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.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Will You Journey With Me?

A moldy Prayer Book sits in the stripped out nave

Tucked into a straw basket dwarfed by a huge white marble altar at the front of a sanctuary stripped to concrete, brick and studs, a few words printed on slip of paper knit the hopes of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans into a simple prayer.

"Please God, we want to worship you here in this house Easter morning. Enable Will, enable us, soften the hearts of those who say no way, to greet your risen son as we have for so many years in this very place and to welcome our neighbors in lifting our joy and praise to you. Thy will be done."

Easter Day 2006 comes just over seven months after August 29, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. In some places where the storm hit, her wind-driven water washed in, and then out.

In New Orleans, the storm passed, but the water didn’t. It accumulated in Lake Ponchatrain, overwhelmed, and then breached, the city’s canal system in four places. The 17th Street Canal rupture flooded St. Paul’s, its school, and nearly 8,000 homes in the Lakeview neighborhood, including those of nearly all of the church’s members.

St. Paul's under 8 feet of water, early September 2005

"Water is a really, really powerful thing," says Debbie Waldmann, a first-grade teacher at St. Paul’s pre-K through eighth grade school. She, husband Bud and daughter Sarah lost their home to the flood waters.

They are among the parishioners who now face the challenge of rebuilding their lives, their homes, and the St. Paul’s church building and school. This journey will not be an easy one, but begins with a courage grounded in the faith that God will guide St. Paul’s in new directions and into new ministries. In the Diocese of Olympia, we share this journey through the We Will Stand with You project, a partnership with St. Paul’s.

Life in St. Pauls’ Lakeview neighborhood, like all of New Orleans, is defined like this: "before Katrina" and "after Katrina". Before Katrina, folks there lived pretty much like you and I. They got up, took their kids to school, went to work, went to church, went shopping. Now, day cares, doctors and dry cleaners, gas stations and grocery stores, restaurants and retailers, all those things that used to be on the way home, are miles away.

Pews left in a jumble; all were ruined by the flood

Before Katrina, the people of St. Paul’s had a big nave and sanctuary where they worshipped (it filled up with 11 feet of water, which dropped to eight feet, and then hung around for three weeks). After Katrina, the congregation moved its worship services to a temporary space; its number was diminished by nearly two-thirds (average Sunday attendance is now 100 or so.

Before Katrina, the school on the grounds served about 300 kids and had a brand new gym. After Katrina, the school moved to a temporary location with less than half of its students; the gym is now filled with relief supplies.

Water still fills the spaces between the double-paned windows on the ground floor of the school. Vestments and, furniture, prayer books and hymnals are a memory; water-soaked, they were left by the curb to be picked up and added to a debris pile. Some things were recovered, like the chalice and paten, and offering plate. "Every day, we found another piece," said Natalie James, who has called St. Paul’s her church home since she was a child.

James shares the congregation’s determination to rebuild. The building has been gutted, and will be treated for mildew before reconstruction starts. Starting with a blank slate means they can plan office space, a library, classrooms, a vesting room, etc. and no longer have to cram into whatever space is available.

Roland Wiltz, the parish’s business manager; junior warden Margaret Kirn who chairs the Restoration Fund; and members of the Vestry have an ambitious plan to get the building back together and hold services there in August, with a combination of insurance, donations, some money from an endowment fund, and lots of prayer support. Plans also call for the St. Paul’s school to move back to the campus in August. Its summer camp will begin in June, as it does every year.

"People have chosen to stay," says Fr. Will Hood, who was called to the parish as rector in January. "They can’t think of a better place to be than St. Paul’s."

Willing hands clear debris on St. Paul's campus

Work parties of parishioners and crews of professionals are on site regularly. On a recent Saturday, they were tidying the school’s upstairs classrooms, which didn’t flood. Pews are coming from St. Paul’s in Indianapolis; new Prayer Books have been sent from a parish in Montana. Much more will be needed; and with much of its congregation scattered, or simply gone, St. Paul’s will have to rely on help from others to meet its short- and long-term needs.

St. Paul’s journey "is not about recovery, but about discovery,’ says Hood, who speaks of rebirth throughout St. Paul’s Holy Week journey from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Fr. Will Hood: "Will you journey with me?"

On Palm Sunday, Hood reminds the congregation of the question Jesus asked the apostles: "Will you journey with me? Will you love me and be with me on the dark road … to the cross … and to the resurrection."

And as the resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday in New Orleans, more than 230 people, the most since the flood, end this year’s Lenten journey, coming together to hug, to cry, to acknowledge death, and to celebrate Christ, who has risen.

"Jesus really died – do you understand that? Oil and herbs could not gloss over it. There was a stench. It was death ... life (for the apostles) as they knew it had forever changed when their Lord and savior died. They scattered, they hid, they shut themselves in.

"Last August, it is fair to say part of our lives died. The storms came, the levees broke … then came the stench … There’s no oil and herbs for that. The dreams, the expectations, much of life as you knew it died that day."

But, like Christ, St. Paul’s is being reborn.

Light streams through stained glass onto bare concrete in the nave

"This is about resurrection, not resuscitation," Hood tells the congregation on Easter morning. "Resurrection admits that death happens. It looks death in the face. It is new life. It is something God does, not you and I.

"It is a new story, a new way and a new life. It’s waiting and watching and listening. It’s resurrection … flowers bloom, the heart beats, and there is new life. Amen."

Monday, May 01, 2006


Katie Vanderhook shows her ruined New Orleans home to visitors

"I am lucky to have St. Paul’s. It is like a family."

"This is it, 12th Street," says Katie Vanderhook, pushing open the door to the New Orleans home she used to rent with her sister Victoria. It's April, and the house is still littered with the stuff of their pre-Katrina lives. Photographs, clothes and makeup, books, linens – all ruined – will have to be thrown out. None of it can be reclaimed, or, like the photographs, replaced.

Katie didn’t take much with her on the Saturday she fled Hurricane Katrina. She left her car in the driveway, climbed into another car with three children and two other adults, and spent 26 hours driving to Houston, Texas. Four months later, she came back to the city, where she has lived since she was 8.

The house on 12th Street has been in Katie’s family for 18 years. Like many others in the neighborhood it is a "tear down," and eventually will be bulldozed. While some people have the means to come back and rebuild, Katie hasn’t seen too many neighbors return. She won’t, either. She used to be a pre-K teacher at St. Paul's school. Now, she moves around a lot, providing babysitting for working parents who have difficulties finding child care anywhere in New Orleans. Many of the providers haven’t come back and the buildings that used to house them are mostly gone.

"Everybody lost everything," she says. "I am lucky to have St. Paul’s. It is like a family." Come June, she will be the director of Camp Care-A-Lot, St. Paul’s summer camp for kids. It’s important to her to keep the camp going as a sign that St. Paul’s is moving forward.

Camp also gives her something positive focus on, although she doesn’t sorrow so much over losses as rejoice in things found, like the crucifix given to her by her aunt, Lillian McCormack, a Sister of Notre Dame.

"It was the crucifix she received when she made her vows. It had been on my dresser. It was under the bed. Jesus was face up and he was clean. Nothing a little bleach couldn’t handle."
Most precious of her finds was a small bottle of Holy Water she got in Greece last summer. It was still sealed when she pulled it out of the medicine chest in the bathroom.

"I held onto it and thought, this is going to get me through the rest of my life."