I think the reason I will always remember my trip to Mississippi is because of all the interesting people I met. One person who jumps to mind is an owner of a small restaurant in Memphis. We arrived hungry for breakfast only to find the restaurant closed. The owner opened the door and apologized for being closed, giving us all hugs in the process. She felt so sad for our predicament that she decided to cook us breakfast anyway. We listened to music, played board games, and drank different types of southern drinks while she prepared a feast for us to enjoy. That kind of hospitality is one in a million and was the highlight of my experience in the south.
The community was certainly more religious than I expected in spite of our group leaders repeated statements of the kind. But the incorporation of faith into the work we did and before each meal somehow fit very well and was appropriate to me though I am not a very religious person. The community was extremely welcoming, especially the churches who made all of our dinners. Talking to different community members about their lives during the dinners was the best part.
After we put out sod on one of the back yards of a house, we sat down to rest while more came. A woman came out of one of the houses and gave us all cokes. It was so nice of her and so generous. She didn't even speak English and she gave unquestioningly.
There are different kinds of poverty. Yes, there is homelessness and those who struggle even to find a meal each day. But there is also living on the margin, day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and those people too need a leg up and a little help to find the stability of a welcoming adequate home each day.
My favorite memory of the trip had nothing to do with Habitat but instead the South as a whole. On our day off from the job site we decided to take a trip into Memphis and hit up a little restaurant for breakfast. When we arrived we realized that we were 45 minutes early and breakfast wasn’t being served that day. We were all disappointed and were trying to think of another place to go when the owner opened the door and ushered us all in. One by one she gave us giant hugs and kisses and offered to whip us up some breakfast in between her lunch cooking. Southern Hospitality is no myth and is alive and well in Memphis.
One memory from my trip to Pontotoc, Mississippi really stands out. We were approached by a man in a grocery store parking lot (the obvious outsiders that we were, he knew we were with Habitat), where he asked about filling out an application for a Habitat for Humanity house. Barbara, the coordinator of Pontotoc Habitat had told us there were twelve applications currently on file, which cannot even be considered until they raise more money. As much good as we were able to do during our week, and Habitat does year round, there is still an ongoing need in Pontotoc, and there are just not enough resources to keep up with the need.
I learned, or at least rediscovered, several things about myself during my ASB trip. The first was that I never get tired of construction work - although I have always known I fundamentally enjoyed it, in Mississippi I found myself actively looking forward to the small and tedious, but ever so rewarding, jobs that had to be done. The second was that despite having been to Mississippi before in a similar capacity, it was still a very eye opening trip culturally and personally, particularly in terms of my perceptions of that part of the US. It is far too easy to slip into mildly (or not so mildly) derogatory attitudes towards places that we are not from, and their cultures. But being there always helps to dispel needless prejudices, from both sides, and get back to basics. Whether we are a farmer in the Deep South or an upper middle class college student in New England, we all share the same basic goals and aspirations, and all deserve equal respect regardless of culture clashes.
Working with the construction managers and Americorps volunteer at the HFH, really solidified for me that regardless of how much people have, they are always willing to give. This was evident in the endless effort and care shown by Keith, Ken, Bill, and Rachel.
Barbara, the habitat director is truly a miracle woman. I learned most from her at work. In a single day she would call city hall, be at the HFH office, attend to a habitat family whose locked out of their house, and then still find time to deliver a chocolate cake to the volunteers at the worksite. In the week that we were the in Pontotoc, I witnessed how much power and respect she has in town. She had the power to lure others to thank us volunteers. I felt like I was thanked more for our five days of work then I could thank the people who provided for my fellow Bowdoin students and me.
Throughout the trip, I was struck by the gratitude we received for our work. One silent expression of gratitude occurred at the Pontotoc’s Habitat sub development. The group had just taken a break from laying sod on a yard. A lady from the house next door came out and handed each of us a can of coke but said nothing. When I said thank you to her, she just smiled. I think she spoke no English, but her gesture showed how appreciative she was of our work. Her small token of gratitude was enough to thank me.
It is indescribable how much hospitality we received whether it was in the form of food, words, gestures, or wisdom. I left wishing I could repay the gratitude and express how much it meant for a community to open up their arms and hearts to us. For our service to be so well received and appreciated really demonstrated the inherit value of service.