Fundraiser Will Have Recurring Purpose, Familiar Guest Speaker
The first time Matt Cole traveled with a group from Newtown Congregational Church to Biloxi, Miss., to help rebuild homes through Back Bay Mission (BBM), was January 2008.
Hurricane Katrina had struck the region 2½ years earlier. Many homes in that Gulf Coast city were still in dire need of repair work. NCC members had been traveling to Biloxi for 18 months, working with the community ministry of the United Church of Christ that has been serving the Gulf Coast of Mississippi since the 1920s.
Mr Cole was 2½ years into his college education at that time. He had graduated out of the student/camper portion of the Newtown Ecumenical Workcamp Servants (NEWS) program, but hadn’t yet aged into being a NEWS chaperone.
“Once you graduate high school, you can go to workcamp that following summer, but then there was really nothing in terms of in-town groups for college age students,” the former Newtown resident said.
Instead, he and 13 others decided to travel to Biloxi on their own. Most were members of Newtown Congregational Church, some were from other local houses of worship, and all were previous workcampers who wanted to continue their good efforts.
“It was some of the people who were around my age from the high school work camp group,” Mr Cole said last weekend. “There were 14 of us, including my parents, my sister Liz, Larry Whippie, Tanya Whippie, Lisa and Britta Cedergren, Sarah Davis, Amy Robinson, Caitlin Dalton, and The Rev,” he said. “The Rev” is a nickname for Reverend Matt Crebbin, senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church.
“It was a really good group,” Mr Cole said.
Since that journey to Biloxi, Mr Cole estimates he has done between 18 and 20 work trips. Some were with his father, at least one was with his father and the father-daughter Whippie team, and many were with varying configurations of a group of NCC adults who continue to return early each year.
In May, Mr Cole became one of BBM’s construction supervisors/associate for housing recovery. He has moved to Biloxi and is a member of the mission’s Housing Recovery Team.
Newtown Congregational Church will host its annual Mississippi BBQ & Shrimp Boil on Saturday, October 19. As with most previous years, a representative from BBM will speak to the group about the mission’s work and how NCC’s support continues to provide financial and physical support in the Gulf City.
This year, that guest speaker will be Matt Cole.
The public is invited to the dinner event, which will feature a menu of Cajun seasoned boiled shrimp, potatoes, and corn on the cob, as well as BBQ chicken, Andouille sausage, salad, rolls, dessert, and soft drinks. All of the food will be prepared on site by members of the church.
Tickets are $22 for adults ($20 if purchased by October 16), $12 for ages 12 and under, and $150 for a table for eight.
The majority of the evening’s proceeds will again directly benefit Back Bay Mission. Partial proceeds will also help cover the fees that each volunteer is responsible for to cover materials and other work site costs when they volunteer for BBM. NCC’s adult group will be heading back to Biloxi in February 2020.
In recent years, BBM has shifted its focus from the immediate need of rebuilding after Katrina to refurbishing houses of families that are living at poverty level or are elderly or disabled.
“The big thing we’re focused on is the sustainability of homes. We try to keep maintenance and upkeep costs down,” Mr Cole said. “The most recent program is Gulf Coast Housing Initiative, which is truly low income housing for the area.
“The houses get listed on the general market when they get completed, but they’re only available for purchase by people that are at 80 percent or less of the median income down here,” Mr Cole explained. “For a family of four, it’s $46,500.”
Back Bay Mission also creates homes for homeless vets, runs a food pantry and soup kitchen and a day center that welcomes the homeless to shower, do laundry, and use the computers.
Strong Ties With Back Bay Mission
Newtown Congregational Church has had strong ties with Back Bay Mission since 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina in August of that year, church members sent a financial donation to the mission. The following year, one member spent a week volunteering time with BBM.
Since then, NCC groups — young adult workcampers, adult workcampers, fathers and sons, friends, and other combinations of the congregation — have made multiple trips to the city annually.
Since his first trip to Biloxi 11-plus years ago, Matthew Cole has built on his faith while rebuilding homes.
“I’m not very big on sitting in the pews and just hearing all of the things that can be done to help people,” he said, explaining one of the biggest reasons he made so many trips to the city before moving there earlier this year.
“I felt like even though Back Bay Mission isn’t a church, I feel like it’s my church,” he said. “It takes all the values and things that [current NCC Senior Pastor] Matt [Crebbin] and [former Associate Pastor] Janice [Touloukian], and [previous Senior Pastor] Steve [Gordon] and [Interim Minister] Lee [Moore] before them, have preached on over the years, and it’s the second half of that.”
It was during the tenure of Interim Minister Lee Moore, in fact, that the congregation was introduced to Back Bay Mission. In the days and weeks following one of the country’s worst natural disasters, when so many were trying to help strangers along the Gulf Coast, it was Rev Moore who suggested donations could be sent to the mission with which he had previously worked.
These days, Mr Cole works with assistant construction supervisor Lorraine Serrano to oversee the volunteer groups that continue to visit Biloxi, to volunteer their time through BBM. Groups from all over the country visit year-round, often from two of three different starting points.
Mr Cole and Ms Serrano are tasked, he said, with making sure “that projects we have groups working on are fit to their skill sets and that the groups work as hard as they want to.”
Mr Cole’s supervisor is Craig Steenkamp, who has been with Back Bay since 2007, so the two men worked together for many years before Mr Cole joined the staff. That gave Mr Cole time to understand Mr Steenkamp’s philosophy.
“Craig attracts people to come down here who watch how he goes about doing home construction, which is to make things the best that they can be,” he said. “It’s the whole mentality of ‘Don’t take it as that’s good enough. Take it as I would be happy to live here.’
“I think of Craig as an individual; that’s his philosophy, and that’s spilled over to everybody who comes down here.”
In addition to talking about current projects and BBM’s mission on October 19, Mr Cole says he will recognize the connection between places that are 1,300 miles away.
“It’s amazing to think about the number of people who have been to Biloxi from Newtown, and every one of those people has probably talked to at least a few people about their experiences,” he said last weekend. He feels that on a subconscious level, most people in town should be aware at this point of the relationship between the two, even if they don’t know the name Back Bay.
“The culture of New England and the Deep South, on their face, sound like they can be very different things, but there are more similarities than differences,” he added. “I think that that’s something that people have a tendency to forget nowadays.”
Mr Cole will also share that message the following morning. He is planning to travel to Glastonbury on October 19 to speak at a UCC church that has also been sending teams to Biloxi for years, before returning to his new home in Biloxi.
Tickets for the Shrimp Boil & BBQ can be reserved by calling 203-426-9024 or visiting the office of Newtown Congregational Church, 14 West Street; cost for adults is $20 before Wednesday, October 16. After that and at the door the night of the event, tickets will be $22 for adults, $12 ages 12 and under.