After our long 10 hour day Monday, we returned to our host church site, John Calvin Presbyterian Church, muscles aching but feeling the ache was worthwhile. Barb Lewellen, our food director, had no problem organizing our group of eleven to cook up a wonderful meal together. Afterward, Greg Carlson led us in our regular evening devotions, with a centering question: “Where did you experience God during the day?”
We all, in some fashion, felt that experience of God’s presence in our work with Darrell, sharing in his joy of the beginning of a new chapter in his life.
Tuesday and Wednesday our assignment took us to the Lakeview neighborhood, which is primarily Caucasian and a nearby community to downtown New Orleans. Lakeview seemed like a ghost town when we arrived. It’s a large neighborhood, considered to have been highly desirable for middle to upper middle class residents. It’s a long established community, with many older adults and growing numbers of young professionals. Our project was to gut a house for two young doctors, Michael and Kyle. They are in their internship year. They had purchased their home just a month before Katrina, only to lose it. I asked them whether they had debated over whether to rebuild, and they said, “most definitely.” Kyle grew up in the area, but Michael is from Baton Rouge. They are graduates of Tulane Medical School. Posted in their front yard was a sign, “We’re Coming Home to Lakeview”. The sign captured their feelings and commitment, along with a number of other residents. Kyle’s mother greeted us as well. She’s part of a network of small business owners advocating for federal loans to restart businesses in greater New Orleans. There’s much dissatisfaction with a slow federal response. Following 9-ll in NYC, some 18,000 businesses were lost. Three months later federal loans and aid were available. In New Orleans, some 18,000 businesses were also lost, but federal aid and loans have yet to be received.
Kyle and Michael both worked with us on their house. They wore t-shirts with the logo, ‘Doctors Without Hospitals” as a reference to how doctors from Tulane and other hospitals had to function in the days after Katrina. They opened clinics wherever a dry space could be found. Our mission group felt satisfaction in knowing that we were helping retain two young doctors for New Orleans. One report we heard is that some 1,500 doctors are leaving greater New Orleans because they’ve lost patients to displacement, or their jobs have been eliminated due to hospital closings. At the end of our work on Wednesday, we shared in another prayer with the Cash’s and received heartfelt thanks. It was again a moving experience.
When we left Kyle and Michael’s home, we decided to take a drive down to the 9th Ward, scene of some of the greatest flood destruction, and home to many of the poorest of New Orleans’ back population. It’s hard to describe the scene in the 9th Ward, which looks like a war zone in some ways. Many homes and buildings are just completely destroyed. The 9th ward is a very large area, home to thousands of black families, many with roots going back over a hundred years. It’s a place of great poverty. Small frame houses are the norm for housing there and stood little chance of surviving the flood waters. Many of the residents couldn’t leave ahead of Katrina because they had no cars to drive. Some 25% or more of people in New Orleans had no automobile transportation. After witnessing the scene, we left realizing how desperate the lives of many people are in New Orleans.
Wednesday evening back at John Calvin Church, we were invited to share in a dinner that night with residents of the neighborhoods around the church. Following Katrina, the church began hosting these Wednesday dinners for residents who had no kitchens in their homes left. About 125 or more attended that evening, and most were not members of the church. One woman seated at my table, with a charming New Orleans accent commented, ‘It’s awesome that there are people like yourselves, willing to come here and help us. God is using you in a wonderful way.” Then she said, “You’re really fortunate with the cool weather this week. You don’t know what a bad hair day is like until you’ve lived in New Orleans for the summer.”
On Thursday our work took us to an American Legion facility where a lone woman in her seventies was sorting through the equipment and belongings of the Legion. It was quite clear that she was in some disarray and was clearly overwhelmed by the task of what to do with the two story building. A term we learned this week was the “Katrina effect”, which refers to the emotional trauma and aftermath of the devastation experienced. One observer stated that, “the mental health concerns here are far greater than those we can expect from infectious diseases or household injuries.” Former New Orleans public health director Brobson Luty commented “that, in the immediate aftermath of all this, the primary psychiatric care in this city was being provided by the bartenders at Johnny White’s and Molly’s”. You get a feel for the flood’s destruction when you “drive around a town that has a permanent bathtub ring around it.” (1 dead in attic by Chris Rose of the Times Picayune)
Thursday we also worked for several hours tearing out a back porch owned a 65 year old woman named Joan Patrick in the suburb of Kenner. When I arrived, I heard Joan say in a typical New Orleans greeting, “Hello baby. I’m so glad you all are here. We can’t survive another Katrina. You just live day by day. I take it a little bit at a time. I wonder if we’ll ever recover from this.” Again, post-traumatic stress was evident, or the “Katrina effect.” Barb Lewellen was marvelous in responding to Joan Patrick, engaging in warm pastoral care and support. Barb also practiced what I would call “practical theodicy” in sharing with Joan that God did not will Katrina. Many public preachers in America have suggested that cruel nonsense. Even though we worked for several hours at Joan’s home, I think we all realized that our chief work was to serve as an encouraging presence that day. Joan Patrick almost literally drank in the attention and human contact from all members of our team. She hugged us on arrival and hugged and kissed everyone of us when it was time to depart.
On Thursday evening, we had a great opportunity to attend a book signing at Border’s Book Store by the prominent local historian Douglas Brinkley, who is a professor at Tulane University. Brinkley was frequently a t.v. commentator in the aftermath of Katrina. His recently released book is titled, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brinkley’s publisher Wm Morrow asked him to produce this book. He is also leading up an oral history project of the flood for Rice University. The book is an account of “Louisianans saving Louisianans”. In the book, Brinkley recounts dozens of stories of heroism by average citizens and some not-so-average people. First responders didn’t think of race when they were coming to the aid of people. He tells the story of people like “Mama D and the soul-patrol” and how this older African American activist leader gathered up urban young people as a rescue force.
Brinkley notes how “some people felt guilty about Katrina in their grief as survivors.” On the political front, Brinkley offers up sharp criticism of governmental responses at all levels, but shares particular disdain for FEMA. Brinkley shared with us in his talk that night that “some wanted me not to tell these stories,” believing that examining the failures of government and individuals was too painful. Brinkley’s response is notable. His intention is “to collectively heal by sharing stories.” Here, Brinkley’s Catholic Christian roots are evident and encouraging. “I wrote this book out of hope,” said Brinkley, for the city of his birth. This is an inspiring collection of stories. Brinkley’s further goal is “to create an awareness that it’s o.k. to speak out and not let politicians off the hook.”
Our last day of work on Friday we gutted our last house, or at least three fourths of the job, back in the Lakeview neighborhood. Just down the block from this house was the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, which Greg Carlson and I visited. We met the two pastors, Rev. Jean Marie Peacock and Rev. Neale L. Miller. Both had lost their homes and were operating with cell phones and lap-tops in a make-shift office on the second floor of the church. The look on their eyes, Greg and I agreed, was one of physical and emotional exhaustion. They’ve lost their own homes and nearly 50% of their congregation as well. On Sunday’s they are now worshiping back in the sanctuary with about 75 in attendance. Some church teams have helped with gutting the church and its preschool building. A huge challenge remains. Jean, the associate pastor, commented that emotional stress is an enormous challenge for survivors and that they envision recruiting volunteer mental health professionals from the PCUSA to come and spend anywhere from 1-3 months at a time doing counseling and training volunteers. They will need funds to support this effort. Greg and I agreed to follow up on this.
We completed our mission work on early Friday afternoon, returned to John Calvin to store our equipment, and get ready for the journey home. But we also made time for another final trip down to the French Quarter for the afternoon and early evening. Why should Americans care about this historic city? Why should we rebuild and spend tax-payer money on restoring the city? Those are hard and tough questions, in our current political climate. That afternoon in the French Quarter, Greg Carlson and I stood in the Cabildo historic Spanish building on Jackson Square where the Louisiana Purchase was transferred to the United States, a signal accomplishment under President Thomas Jefferson. The city of New Orleans has been an influential port at the mouth of the Mississippi for over 200 hundred years. New Orleans contribution to the economic growth and cultural heritage of the nation and world has been enormous. That Friday afternoon in the French Quarter, Greg Carlson and I sat drinking café au lait and eating beignets in the Café du Monde. I saw at a table nearby someone with a t-shirt with this logo, quoting the late, great jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong: “What we play is life.”
There’s a funky, charming, sometimes outrageous quality to the cultural life of greater New Orleans. There’s an undeniable relish for life present in the city. I keep coming back to the greeting from Jean Patrick at her flooded home one afternoon, “Hello baby…I’m so glad you’re here.”