Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mission to the Big Uneasy: Part 1

Our Katrina Mission Team gathered at Faithful Shepherd PC on Friday, May 12 at 1p.m. to begin our trip to New Orleans. We packed the vans and then Greg Carlson, a Presbyterian pastor and trip chaplain, offered a sending prayer for our mission team. It was a good way to begin, asking for safe travels and a sense of common purpose for a group of people who were new to each other. Preparations for this trip began back in December, when I and a few others in Presbytery felt a call to organize a mission trip to the Gulf Coast.

That Friday night we stopped in Columbia, Mo where I arranged overnight accommodations at Trinity Presbyterian Church, whose pastor is Rev. Rim Massey, a long time friend. The next morning, Rim and his wife Judy treated our entire team to breakfast at Cracker Barrel as a way of offering encouragement and support to our efforts. What a great way to get started!

On Saturday, May 13 we began our long drive to New Orleans and arrived that night about 11:30 p.m. in Metairie. It was a long day! We broke up the day with a short stop in Memphis to visit Graceland and to pay tribute to Elvis. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album echoed in my memory.

“The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National Guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war.”

Simon concludes that song with a mystical allusion:
“Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland.”

For a group of eleven pilgrims traveling to New Orleans, that’s a good sending song.

We were met at John Calvin Church in Metairie by Bob Tobey, one of the church elders, late on that Saturday night, about 11:30 p .m. He welcomed us with enthusiasm despite the lateness of the hour and said not to worry; the last group had pulled in at 2a.m.. After unloading, we settled in for the night anxious to begin our adventure in the “Big Uneasy”. Our accommodations were in the church’s family life center, almost a Hilton Hotel for mission workers, with a couple of showers and a nice commercial grade kitchen to prepare our meals. Our rooms were the regular Sunday School class-rooms. My room was in the high school room where I noticed a prominent sign posted:

”Thawing the frozen chosen, one at a time!” I thought I’d take that line back with me for future use….

Sunday morning we worshipped with the John Calvin congregation. The congregation was warmly welcoming of our presence for the week, even giving us a round of applause during the announcements. There may have been 100-125 in attendance that morning. The music was great, not surprisingly, since the pianist/organist also plays regularly at the famous French Quarter restaurant “Pat O’Brien’s”. Afterward we were told that nearly 30% of the membership has not returned to New Orleans, including most of the families with children. This has been a hard blow emotionally for the church, but it’s a typical story we were to learn. After worship, we received a good orientation to the situation in New Orleans from our coordinator Richard Britson, a retired attorney, and Bob Tobey. Bob informed us he had been the owner of a wholesale hardware business destroyed by the flood. He is able to now retire, but as he said, not everyone is so fortunate. Most of the flood damage in greater New Orleans and Metairie occurred from the levees either being topped or undermined from Lake Ponchatrain, to the North of the cities. Continuing debate and controversies regarding Army Corps of Engineers past levee construction work and failures of government funding for adequate levee systems remain as part of the ongoing story of Katrina.

Sunday afternoon our group drove down to the French Quarter for a walking tour and enjoyment of the cultural scene. We had dinner at the Acme Oyster House, a favorite local place that’s served as a setting in a number of movies. I challenged everyone to sample a raw oyster from a platter I ordered for the group. You should have seen the look on some faces as the oysters slid down. Afterward we wondered through the streets to Jackson Square, the heart of the quarter. Our group divided up, allowing our group of five college age members some freedom to explore. My friend Greg and I wandered around the square and then up to the river walk-way, where the Mississippi flows. I thought about the river and how crucial it has been in American history, from the time of the Louisiana Purchase down to the War of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s defense of the city in that war. His statue atop a stallion rearing back on two legs is the centerpiece of Jackson Square. After our walk, we stopped at the famous Café Du Monde for a café au lait and an opportunity to enjoy the street scene and listen to some fabulous jazz musicians playing outside the café.

We struck up a conversation with a group at a nearby table who asked where we were from and what had brought us to New Orleans. After telling them we were on a mission trip to help in flooded housing areas, the smiles and expressions of warmth from our nearby table mates made us feel even more welcome. “What do people here need?” I asked. “We need compassion and patience,” a woman at the adjoining table said. I kept that comment in my mind the rest of the week.

Monday was our first full day, and it was a busy start to the week. Our first project was in the 7th Ward, largely African-American, where we gutted a house for Darrell Kennedy, an accountant with the Depart. of Agriculture. His house had to be totally gutted, down to removing the flooring. We spent over 10 hours that day completing the job. Darrell worked side by side with us. In the neighborhood, his neighbors were in various stages of recovery. At the end of the day, we took pictures and shared in a blessing prayer. Darrell warmly hugged each of us and thanked us profusely for our help. It was quite moving.

That afternoon Darrell went to his next-door neighbor to ask if he could borrow a water hose for us to get fresh water and wash up a little before lunch. Darrell told me that before the flood, no one much knew each other in the neighborhood, but now they all did. And they were all looking out for each other and helping in any way they could.

It was a long, hard day of work that Monday in New Orleans, but it was the reason we had come. All day I looked around at our team of eleven, who worked with enthusiasm and great humor all day. We were quite a sight, with helmets on, eye goggles to protect against dust and other flying debris, swinging hammers and crow-bars and shovels all through the day. It's a great way to relieve pent up stress, I concluded. There was also a wonderful sense of being part of a team in service to someone else. All day Darrell worked by our side, with a huge smile beaming on his face. I don't think any of us will ever forget that smile, knowing we were helping someone begin the process of rebuilding his life.


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