I felt like college students. One day before our spring break began last March, my husband asked, “Do you want to get out of town? To the beach?” Of course, I did.
Spring break has always meant creating space at home for sleeping in, extra cups of coffee, visits to new restaurants, and conversing with our kids. Sometimes it’s great to have nowhere to be for a week. But times have changed — there are new summer jobs and extra summer sports commitments and cool things like songwriting camps. And with our summer flexibility fading away, wanderlust seemed especially strong this past March.
We hit VRBO and searched for beach condos as close to St. Louis as we could find. We started with the Florida panhandle but then kept expanding our search west. When it was all said and done, we chose a cute, dog-friendly place in a town we had never heard of along the Gulf Coast — Gulfport, Mississippi. Our plan was to hang at the beach and venture over toward New Orleans. It would be our first time in Mississippi or Louisiana.
The night before we left, I went online and discovered Google Earth describes Gulfport as “… a town still recovering from Katrina…” Oh, wow. The cottage was already booked and paid for.
I thought quite a bit about hurricanes this past year. Fifth graders at my school raised money for a community ransacked by Harvey. And my brother’s job sent him to Puerto Rico to do hurricane-relief — also Harvey. These headlines always remind me of two seasons in my own life: When I was six years-old, thousands slept inside our mega-church until Hurricane David passed through Florida. And, almost twenty years later, Hurricane Bertha hit North Carolina and rolled up the coast to New Jersey on my wedding day.
But Katrina?! That was 2005… and Gulfport, Mississippi is still recovering? I’m quick to hurt for a community when it makes the headlines but my empathy sadly fades as the days progress. And with Katrina, we’re talking 13 years later. I remember we donated a mattress when someone was hauling supplies of used goods down to Louisiana. But I haven’t ached for those victims since then. I had two preschool-aged kids back in 2005, and my life was embarrassingly all about us.
As dawn broke, we drove south and settled into an adorable brick home that had been repurposed into a beach cottage. We noted the closest Starbucks and donut shops on our phones, unpacked, and walked to the beach.
Two things struck me about Gulfport: 1) Yes, Katrina’s footprints were all over, and 2) This was a working town. I’ve never vacationed at the beach while rubbing shoulders with as many locals as I did tourists. Gulfport is home to the Mississippi State Port, and its horizon is punctured with the most industrial complex ever. Rentals were sprinkled among real neighborhoods where people got up early and drove to work instead of packing up their beach bags for yet another day of play and rest. It was an experience like none other. I navigated guilt and pity and pride and privilege — all in a few days.
It’s quite fascinating to watch a community thrive and intersect with one another … especially a community that has suffered. I fell in love, really. I felt redemption pulsing through its streets and beaches and even through its coffee shop. I read numerous tourist magazines highlighting locals who rose above the odds while opening new businesses and restaurants to replace those that were destroyed.
Our first meal was artisan pizza at Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a place mentioned on the Food Network.
Shaggy’s welcomed us the next night.
And Coast Roast stole my heart with its industrial vibes, open air counter, and rich, deep coffee. I went there every day to order an Americano while my daughter, a bit more adventurous, tried something new each time. We saw a dog peering in from the outdoor counter with its owners sipping away. I loved this place so much I asked for a Coast Roast shirt for my birthday and asked my husband to paint our house the same color. (He said yes.)
Each of these restaurants’ websites told more than their business hours and menu items. Like many Gulfport establishments, their About Us pages referenced Katrina. When you’ve been hit hard, you view your story in two chapters: pre- and post-trauma. And while trials don’t define us, they impact our worldview. They deepen our understanding of ourselves, our faith, those around us — everything, really.
While we were in Gulfport, I happened to be reading Culture Making by Andy Crouch. He referenced how creatives and cultivators of culture adopt a posture of purposeful effort… how they do the painstaking work of preserving the best that those before them have done… how they dare to think and create something that’s never been thought of before… and how they steward culture, guarding what’s best in a neighborhood or field of practice. It’s a lot to navigate, really. I find it often easier to design something completely new than to rebuild what’s broken.
But restoration, it’s the heartbeat of the gospel. It’s about a God who pursues those whom sin has fractured, relentlessly drawing us near as He holds us with one hand and points back to the cross with the other. It allows us to understand — and believe — how much our Maker loves us. The gospel impacts everything — allowing us to risk, speak honestly, ask for forgiveness. It gives us the courage to redeem friendships and keep finding our voice instead of withdrawing in shame. All the while, we’re pointing back to that cross, too, with our own fingers.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, keep rejoicing and repair whatever is broken. Encourage each other, think as one, and live at peace; and God, the Author of love and peace, will remain with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11
I think of my own brokenness that needs repairing everyday. I grow weary at my constant need for restoration, and I’m sure those around me tire of my fractured state, too. I think of the communities that I intersect with — and those I avoid — and how rebuilding and restoring is in my DNA as a Christ-follower. And that call to love people and be others-centered — it’s how we help tell the story of the Author of love and peace.
As Gulfport’s residents exercise persistence and resilience over a span of years, as they rise up stronger than before, we can’t ignore the call on our own lives to do the same. Where will we be in 13 years? Ignoring brokenness? Still stumbling over the rubble? Or building something beautiful and empowering others to do the same?
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33