It’s 5:00 a.m. at the Old St. Augustine Road chapel on a Saturday morning in October. All three boys who have gathered in the parking lot in Jacksonville, Florida, are used to getting up early. But 4:30 in the morning?
“I’m usually here at the chapel for seminary. But that’s at 6:00 on school days,” says Jake Livsey, a teacher in the Mandarin First Ward of the Jacksonville Florida East Stake. He’s yawning when he sees Austin Pearce and his father pull into the lot. Austin, also a teacher, is a member of the St. Johns Ward. Before long, Travis Stevenson of the Mandarin Second Ward arrives with his father. Jake, Austin, and Travis are in the same stake but different wards, and they go to three different high schools. Yet this day they have one purpose.
About four hours after arriving at the ward building, the three boys are in Melbourne, a central Florida city that Hurricane Jeanne hit hard. They’re part of a huge group of Latter-day Saints who arrived in the city to provide hurricane relief. As they’re getting their assignments from a local bishop who is steering the volunteer effort, they look around at the destruction. Trees are down, roof shingles are scattered, and debris is everywhere. The job looks overwhelming, especially after hearing that the young men’s assignment is to work on houses at a trailer park.
“It’s interesting to see what the hurricane has done,” says Jake. “We didn’t have much damage in Jacksonville. But to see these houses that had been blown apart, I realize that, wow, this was where somebody lived.”
As they begin to haul siding and insulation to the curb, they notice an older man standing amid the rubble that had been a portion of his house before it collapsed. “Just get rid of everything,” the man says. “None of it is worth saving.” The boys introduce themselves, and the man, named Leo, looks around. “You’re saying this isn’t going to cost me anything? Now who are you again?”
Well, since he asked, they’re Aaronic Priesthood holders, giving up a weekend to help people in need.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that there is always somebody worse off than you are,” says Travis. “It is sad to see what the hurricane did. I’m glad I can help.”
About a half-hour after they had arrived at Leo’s house, everything is cleared from what used to be the south side of his home. All the wet carpeting has been torn up, and the ruined furniture is piled on the curb. “I can’t believe it,” Leo says. “I didn’t know what to do. I could have never done all this, and you guys did in 30 minutes what would have taken me weeks.”
“That was a highlight,” says Austin as he walks away after shaking Leo’s hand. “He was so appreciative of what we did.”
“We didn’t need to get credit. But it was fun to meet Leo and see the look on his face and see how what we were doing was affecting him,” says Jake. “Maybe we left him with good feelings about the Church.”
After a couple of small jobs at other people’s homes, the boys find themselves amid the rubble of a house that was hit by a tornado that followed the hurricane. Many houses in the neighborhood are damaged. “It looks like a bomb went off,” says Austin, as he looks at a roof that was blown off a trailer.
He looks at Jake, grabs a claw hammer, and the two go to work. Austin figures that, even with help from adults, they could have the roof torn apart in about an hour. Four hours later the group is still hacking away trying to break the thing into pieces they can move. The sun is high in a cloudless sky. Temperatures are reaching the mid-90s, and the humidity is relentless. “This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Austin of his work on the roof. “But it’s been a lot of fun.”
By the time the three had cut up the last piece of aluminum and hauled it to the huge pile near the street, Jake, Austin, and Travis look more than a little tired. They take a break to eat sandwiches and wash them down with their 8th or 11th or 18th (who can keep track?) bottle of water. Rejuvenated, it’s on to another job. Once they’re done there, it’s time to think about getting ready for a two-hour meeting the three want to attend.
It’s October 2, and the priesthood session of general conference begins in about two hours. There will be very few white shirts and ties this night. It is a come-as-you-are affair for priesthood holders.
“I’m totally beat,” says Jake. “We’re all dirty, most of us haven’t showered, and some of us are still in our work clothes. But it’s cool to look around and see all these boys and men in the chapel for priesthood meeting who have been working all day.”
It’s then that the three young men stop and think about their experience with Leo. Jake, Austin, and Travis are grateful to be seated in the air-conditioned chapel ready for the priesthood session. But they know the priesthood was really in action a few hours earlier when they were sweating, working, serving, and smiling the entire time.
I have always been impressed by the organization of the Church, but I did not fully realize how important it was in efforts to serve others. The Pompano Beach Florida Stake, with many other stakes in the area, organized several relief efforts during four hurricanes that hit Florida last year. My ward was one of the many wards involved, and I was able to experience serving others.
A group of youth and leaders met one Saturday at 6:00 a.m. and drove two hours to Vero Beach. There, each ward was assigned an area to work in. Our ward was asked to help the senior citizens at a trailer park that had suffered a lot of damage. We were outside in the hot sun all day cleaning up debris and reconstructing homes, working alongside some of the residents.
This turned out to be a wonderful experience that I will never forget. I felt the Lord’s love as we served those people. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the people we were helping was such a blessing. I gained a testimony of the meaning and power of service and what it feels like to act in the name of Jesus Christ as a representative of His Church. I know that serving others is what He wants us to do.
The hurricanes caused a disaster, but there were blessings that came out of it. Testimonies grew, people were introduced to the Church, and the pure love of Christ was felt. Service brings us closer to Heavenly Father because we show and feel the Light of Christ as we act in His name. Taking upon us the name of Christ includes doing what He would do, like taking time to help those who need it most.