”
The memory of that encounter remains a driving force in my life. It has influenced me as much as any sermon, worship service or reading I’ve done.
I’m confident Jesus visited me on that muddy, smelly street in New Orleans.
Jeff Koller recently retired from serving with Mennonite Disaster Service. He and his wife, Becky, live on a farm near Elyria, Kan., and attend Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge.