Saturday, August 21, 2010

Katrina Plus Five

Eight days from today, New Orleans will mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Four-plus years ago, we made our first journey there, and through this blog, asked you all to come along.

We're making that request again. Stay tuned for more.


Mindy and Paul

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Come get dirty in New Orleans this April

The Diocese of Olympia invites you to join a missionary trip to New Orleans April 14-22, 2007. Only six spots left! Be a member of a Diocese of Olympia medical and construction team to assist in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Participants will stay at the St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, New Orleans, which can house 25 volunteers and includes a full kitchen. The construction team will meet daily at a central location and will be divided into work crews. Each crew will be under the direction of a local crew chief. The medical team (R.N.,M.D.,APRN) will be part of the St. Anna’s Mobile Medical Mission and will provide basic medical examinations and care.

Cost per person: self-arranged air fare ($300+ as of date of this post), food needed for meals (approx. $100) and rental vehicles and gas for ground transportation ($75). Lodging is free but a donation will be appreciated.

If interested, please contact the Rev. Peter Kalunian for a registration form. The team will be limited to the first 25 people who apply. For more information, call 206-854-0612 or e-mail Fr. Peter More information is available at, click on “volunteer resources.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The church seems to be a home for hope

Fr. Will Hood greets Carl Knirk at St. Paul's

Sunday, January 28, 20007

St. Paul’s, Lakeview, New Orleans, 10 a.m. worship service

I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to see St. Paul’s in person for the first time and to worshiping with our partner congregation in the We Will Stand With You campaign.

I’m greeted by Matt Wallo, who with his wife Melanie came to Seattle in October and spoke at our diocesan convention, sharing their story of escape, return, and efforts to rebuild their Lakeview home, which was destroyed by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Matt also is the acolyte master for St. Paul's. Today, he shared that the family finally have a foundation on their house and are ready to start framing if they could just get some decent weather. Saturday, the day before, was an awful, rainy, foggy day; Melanie said she spent the day on the couch. Today, Sunday, is beautiful, cold, but with clear, blue skies.

We walk into the sanctuary, it’s about 9:35, and Will Hood is testing the new sound system, wearing his microphone. He greets me with a bear hug. The choir is practicing; the sanctuary is spotless, beautiful, with lovely stained glass windows. The pews came from a church in Indianapolis, and are said to be 100 years old. Will says we are baptizing a young infant and he needs to go talk with the family. The church starts to fill up and the choir, with some 20 to 25 voices, processes in; the music is terrific.

I will remember one line from Will’s sermon, forever. “Church is not a spectator sport.” St. Paul’s is full of life. Its new resource center, in a house around the corner, is triaging people and helping them get services. The dorm upstairs can sleep up to 30 volunteers, on cots with foam cushions. The center has a small kitchen and showers are available next door.

The trailer/washeteria (a laundromat for you non-southerners) is up and running in the church parking lot. It contains several washers and dryers and is a joint effort of St. Paul’s, United Way,

and donations from folks like us. It is used constantly by folks in the neighborhood, who come to wash their clothes for free. Many in the neighborhood are living in trailers. Some houses look like they will not be rebuilt, but most look like they are being worked on or may be salvaged.

When the offering plate comes around I put a check for $10,000 in the plate, from the Diocese of Olympia, representing We Will Stand With You gifts since Diocesan Convention, along with a prayer card I wrote. At announcement time, Will introduces me, my wife Susan, and my three guests, two from Vancouver, B.C., and one from North Carolina who are in town with me for a board meeting of TENS, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship. He says the Diocese of Olympia (Western Washington) is the diocese that sends those prayer cards and is leading the way in helping St. Paul's.

Following the service, a gentleman about my age, in a business suit, sitting in front of us, turned and said to me, “Thank you for all you are doing, you have no idea how much it means to us.” He wipes away a couple of tears with his finger as he is speaking to me. I feel the presence of the Lord’s Spirit through him, through all the folks in this place, I am grateful for the opportunity to witness this in person.

After the service we go to coffee hour and I find John Joseph, the sexton for the church, who came to our convention. I spent a lot of time with John Joseph on his visit her and I know of his harrowing escape from Katrina. His family escaped to the gymnasium at the school, and spent two days there before being rescued by a boat. He shows me the water line on a shed in the parking lot where the water stood for three weeks. It is eight feet above the parking lot and it was eight feet high in the church and school. I walk out in the kitchen with John Joseph, and he tells me of the water coming and rising quickly, when the levees broke. He had been standing right where we were today.

He realized he needed to get out; he could not open the door outside, as the water was too high, he climbed through a window in the kindergarten room, and went over to the gym on higher ground.

We have a couple of lovely dinners in New Orleans, we have beignets at Café Du Monde, we listen to a great traditional jazz band called the Jazz Vipers at the Spotted Cat Café.

We drive, via cab, through ramshackle neighborhoods that that look like they may never be rebuilt, only a couple of miles from a bustling downtown and French Quarter that avoided the floods.

There is juxtaposition among all the people we meet. Many are committed to staying, to rebuilding, but I sense in every person a “depressive psyche” that pervades life in New Orleans. Crime is rampant, there is fear, and there is distrust of the local and national authorities. The church seems to be a home for hope for many of the beloved. I am proud of the work we are doing with the people of St. Paul's, including our monetary support, because I know these funds are doing good works, no bureaucrats in the middle. I know of the dozens of volunteers scheduled to come to St. Paul’s and do work, helping neighborhoods rebuild in the months ahead.

On our last night, Tuesday, I have dinner with Will Hood, Katie (the school's athletic coach), Matt, and Melanie. We talk to Katie about bringing some eighth-graders from the school up to Camp Huston in July for one of our sessions in Gold Bar. She is so excited -- she wants to come too, and she will. Maybe we can organize home stays for some of these youth through our diocesan youth and their families.

Our flight home from New Orleans is delayed by ice storms in Dallas and a two-hour equipment repair while we are all seated on the plane, waiting for a part to be replaced. We arrive home, three hours late, after a 12 hour travel day. Our bags come out early, we are grateful to be home have many feelings to decompress about our visit to New Orleans.

Some people ask me upon return, what about the levees. Couldn’t this happen again? I say, yes, it probably could. But put yourself in their shoes. This is their home. The city's population is half the size it was before Katrina, but those who’ve come back want to stay and rebuild. Will the city ever return to what it was? Who knows?

What I do know is that we are developing personal relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, who are not only trying to rebuild their own lives, their church, their school, but are also reaching out to those in need. St. Paul’s School brings hope to all of Lakeview. Isn’t that what the Gospel is about? I am grateful to be able to help our diocese raise funds and support these folks.

Carl Knirk
Carl is the Bishop's Deputy for Planned Giving in the Diocese of Olympia (Western Washington)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hope and reunion on the storm's anniversary

September 20, 2006

We have been back from our most recent trip to New Orleans for just over two weeks. I can’t explain why this blog update has been so difficult to write. This is what I wrote and never posted before we left, followed by my observations once we were on the ground again. I did not know what to expect when we returned. Once there, I was both saddened and hopeful by what we experienced. The sadness comes from the desolation of the Lakeview neighborhood and the city of New Orleans. The hopefulness is found in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Be patient, please. This is a long entry. And do keep those at St. Paul’s in your daily prayers and meditations.

August 14, 2006

In 10 days, God willing, we will be back in New Orleans.

On that day, Aug. 24, 2006, St. Paul’s Episcopal School kids will be squirming in the seats in their much-missed and recently refurbished classrooms, boiling over with giggles as they drag in backpacks brimming with school supplies.

A couple of days later, on Sunday, Aug. 27, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will celebrate the Holy Eucharist at its church home in the Lakeview neighborhood for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit the city and breached its levy system on August 29, 2005.

These are two milestones for a congregation in a city, that from an outsider’s admittedly limited point of view, is in the throes of slow, painful rebirth; a city whose residents mark things both small and large as turning points. For St. Paul’s, these two late-August milestones will be huge.

I noted with some embarrassment and a little sadness today that we have not updated this blog since mid-June. In the busyness of our own lives, we’ve not kept in touch with the folks at St. Paul’s as much as we could have.

I know what I read in our local papers, and on (the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s on-line edition). Its headlines today are of people arrested for shootings and murders; on the not-very popular rules on how homes are to be gutted and; a recovery plan that doesn’t seem to have many fans; and on Mayor Ray Nagin’s attempt to put together an administration. Everything seems to raise a controversy, even the now-ditched anniversary celebration planned for Aug. 29. Apparently, the idea of marking the anniversary of the storm with a performance by a comedian, a masquerade ball and fireworks was just a little bit much for most folks.

Those are the headlines. But, as we ask in the world of journalism, what’s the back story? Was Camp Care-A-Lot, St. Paul’s summer camp for kids all over the city, a success? How are Debbie and Bud and daughter Sarah – is Bud still commuting to Baton Rouge? What about Rusty and Stacey and Robert – have they bulldozed their house? Has Katie found a permanent place to live? Is Fr. Will able to keep up with his myriad responsibilities? How many kids are coming back to school this fall? Have members of the Parish returned? Have the sparrows in Natalie and Phil’s birdhouse raised another brood?

What are St. Paul’s parishioners’ prayer lives like? Where have they found Christ? How has their faith been challenged? How have they met that challenge? How can I learn from this?

When we were in New Orleans in April, we were told over and over that the most important thing to folks there was that they not be forgotten.

I hope the few things we have done to keep the story in front of people have helped to ensure that doesn’t happen. We have made several presentations and have helped put together the Diocese’s We Will Stand With You Sunday on August 27 (see related story).

On Sunday, August 6, we had the challenge of trying to make what happened to St. Paul’s and Lakeview real for the kids and staff at Camp Michael, our Diocesan region’s summer camp. When we come to New Orleans, we’ll be bringing their notes of encouragement and support from these kids to St. Paul’s in hopes of setting up a continuing “pen pal” partnership.

Please do know that your prayers and support are very much appreciated by St. Paul’s. You can see pictures of the progress they have made at

But those are the pictures. Our job is to bring you the back story. With your prayers, we can do that.

Mindy and Paul

P.S. When she heard before our departure that we were returning to New Orleans (August is after all, hurricane season), a co-worker of mine said: “You’re a brave woman.” I’ve been thinking about that statement and I don’t think this has anything to do with bravery.

We’ve made arrangements to board our cats for the time that we’re gone. We’ve made plans to see our families in Indianapolis for a few days after we leave New Orleans. We haven’t made plans about what to do if we do get caught in a hurricane. We’ll simply, with God’s help, continue the pilgrimage.

And so, back to September 20, with some observations, some answers to questions raised in the un-posted August missive, and some updates on the people we introduced to you earlier this year.

August 29, 2006 - First anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans does not look much different than it did in April. Many, many houses are in the same empty, eerie state they were in before. The same sodden couches are on the same sagging porches. The major difference is that the vegetation is beginning to overgrow what is left of the structures. Hardly anyone is around to mow the lawns. If people have come back, having a lawnmower likely loses out to paying to hook up to electricity.

For the most part, New Orleans is now a city of lists and lines. You are on a list to get something hooked up – like phone service or electricity or water. You are most likely in line to get a permit to bulldoze your house, or on hold trying for a real human voice who can help you get that permit. For those who have come back and who are trying to rebuild and get on with their lives, it’s a city full of frustration and some bitterness over the failure of systems they once depended on. Can you imagine having no land-line phone service for more than a year? Or having to wait a year to tear down your house so you can start re-building? Can you imagine having no neighborhood stores to shop in? No local restaurants? For a moment or two, imagine how you would feel if everything convenient about your life was stripped away. That is how life is in New Orleans.

When people ask about what the city is like now, I often tell them that what has happened there is a national disgrace. It is very difficult for me to put aside my feelings about the thousands of people who have died and the trillions of dollars we have spent on the so-called war against terrorism in Pakistan and in the Middle East. I wonder what those who have died could have accomplished in New Orleans, and how those dollars could have been spent helping in the city’s rebirth.

People in New Orleans are fighting their own Gulf War. Were it not for the financial and prayer support of faith-based communities such as the Diocese of Olympia, I believe they would be losing.

But enough commentary. On to the pre-visit questions.

Was Camp Care-A-Lot, St. Paul’s summer camp for kids all over the city, a success?
By all reports, yes. Attendance was great, the kids had a great time, and the portable classrooms for camp are being used as portable classrooms for St. Paul’s re-opened school (more on that later).

How are Debbie and Bud and daughter Sarah – is Bud still commuting to Baton Rouge?
The family is back together. Debbie is teaching first grade at St. Paul’s and leading the school’s morning chapel. On Monday, the day before the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, she led the school kids through an exercise on the Diaspora, the scattering of God’s people “all over the place”.

“In the history books, it’s going to be the New Orleans Diaspora,” she says. “We have come back in the shortest amount of time … through our faith in God we could do it. We had hope we could come back. We had love of place and of people.”

Bud is back in New Orleans – no longer commuting. When we were there, they thought they were just days away from getting permission to bulldoze their home and rebuild.

What about Rusty and Stacey and Robert – have they bulldozed their house?
Not yet. They did buy the lot next door, and will tear down both destroyed homes and rebuild “bigger and better,” Stacey says. Seven-year-old Robert still has bad memories of the flood, evidenced by a day of a hard rain that flooded the city’s streets. He kept asking his Mom when they were going to leave, and then began insisting they leave before they were flooded out. It’s hard to think about a kid this young, and all New Orleans kids having some kind of post traumatic stress, but they do. All their parents can do is reassure them that every time it rains, it won’t mean they have to disrupt their lives.

Has Katie found a permanent place to live?
Yes, she has. And she’s now Coach Katie, who is in charge of the physical education programs at St. Paul’s. Like most people we met on our first trip there, she greets us with a kiss on the cheek and thanks us for all of the support St. Paul’s has received.

Is Fr. Will able to keep up with his myriad responsibilities?
It seems so. He even had time on the Saturday before the re-opening of the church to talk to the acolytes about how to tie their cinctures. As head of school, he attends chapel with the school kids each morning and then goes on to dealing with contractors, government officials and charitable organizations in an effort to keep the church going and to reach out to the Lakeview community. Through his work, the church is now housing an organization called Beacon of Hope, an intake/assistance center for people who need to connect with resources that will allow them to return.

How many kids are coming back to school this fall?
More than 120 students have come back, about half of those who attended before the hurricane/flood. The halls of the school ring with the laughter of kids delighted to be back in their place, with spaces and teachers and classmates they know. Kids, as we know are resilient. These kids are remarkably so.

Have members of the Parish returned?
This was the reading from Matthew for Sunday, August 27, when the church re-opened.

“Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Of that re-opening day, this is some of what I wrote for the Episcopal Voice, our dioscean publication:

It’s nearly 10 a.m. on Sunday, August 27 and the air conditioning at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans Lakeview neighborhood is groaning to keep up with the 80-degree-plus temperature. The acolytes are twirling their cinctures while getting last-minute instructions. The clergy and the choir are suiting up. The ushers are handing out service bulletins and Fr. Will Hood, St. Paul’s priest in charge, is going over his sermon one last time.

This scene is typical for churches around the world. But at St. Paul’s, getting to this point on this particular Sunday is nothing short of a miracle. Just a year ago, Hurricane Katrina-induced floodwaters poured into the church and school, saturating everything from pews to Prayer Books in eight feet of dirty, roiling water.

The water is gone, as are those old pews and Prayer Books. What remains is a testament to the strength of St. Paul’s and the part that is critical to the church’s rebirth – community.

“I grew up here,” says Bill Settoon, who sat with his daughter in the refurbished worship space Saturday night. His father and wife had served on St. Paul’s Vestry. His mother was on the altar guild, his children were baptized at St. Paul’s and attended school there. His sister was buried from the church. “Being here gives me a sense of place.”

Sunday, as the church begins to fill, old friends greet each other with smiles and big hugs. Some, like Margaret Kirn, the church’s junior warden, shed a tear or two as they look in wonder at the worship space that has been lovingly put back together by folks who still are in the post-Katrina daze that permeates New Orleans. They have lost homes and cars and jobs, but have retained something so precious. In a city that will spend years in recovery, St. Paul’s is a pocket of hope, a witness to what steadfast faith and determination can accomplish.

Trust in God, says Fr. Hood in his sermon this day, is what is making St. Paul’s rebirth possible. “People who live in faith and hope, when caught in a whirlwind, are called to surrender. You have to give your life away if you want to live ... stop, drop and pray … say ‘I cannot handle this, I am overcome, my heart weeps. I do not know what to do.’ And then the Gospel says, ‘rest in me.’”

Hood is quick to acknowledge that rest may be precious as work at St. Paul’s continues. While the school has reopened, and the church building is largely repaired, the congregation will be challenged in new ways as it reaches out to a neighborhood still full of flood-ravaged empty homes and shuttered businesses. “I can’t tell you what it’s going to look like in a year – I would be foolish to do that,” Hood says. “But God can do the unimaginable.”

Have the sparrows in Natalie and Phil’s birdhouse raised another brood?
Yes, several. But sadly, the baby birds often are eaten by the crows that are taking over bird space in New Orleans, just like they are every where else. I think it is a good sign that the cycle of life is returning, although Natalie may not agree.

What are St. Paul’s parishioners’ prayer lives like? Where have they found Christ? How has their faith been challenged? How have they met that challenge? How can I learn from this?
I never found the right time to ask these questions of the people I talked to while we were there. I could only be a witness to what I’ve previously called their backbone of faith. My friend Karen Casey, a traveler from Washington on this journey with us, had this observation when she returned:
“These folks at St. Paul’s are ordinary people called to live extraordinarily. They are witnesses to the depth of being present to every moment, never certain what will emerge tomorrow, but trusting God and going on.”

Should you choose to do relief work in New Orleans, prepare for a life-changing experience. That may sound trite, but it is true – talk to anyone who has done this. Chris Rose, a columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune, quotes a volunteer worker speaking about those who have been on the ground: “They go through their own grieving hell when they leave New Orleans. It’s like leaving the Titanic for a safe distant shore – and leaving all the people behind. There is such a dissonance between what’s going on down there and everywhere else in America.”


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Debbie and Bud

Debbie Waldman: "We had three generations of stuff in here."

Debbie Waldmann stands outside her flood-ruined home in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood, looking at the hole in the ground where a huge water oak tree used to stand.

"We planted it when she was born, she watched it grow,’ Debbie says of the tree, planted in honor of her daughter’s Sarah’s birth nearly 16 years ago. "When she asked about what happened to our house, the first thing she wanted to know about was the tree."

After fleeing Katrina last August, the family returned to New Orleans in December. Sarah chose not to come to the house, but Debbie and husband Bud found the home had been inundated with six-and-half feet of water in the front and 10 feet in the back. The house will be bulldozed.

Debbie, a first-grade teacher at St. Paul's School, carefully guides visitors through the house. "We had three generations of stuff in here. The water came in and sat here for a month."

"This was our kitchen," she says of a room where appliances are overturned and dishes broken. Nearby, they found Sarah’s Baptism candle. "It was covered in slime, but she wanted it."

Debbie’s ministry books were toppled from shelves, along with "stuff from 28 years of kids I taught." Besides their own ruined belongings, they even found things that didn’t belong to them.

Time stood still in the kitchen August 29, 2005

Bud and Debbie have weekends to work on any salvaging they might want to do. Before the storm, he worked for state hospital in New Orleans as a psychologist. Now, he’s working in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, getting home when he can.

They’ve been watching the neighborhood come back, but slowly. A few houses away, someone is beginning to put in a lawn, a contrast to the dust and weeds, and the single red petunia blooming on Debbie and Bud’s front lawn.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Margaret's Dream

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord…plans to give you hope and a future…You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. - Jeremiah 29: 11,13

This was a dream so wonderful I just want to share it with you, dear friends.

I was at St. Paul's alone, doing some chore in the stripped down sacristy, wondering what I was supposed to do with the leftover consecrated wafers and wine. (Why I was even there with that is one of those non sequiturs that occur so often in dreams because we were still at St. Martin's school chapel.)

I crossed over to the sanctuary and there I saw an unblemished fair linen on the altar once again, pristine, with no stains or tears, perfectly pressed. So it occurred to me to just consume what I was holding. Then, no, that might not be what was to be done, so I turned to go back to the sacristy to try to find a place to put what I held. But where? The pacina had been ripped out. The tabernacle was gone. What to do with this holy stuff?

Then from the corner of my eye I saw there were two small crystal candle holders also on the altar (very small, I think we had some like that in the kitchen once for parish suppers). And ... the candles were lit. It seemed to be an invitation. I returned to the altar thinking again I would just consume what was left.

But as I looked up and out to the nave, a few people were coming into the area. The church was still bare and dusky. You've seen it, a cavern of concrete and brick with scarred woodwork and no pews or kneelers, no lights. But they stood there quietly, obviously expecting a Mass.

I said Will was not here, but we could worship and consume what had already been consecrated. I don't know if that was theologically sound, but it just seemed to be the right thing to do. They wanted to be fed. Then more people came. I was concerned we would not have enough. Then more. It wasn't just the old St. Paul's crowd. It was neighbors and more. Then the contractors and workers and remediators. The church was filled. And there was enough. So I guess you might say I have had my first Eucharist back at St. Paul's.

This dream has stayed with me. I wondered who were all these people. Now I realize they were not just us and our neighbors. They were you, each of you who have cared for us and blessed us with your time , talents, and treasures. It was you with whom we shared the Eucharist, the dream that St. Paul's lives.

Love and blessings, Margaret

Margaret E. Kirn is the Junior Warden at St. Paul's, New Orleans
And chair of St. Paul's Restoration Fund
P.O. Box 56297
Metairai, LA 70055-6297

Sunday, May 21, 2006

"I like to focus on how much I saved"

Stacey Hayden: "I had to laugh."

"Come on in," says Stacey Hayden, as she searches for the keys to the back door of the light blue stucco she used to call home.

Like most New Orleans residents who fled Hurricane Katrina last August, Stacey and her family thought they were evacuating for a few days. When the Haydens finally came back in December, they found most of what they owned had been destroyed when water from the 17th Street Canal breach flooded their Lakeview neighborhood.

"We lost our home, we lost our business, we lost our church, we lost our school, you’ve heard the story," says Stacey, who shared the modest two-story with her son, Robert, a mop-topped first-grader, and husband Rusty.

Gingerly walking over warped floors and stepping around overturned furniture and broken mementos, she points to a few sheets of Monopoly money about six feet up on the living room wall. The floodwaters that settled in the house for several weeks carried it up and left it there.
"When I first came in and saw it, I had to laugh," says Stacey, a St. Paul’s Vestry member.
But they barely had time to assess the hurricane and flood damage before the house was struck by a tornado in February that blew portions of their neighbor’s roof into their bathroom and Robert’s bedroom. Then, in early April, looters came, rifled through plastic bags of clothes she was trying to save, and walked out with a small window air conditioner that had somehow managed to escape the damage.

The Hayden home on Canal Blvd. bears familiar Katrina marks

Rusty only recently was able to re-open the family’s lumber business. Robert is back in school at St. Paul’s temporary location. Stacey helps Rusty with the business, sometimes takes care of other parishioners’ children, and continues to try to salvage what she can from the home while they rent a place in nearby Metairie.

Stacey shrugs as she shares their story. Tears have been replaced with humor and determination to rebuild not only her home, which will be bulldozed by Rusty, but St. Paul’s church and school and her neighborhood.

"I saved a lot of kitchen stuff – I like to focus on how much I saved."

Is it back to normal?

May 17, 2006
We (my husband Paul and I) have been home from our trip to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast for one month today. I find myself with one foot still with the congregation of St. Paul’s New Orleans and the other here in Olympia, where we have resumed our routines of work and church; grocery shopping and gardening; feeding the cats and taking out the trash. My legs don’t feel long enough to stretch between these two worlds. God willing we’ll close that distance by returning to New Orleans in August or September.

Mindy interviews second graders at St. Paul's School in April

People who know of our travels ask, invariably, curiously and kindly: "What was it like? Was it horrible? What are the people doing? Is it back to normal? What do people need? Why are they staying there?"

It is hard to avoid answering these questions with cliches, such as "It was life-changing," although it was. I often find myself pointing to imaginary eight-foot marks (the level at which the water settled in many places in New Orleans) on walls and tend to babble in a not-so-great attempt to respond to what people want to know about the devastation. Truth is, and I mean no put-down by this, no matter how I try to answer these questions, you simply can’t understand what happened and what is happening in New Orleans unless you have been on the ground.

What was it like?

Do I describe the miles of dark, blown-out, uninhabited houses we saw on a late Friday night when we first drove through the Lakeview neighborhood, where 8,000 homes were lost? Or the spray-painted house numbering system used by National Guard units to show how many bodies and deceased pets they found during their searches?

Or do I describe the folks who have the spiritual backbone of faith that it will take to scrape away the paint (although not the memories of it) and rebuild and discover new ways of doing things in New Orleans? Do I talk about the tragedy of lives blown apart? Or do I talk about the loving hospitality offered and the life-long friendships made while we were there?

Many want to know about the stories they hear about the black vs. white, poor vs. not-so-poor in the city. I’m no help there. I can’t analyze or discuss with any kind of expertise the centuries old racial, social and economic divides in New Orleans. What I can say is that people all over the city are in need.

Was it horrible?

I think this question has two parts: Was it horrible for the people of New Orleans? Was the damage we saw horrible?

Yes and yes.

I find myself trying to explain what happened in New Orleans like this: People fleeing Hurricane Katrina thought they were leaving the city for three or so days. The hurricane passed, but the water from the levee failures filled up most of the city like a giant bathtub. Folks landed in places across the country. Those who came back, some as long as five or six months later, found the interiors of their homes looked as if a washing machine full of their belongings had been subject to a really long wash and rinse cycle that didn’t spin.

In Lakeview, a mostly white, middle class neighborhood where we spent our time, those who are choosing to stay, for the most part, will bulldoze and rebuild. I know that is not the case in the Ninth Ward, a mostly black and low-income neighborhood that we saw only briefly. Much is being written about the disparities between the two; again, I don’t pretend to analyze or judge any of this.

In both places, many people went back to their houses, took a peek inside, closed what was left of their doors and walked away. It was too painful to try to reclaim whatever was left. They won’t be back. Others chose to not return at all. House-for-sale signs outnumber FEMA trailers just about everywhere.

What are the people doing?

Surviving. Making plans for the future as best they can. Trying to make mortgage payments on homes they can’t live in and payments on cars they can’t drive. Fighting with insurance companies. Finding humor where they can. Taking their kids to school. Trying to find jobs and

People say: "I can’t imagine that" I respond by saying, "No, you can’t."

reopen businesses. Getting out of bed every morning and putting put one foot on the floor, and then another, and then managing to get on with the day. If you are in New Orleans to stay, there’s not much more to do than that. Folks don’t try to answer the question "where do I start?" They just start.

Is it back to normal?

No. Imagine life in a neighborhood with no schools, no day-cares, no dry cleaners, grocery stores, doctors or dentists. A gallon of milk or a pair of sneakers or a six-pack can’t be found at the nearby convenience store or strip mall – those stores just aren’t nearby anymore.

I believe that more troubling than the loss of stuff was the loss of routine, the day-to-day things most of us don’t have to plan for, or even really think much about. Two-thirds of the city’s population still hasn’t come back, and there’s speculation that many never will. The effects of this on neighborhoods, businesses and yes, that blessed routine, are profound. When people say: "I can’t imagine that" I respond by saying, "No, you can’t."

The things that do speak of normalcy are precious. Some folks are beginning to re-landscape – occasional lawns are popping up, and gardens are being re-planted. Birds and squirrels are returning after a several-month absence, along with the housecats that stalk them. At the home of our New Orleans hosts, Phil and Natalie James, sparrows fed chirpy new babies nesting in a bright red birdhouse.

The James were among the blessed – their home was on high ground and did not flood. But like everyone else, they have a harrowing story about having to evacuate by boat, move to another state and worry about what was going on in their city until they could return weeks later. Their neighborhood now is much like the suburbia many of us are used to, with a few exceptions: holes where large trees used to be, FEMA trailers nearby, the occasional stinky refrigerator waiting on the curb for pickup, and the sound of relentless pile-driving that’s shoring up the levee nearby.

What do people need (or not)?

They don’t need or want to be known as victims. These folks are survivors. They don’t need boxes of cast-off clothing that is ripped and full of holes. They don’t need pity or understanding nods or "I’m sorrys".

What they seem to need most of all is simply to talk to people who are willing to just listen – it helps them process what has happened. They need to know that after nine months, we haven’t indulged our incredibly short attention spans and forgotten them. They need to know that someone still cares about them. They need to know that we are praying for them. They need to know we don’t second-guess their decisions to rebuild.

Why are they staying there?

This is easy. New Orleans is home – pure and simple. No matter what neighborhood they live in, or used to, these folks are New Orleanians. Their city and their culture: their music, their food, their Mardi Gras celebrations, their history and their heritage keep them there. I find myself wondering what it would be like if I’d never moved more than a block or two away of where I grew up, instead of moving across the country. Would I feel the same way if my city was destroyed? Would I feel angry at storms and flooding and tornadoes and looters? Would I share the same resolve these folks do? Or would I, seeking some kind of safety, just move on?

Mardi Gras doll found at St. Paul's during a Saturday work party

As we made our decision to go to New Orleans, I somewhat self-righteously declared (and I am prone to these sorts of declarations) that this would be a Holy Week pilgrimage. In my mind, that meant that no matter what obstacles Paul and I faced along the way, we weren’t allowed to complain. After all, pilgrimages are all about discovery, not frustration.

What I was not prepared for, and still do not fully comprehend, is that this really did become a pilgrimage for me. I found a place where I didn’t try to have all the answers to other people’s problems. I found my heart expanding in some rare and transient moments of being totally open to God’s call to love and to serve. This is still too big and too powerful for me to understand and practice on a regular basis. I see resurrection at work at St. Paul’s. I hope that will take place in me. I hope I can use this here.

When we returned, Fr. David James, our priest at St. John’s, asked me what I learned during our trip. The first thing that popped into my mind, and what I told him, is that I took much more away from it than I was able to give.

And what was that? I’m still not sure, but my heart seems to beat a bit differently these days. I carry with me, even a month later, what I learned about people who I thought of, before we went to New Orleans, as hopeless, powerless, and clinging to the past. They are none of these things.

They have many things to teach us about hope, about faith, about love. Their pilgrimage, and mine, have only just begun.