When the Wilmington Presbyterian Church sent a missionary group to New Orleans in January 2008, Jim Moose sent along plans he'd drawn for a wooden pulpit.
"I was going to do it as a woodworking project, to replace ones for churches down there," he said.
The associate pastor gave him bad news after the trip -- interest in the pulpit had not been strong.
On the other hand, she noted, the group witnessed a Katrina survivor in tears over a donated dining room table. "It was the first time in two years she had a table to eat at," Mr. Moose said.
That was all the professional furniture maker needed to hear. He designed a table and launched a volunteer effort to build them.
It was rocky start. The table was tricky to build, and roughing out the wood was time-consuming.
A phone call solved the second problem. A woman who saw information about the project had told her husband, who owns a mill that makes stair treads. "He called me and said, 'Moose, I can run more wood through my factory in a day than you can handle in your shop in a year,'?" Mr. Moose said.
What's more, the mill owner -- Harry Reismiller -- could offer a source of wood. Stair treads have to be uniform in color; the mill got a number of red oak boards with too much mineral stain in them. They could not be used for stair treads, but actually made for beautiful tables and benches.
Mr. Moose then reworked his design; the current table can be built in five to eight hours, he said, compared to 24 before.
With kits from Mr. Reismiller and the simplified design, the project took off. Five high schools are using them as senior projects, and other groups have been picking it up in both professional wood shops and garage ones. Churches, too, are coming on board, and Mr. Moose said he is considering turning it into a nonprofit corporation and running it full-time.
"It's crazy," he said, "but I've always done crazy things."
He has been to New Orleans to check out the distribution system -- he wants to be sure the tables are indeed going to people who need them -- and has witnessed the emotional response of recipients.
But he said he is equally gratified by the impact it has had on the people building the tables.
At one recent building session, Mr. Moose said, he approached a worker that he knew to be dying of prostate cancer.
"I asked him, 'How are you feeling?'
"He said, 'It doesn't matter how I'm feeling. For the first time in two years I had a reason to get up this morning and not worry about how I feel. I know I'm going to die, but dammit, I'm going to make a difference on my way out.'?"
Mr. Moose said he sees the same thing in the group from the First Presbyterian Church of New Brighton.
"All of a sudden the church has a reason to get up in the morning," he said.
Brian David can be reached at email@example.com or 412-722-0086.