Dewayne Searcy hollered at me from the distance, then clambered up the rise to greet me with a firm handshake.
“Before I give you a hug, I want you to see what I’ve got on!” he said, pointing with pride to his sky blue Reach Out Center t-shirt, the one with the back that states, “We have FEET to walk on, HANDS to work with and (HEARTS) to serve.”
It was, of course, the t-shirt Assumption’s SEND students gave Dewayne back in January, during our simultaneously tearful and hilarious farewell at my mother’s house down here in Tuscaloosa.
Back then, Assumption students labored hard to help Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa nearer its goal of finishing the home of 82-year-old Appie Jones, who had survived last April’s killer tornado. That home, built near the start of the tornado’s six-mile path through my hometown, was dedicated last week. Now we’re standing near the opposite end of the swath of destruction, on 4th Avenue East in the Alberta City neighborhood.
Here, Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa is building four homes together, side by side and back to back, on adjacent streets. One is finished – it was dedicated last week – and beside it, volunteers from three Episcopal churches in Wilmington N.C. have joined forces with some Ohio folks to begin putting up the frame of the second house on 4th Avenue East. Meanwhile, Dewayne and I stand next to the four-block high square of concrete blocks, outlining the foundation of a third home; behind us, a fourth group is down in a network of trenches, shoveling out the water – courtesy of an underground spring the workers were surprised to discover the day before.
James Shackelford, another friend from our January trip, began conferring with Dewayne about the next move on the flooded lot. Then the pump started working again without warning – good news, if not for the way the hose came alive and snaked back into the trenches, spilling in more water before James, showing off his former Bama football skills in the trenches, jumped in and returned the rebellious hose to its proper place.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor to do this job, don’t you?” I say.
“Yes you do,” he says, grinning.
As if to demonstrate, Dewayne, sporting his Alabama football cap, pointed to his student group from the University of Florida, home of the Tide’s rivals, the Gators. Dewayne yelled , extended his arms in the familiar Gator chomp signal, and exhorted, “do this!” Someone started to, and then he added, “Now say, ‘Roll Tide!’ ”
They immediately stopped, waving him off in mock disgust. It was good to see Dewayne, who motivates through good-natured abuse, back to his old tricks. In a way, he symbolized another source of humor – that of the local citizens, who, even as they’re glad to talk of the storm, resist the stereotype of mere victims.
After putting in a few hours slinging clumps of concrete into a dumpster on Tuesday, I came back the next afternoon. Since Dewayne had nothing in particularly suited to the skill set of an English professor, he told me to shoot photos and keep “documenting” the effort.
So I settled into talking with the Episcopalians down from North Carolina. They represented a group of Episcopalian churches – St. James, St. Andrews on The Sound, and Church of the Servant – along with a few from Closer Walk Methodist. I mentioned having just been in New Orleans, and it turned out that in a past year, this contingent had done work there as well. Rev. James Mazingo told me, “I went down there expected to be sad at all the devastation, but we had a really good time. The people there made it a fun.”
A group of parishioners joined in the conversation as they sat on the pile of lumber, waiting to pack up. One woman said the same thing was true here – and even in the Dominican Republic, where the group has twice visited.
There, in that much more impoverished setting, there were far more reasons for discouragement – ranging from less reliable supplies of electricity and water to the obstacles that the local citizens faced – but, one woman said, “it was actually fun! They were fun!” So much so, she said, she couldn’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for the people they were helping.
It was, several agreed, a two-way ministry. Particularly when you get to go to the place – whatever place you choose – and take it in.
“If you go to a place and open your heart to it,” a man named Goose told me, “then the check-writing will come later.” Connections, he said, go on for years.
Certainly that seems to be the case for Dewayne and Assumption, remarkable considering that, in March alone, Habitat Tuscaloosa has seen 380 volunteers from out of town. When I told a volunteer from Texas that I’d come down with a group from Assumption, he grinned in recognition.
“Oh, Dewayne loves those guys.”
Once the Episcopalians said their closing prayer and moved out, I sauntered back to the lot tended to by the Florida students. With the students clearing out, Dewayne seemed to be enjoying a solitary moment of quietly smoothing the drying concrete atop a chest-high square tower – the foundation for the future safe room Habitat is putting in every post-tornado house.
“It’s like a house inside a house?” I asked.
Which tempts me to pad the stats and double the number of houses built here this year – but Habitat and all the outside volunteers have plenty to brag on already in these parts.
Meanwhile, Dewayne – who had already texted a photo of the two of us to the SEND group – told me to relay a message to the crew.
“Tell them,” he said, “I miss ‘em.”