Mercy Response Part 1: The Team

Vineyard USA and Phil Schissler

Phil Schissler traveled to New Orleans from his home in Iowa to volunteer with the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina. Surprisingly, that journey led to him becoming the director of Vineyard's Mercy Response Team.

Vineyard USA: What is the Mercy Response Team, and how did it start?

Phil Schissler: Mercy Response was born out of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita - the disaster that affected New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast region. There was this incredible response from the entire Vineyard community. People just started arriving and money started coming in. There were both people and money immediately, and these resources were going to the local churches.

Four Vineyard churches were directly affected by Katrina and Rita: the church in Kenner, the church in Slidell, Baton Rouge, and St. Charles. Although Baton Rouge was affected by Katrina, the recovery was much quicker up there. Since they had power back within a week or so, the Baton Rouge Vineyard became the original staging point for the whole operation. Rita hit a couple weeks later, and then the church in St. Charles became a relief site as well. At one point in the early days, we had five camps running in Louisiana in response to the disaster.

We had all these people and all this money coming in, so obviously there had to be some structure put to it. Bert Waggoner asked Doug Anderson, who at that point was the senior pastor of the Clear Lake Vineyard outside Houston, to jump in temporarily and manage the thing for a couple months to see where it was going to go. So Doug did that, and his oldest son, Nathan, filled in for him when he wasn't there. After about three or four months, Doug came on full-time with Vineyard USA and Nathan took over the church.

VUSA: You mentioned the need for structure. What did that structure look like then and what does it look like now?

PS: Then and now look a lot different. We did everything totally by the seat of our pants, and it was only by the grace of God that did we not do anything incredibly stupid or get ourselves in a whole bunch of trouble. Hundreds of relief agencies have been born out of Katrina, and as we got to know people also involved in relief, we figured out that we have been really very lucky.

For example, some people ended up owing lots of money. You learn about what I call the underbelly of benevolence. People would call and say, "Do you want a load of water?" The relief group would say yes, and four semis would come loaded with bottled water. But then a month later the group would get billed for the freight! We never had anything like that happen. In addition to giving money, people donated equipment and vehicles - you name it, it was donated to us as time went on. We were very fortunate in that respect.

One of the things the Vineyard Board of Directors identified as a priority early on was helping pastors and their key staff get back to their homes. Of course at that time in New Orleans, finding anybody who was able to do construction was impossible. There were just no resources available for anybody, anywhere. The senior pastor and half the staff of one church were all living in one house. It's kind of hard for them to help others when their own family situation was like that.

The board also decided to support those local churches that were directly affected and to get them up and running. The Kenner Vineyard, for example, was a church of about 2,000 prior to the storm. Three weeks later, when they could get back into the city, they became a church of about 200. But they still had to pay the mortgage, the electricity bill - all those things. The Vineyard community helped support those five churches financially for a number of months. This is interesting because some large churches in mainline denominations in New Orleans didn't get that kind of support and are still closed up to this day. It's kind of cool that the goofy old Vineyard was able to keep these churches open.

VUSA: You were living in Iowa when Katrina hit, so how did you find yourself in New Orleans?

PS: I ended up going down the first week of October, just to see what was going on. At that point, we couldn't get any information - there was no way to figure out what was needed or what was going on. So I went down for a scouting trip and then went back up to Iowa.

I was going to the Davenport Vineyard, which put together a temporary kitchen building and loaded it on a trailer to go to Baton Rouge. The church in Baton Rouge had like 100 people a week staying there and really no way to cook for them.

I should explain that God had been changing a whole bunch of stuff around in my life. I was between jobs - I've been involved in construction one way or another for my whole life - and I was wondering what God was doing with me. I was flat broke at that point.

Anyway, on my second trip down I met Doug. They were trying to work on the pastors' homes, and he asked, "What would it take for you to be able to come back?" So the big joke is that I came down to volunteer for a week and here I am three years later! At first I went back down on a month-to-month basis. But at Christmastime that year, they offered me a more permanent position. I made a six-year commitment to the Mercy Response Team, which included moving with my family to Houston in July 2007.

When I was first on the job, I coordinated all the volunteers that came. There were many skilled people out in the Vineyard, but we didn't really know it because there had been no way for them to plug in. We had carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and drywall people come, and we rebuilt or repaired 12 homes for the pastors.

It was great to be able to get those folks back in their houses. We wrapped that up around February 2006, and at that point, we still had a tremendous amount of people coming - probably averaging 60 to 70 people. The main focus of their work was what we call "house gutting" - cleaning out the flood-damaged homes.

VUSA: Were you still working out of the local churches at that point?

PS: In the last weeks of 2005 or the first weeks of 2006—around the first Christmas after the storm - we closed the other four camps, and all the equipment and everything was moved to Kenner. Eventually, I ended up running the camp at Kenner, which became the main point from which to send workers out.

We were still gutting houses. We always had this incredible list of homes - always 100 to 150 houses on the list. We never in our wildest dreams thought we would finish all the jobs on that list. We kept it on a first-come, first-served basis and planned to gut as many as we could. We figured, "When we're done, we're done."

In the last few years, there were actually three times when it looked like this was going to end for sure - we were going to be done. One time we even had plans for where to move stuff. We were really ready to close down.

And then God would show up with more money or a different plan. We actually ended up doing more, not less, than we thought. We gutted 639 homes! Every house on our list was done, and in the last couple of months we were scrambling around trying to find work, which was kind of neat.

VUSA: What happened when the gutting work was done?

PS: Well, in the summer of 2007, we were contacted by an organization called Medical Teams International, which had been sending teams and staying at a different camp. They asked us if we would be interested in housing their teams, so we did that for a couple months. Then they came to us and asked, "How would you guys like to have a rebuilding program?" I told them we were just about out of money, so they provided a significant amount of funding to start a rebuilding program for individual homeowners. That really got off the ground at the end of summer 2007.

So we switched our focus from gutting to rebuilding. God provided new staff people and the right people to do the work. My background in construction was a good fit, too. When we finish up here, we'll have gotten 21 families back in their homes. This was all done with volunteer labor.

In addition to getting money from Medical Teams International, we received funding from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army for materials. We were thinking there was no more money left, but money just kept showing up.

VUSA: In the early days it was sort of a grassroots organization, and you just added infrastructure as you needed it. How does the infrastructure look now that you've got sites serving the areas where it flooded in Iowa and where Ike hit near Houston?

PS: A lot has changed. After Katrina, the people who came had to be self-sufficient. They would bring camping tents and food, and they would just camp in Baton Rouge in the church parking lot. Now we have a fabric building and we have tents - so many I can't even count them. We've got trucks and trailers and just an incredible amount of equipment, both construction equipment and house-gutting equipment.

When we mobilized to go to Iowa this summer, we took a temporary shower tent with us, tools enough for 100 people to work, a couple trucks, and a couple trailers - all of which have been donated. We were up and running just three or four days after we arrived, with people out and working.

Probably the biggest difference is that Doug got the Mercy Response website set up, which is still one of our biggest tools. People go to the site and sign up their teams. Then our teams coordinator takes that information, contacts the volunteers, and gets them ready to go to whichever location we're serving at that point. Now we know who is coming and when. That has added a lot of structure. In the early days, we literally never knew who was going to show up or when they would arrive.

The other piece I haven't mentioned is food. At first, we focused only on feeding our volunteers. But then we started doing the hot meals out in the community because it seemed like another thing God had put us on track to do. These meals are really part of the recovery process.

I guess in this type of work, we learn as we go. There's first-response, which is followed by recovery and rebuilding. We ended up doing all three - first-response, recovery, and rebuilding - but we didn't even realize it! Nobody does all three. People told us, "You guys are nuts."

We have figured out over time that what we're good at and what we're meant to be doing, at this point anyway, is recovery and rebuilding. First-response stuff is like what you see when the Red Cross or FEMA goes in with MREs (Meal Ready to Eat) in the first week or so.

We go out and do what we call "community cookouts." We did that in New Orleans a bunch. We did it in one spot for almost a year, outside a FEMA trailer park. It was a way for people to get out and be around other people. And obviously we got to see God do all kinds of cool stuff through that.

But the last thing we figured out was how to cook good food in big quantities. In all, I think we served 86,000 hot meals to the community and our workers. One of the things on my heart early on was to make really good food - something that I would want to eat. I mean, why would we feed something that I wouldn't want to eat to somebody who's hurting?

VUSA: How is Mercy Response different from other relief agencies?

PS: We saw a lot faith-based organizations involved in New Orleans, and some of them appeared to have an agenda or to want this to be like a church outreach. It has been real clear that that's not what we're supposed to do. God has shown us in different ways that we're supposed to do this for mercy's sake alone. We are to go out and meet people's basic needs and let God do the rest. Then we can see the real purposes of God revealed. We just go out and help people purely for the sake of helping.

One situation in Baton Rouge stands out. We were serving about 700 meals a day in a parking lot outside a shopping center, and a wide range of people would come. On this day, a really nice car pulled up with two well-dressed women inside. We were pretty sure they were prostitutes.

The senior pastor of the Vineyard in Baton Rouge, Pete Kennedy, was with me, and we went over to talk to these women. We asked them what was going on, asked if they wanted a meal, and they opened up this big bag of money and wanted to give it to us.

We were like, "We really don't want to take your money. We just want to bless you. Can we just give you a chicken dinner?" So we both started crying and ended up praying with them. It was one of those cool times - one of those little things that you can't really put a quantitative value on - that seem to happen all the time around this kind of work.

Another thing the board encouraged us to do was help other local churches. After we finished with the Vineyard pastors' homes in New Orleans, we rebuilt a city church - Gideon Christian Fellowship, which is primarily an African American congregation. We worked with the congregation for almost a year to rebuild all the buildings and get everything up and running. This was a church of about 600 before the storm, and it was down to about 60 people when we started rebuilding. I don't know whether they're back to 600 yet, but they definitely have recovered and they're still going at it.

I mean it when I say that we'll help anybody. This was hard for some teams - especially in the early days in New Orleans - because people didn't have to meet any criteria to get our help with house gutting. Sometimes volunteers would take issue with working for people who had insurance or who appeared to have a really nice house or money.

Maybe half the team would not want to go back to work at that house. So then you have a team of adults sitting in the parking lot and praying for an hour before they can go back. We watched God work through that kind of stuff, watched them figure out that this isn't really about who has what. But it was hard for them because they wanted their efforts to count. When people come with agenda, God may just kick that out of them. And that process can be painful.

We see God bless both the givers and the receivers of mercy, and what gets me and my staff out of bed is watching God transform the volunteers who come every week. They have experiences that you can't make happen, that you can't plan for, and they go home better people.

Some people come with an agenda. Some are hurting or maybe just clueless. When they arrive, they start seeing the kingdom in action. They watch God do things and it affects them. Maybe they go back to their churches and their own communities and see poverty for the first time. It has always been there - three blocks from their church - but they just didn't know it was there or didn't see it as something they could do anything about.

Sometimes it's as simple as a change of attitude. Other times we've seen entire families transformed.

VUSA: Can you tell us more about that?

PS: My favorite story is about a guy from Iowa who came to New Orleans about three times. One time when he was coming back and bringing a team, he called me on the way down and said, "Hey, I need to tell you I've got two guys with me - and I can't think of worse people to bring on a trip like this." I said, "We've seen all types. How bad can it be?" He said, "It's my dad and my uncle. They're 75 and they're identical twins." I was still thinking, Well, that's great.

So they pulled up to the camp at Kenner, and these two old boys got out of the truck. They were in pretty good shape for 75. They're both about 6-foot-2-inches tall - big men and kind of surly looking. When I went up to meet them, they immediately started asking accusatory questions. Now, I'm thinking, What am I going to do with these two guys?

I figure we'll just have to work with the "tough Iowa farmer" thing they've got going. I planned to send them out on Monday with the teams that were gutting houses, since they both wanted to do physical work. Then we had a team of twenty-somethings show up from Columbus, about 18 of them, and I thought this was going to be a disaster - even just having all these young guys and these two old, crotchety guys together in the sleeping tent.

So the Iowa guys went out Monday, and they went with the team from Columbus. When they came back at the end of the day, I saw them talking with a couple of the young guys. I thought that was kind of cool. When they came back Tuesday, I thought I saw one older guy actually smile. I thought, Hey, that's pretty neat. But I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to it.

For some reason the Columbus team left Friday afternoon, which teams normally didn't do. I was in our kitchen, helping to get dinner ready. One of the old guys walked in, and he looked kind of funny. He had got a piece of paper in his hand, so I asked him, "What's going on?" And he just looked at me. I thought he was going to start crying. Then he said, "Those damn kids left us a letter."

I was like, "Oh, really?" So he read this letter to me. These guys left a letter saying how much they enjoyed being with him, how God had used him and his brother, how they wished they had grandparents like them, and what an impact they'd had in their lives this week. The guy started crying. So I went over to him, and he gave me a hug. Then his son came in the door behind me. He was wondering what the heck was going on, because this - crying and hugging - is not something his dad would normally do.

The guy turned around and gave his son a hug. I found out later that he hadn't touched his son since he was seven. They farmed together - they worked together their whole lives. But their relationship had gotten so bad that the son, who had a bookstore in town run by his wife, had asked his dad not to come in the store anymore. God definitely did some stuff with those two old guys.

They were with us in early December, and that year their family had the best Christmas they'd ever had. That whole family was changed by those guys going on that one trip. Later, in January, I got a call from the son. He said, "You're not going to believe this. My dad just called me. He just went out and bought a 12-passenger van, and he wants to give it to you guys. I've never seen my dad give anybody anything in my whole life. And my uncle has a trailer, and he wants to give the trailer to you."

So these two old guys drove this van and trailer down at the end of January, and they stayed for another week. They've actually been down five times now. Again, their whole family has been changed by it. They went to a Lutheran church their whole lives, but I don't even know if these guys were believers when they came the first time.

It probably affected their whole little community up there, because they are pretty successful farmers. The people in that community couldn't understand why they came down in the first place. They were in their local newspaper, telling their story about coming down to help people.

VUSA: How has your understanding of how the kingdom works been affected by your time with the Mercy Response Team?

PS: In the early days of Katrina, someone came up with the saying, "The thing's not the thing." It's hard to explain, but the thing that God has us do naturally is really just a vehicle for what he's doing on the whole. It's very hard to quantify or put a finger on how the church being advanced through all this.

I guess you could measure it with some statistics, but I'd say the individual lives that are changed and the perspectives that are adjusted among the volunteers - who then go back to their local churches - are the long-lasting effects. And, obviously, the lives of those people that God had us help have been tremendously affected as well. I think their perspective of God's kingdom is much different than it was before the storm.

I think many of the homeowners we worked for who were not believers prior to the storms and floods ended up becoming believers. A number of them didn't have a high opinion of the church but came to see that the church is very different than what they thought it was.

VUSA: As you look toward the future, what's in store for Mercy Response?

PS: I believe we will be responding to Hurricane Ike here for at least another six months, but I'm not sure what will come after that. This year was incredibly busy for us. Before 2008, we had really only responded to Katrina.

Early in the spring of 2008, we sent a staff member out to Colorado. An F5 tornado had touched down in Windsor, near Rick Olmstead's church - Rocky Mountain Vineyard. Our guy was there for a week. He got the response there started and organized, and then he came back because they were able to go ahead and run with it. Then we responded to the flooding in Iowa in the summer. We took a team up and left them there for three months. That was a smaller disaster, so it needed only a regional response.

In the summer we had Hurricane Gustav, which came in and made a mess of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. That ended up taking about two weeks. We did a bunch of tree work at the Baton Rouge Vineyard, and we did meals every day for about 800 or 900 people.

And then Hurricane Ike hit - and here we are. Now we're set up in Clear Lake, which is about 20 minutes from Galveston and maybe 10 or 15 minutes from the flooding in the rest of the Bay Area. There's a tremendous amount of opportunity and work to be done here, but it doesn't seem to be getting the national attention that some of the other disasters have.

When there's a disaster, we respond if a regional overseer asks for help. We try to figure out whether this can be handled on a regional basis or whether it will need a national response. In Iowa, we asked the Midwest region to respond with both money and teams - we didn't appeal to the whole Vineyard community. With Ike - because of amount of devastation - we've asked the whole community to give money and to send teams.

VUSA: How can the people reading this interview support what you're doing?

PS: Our biggest needs are for people and money. A church can send a team. If it can't send a team, send funding.

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