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.”



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