Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Song Remains the Same

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Figuratively, I've been sitting here at this screen for the past 5 months, staring at the salutation, trying to find the inspiration to write. Ann and I were here in New Orleans last fall, and I just had nothing to tell you that I hadn't told you many times before. Rather than phoning-in something just to say I'd written to you, I just put it away. I feel badly about that, because even though the story may have become a bit repetitive when I try to write it, that's only because I'm not very good at this.

Here we are, 4-1/2 years past the storm, and 61,000 homes are still officially blighted. If anything, the story here is more urgent and compelling now. Yes, the debris piles are pretty much gone. Yes, a lot of rebuilding has occurred, and many families have come home and life has returned to normal for them. But as you see how much work is left to do all over the city, it becomes clear that time has played a cruel trick on us. It has become so normal to see homes that are not rebuilt that it's sometimes difficult to notice them as the tragedies and sorrow each of them represent. We should be shocked when we see them, but they are so omnipresent that our brains have reserved a place for them in the space where we remember things as they are, and they are no longer unexpected or out-of-place.

On this, our twelfth trip, Ann and I got to work on the home of Miss Denise Henry. Miss Henry's Banks Street home is a double shotgun that prior to Katrina was home to Miss Henry, her brother, daughter, and granddaughter. The area took nearly 10 feet of water from the 17th Street Canal breech. The family escaped initially to the Astrodome in Houston, and then on to San Antonio for a longer stay. Miss Henry successfully navigated the Road Home path, and used that money in addition to insurance proceeds and savings to hire a contractor, who did not do the work and ran off with the money. Rebuilding Together took on her project, and when Ann, Bill Goslin and I showed up to work, the house was approaching the final stages of construction. Bill went to work rebuilding the back entrance to her home, sealing up holes in the framing and sheeting, re-hanging the back door, and building a new soffit above the back door. Ann and I worked inside. Ann got to work with some of the new leaders, showing them how to lay ceramic tile, this time in a very tiny, not square shower that was shoe-horned in under the stairs. Ann and I got to do odd jobs upstairs, hanging and trimming doors, plugging holes in the walls and floor, and building custom trim in the bathroom. The Rebuilding Together team, as always, was organized and determined. By the time we finished our time there, the home was much closer to completion.

One afternoon, Bill, Ann and I drove out to the Bayou to visit the home of Mr. Ted White, who is a client of Davida Finger at the Loyola Legal Aid Clinic. Mr. White had a very leaky roof with no apparent leaky spot. We searched the roof and found several possible points of entry, and plugged them with a very effective roof patching material. After the first serious rain, Mr. White reported that the leak had all but stopped. We weren't very happy to hear that there is still a small leak somewhere, but short of stripping the roof off and replacing it entirely, we shot all our ammo doing our patch job. It's 99% better, anyway, and we did what we could.

One of our great March pleasures has been that we typically run into the students who come annually from The Juilliard School in New York. During my first March trip 3 years ago, I got to work with these gifted and huge-hearted people, and they bring me joy every time I see them. This year was especially great because one of my 2007 team members, Meredith Lustig, was back as a Masters student and mentor to this year's group. Meredith and I got to frame the bathroom walls at Miss Peggy Severe's home in the Hollygrove, and we had a great time doing it. That group was and is very special to me, and Meredith's million-watt smile took me back to that great week we all spent together.

The Saints won the Super Bowl while we were there, and the City was awash in joy. No cars were tipped over and burned, and crime virtually disappeared for a day or two as people celebrated. I heard more than a few commentators boil the Saints' win down by saying, "Now, finally, Hurricane Katrina is behind New Orleans, and life can go on."

Oh, were it so easy. But, the Saints did provide an incredible amount of happiness to a City that sure could use it. It was a great pleasure for us to be here for the game and the celebration that followed.

In the midst of all the rebuilding, there are people all over the City who go about their daily business of trying to make their neighborhoods and the lives of the people who inhabit them better. One such person is Reverend Lance Eden, who recently left the First Street United Methodist Church to start his own independent congregation in Central City. First Street was the site of our beloved bunkhouse, which was home to thousands of us volunteers over the course of nearly two years. The Rev was assigned to First Street only two months prior to Katrina. It was his first assignment following his ordination. Following Katrina, The Methodist Church hierarchy offered him another parish, outside New Orleans and away from the damage of Katrina. The Rev said no thank you, and went about cleaning the church and serving the people of Central City. Nic and Bri and others showed up from distant cities, armed with water, blankets and other supplies for people in need. Between them and the Rev, a partnership was born that spawned Hands On New Orleans. The Rev talked his superiors into converting the church's Social Hall into the Hands On bunkhouse, and for the next two years, we volunteers called it home, 100 volunteers at a time. Reverend Eden made it our home with his commitment to his congregation and to his neighbors in Central City. In doing so, he performed a loving and generous service to those we were able to help. He also performed an equally-loving and equally-generous service to those of us who came to help. His example and tireless efforts on behalf of his people set the table for us volunteers to share the lives and joys and sorrows of what became our neighbors, our friends, our families away from home. Every single person who has come and labored here knows exactly what I am talking about.

And now we have a chance to help the Rev, our Rev, take the next step for his people and for Central City. His new, non-denominational congregation has begun a Building Fund to help them find and acquire a small church building of their own. At this time, they are borrowing space from a small Baptist church which has generously allowed the Rev to temporarily set up shop. Through their own efforts, they have already banked $10,000 toward this goal. They need $50,000 in the bank to establish their bona fides as a serious, if young, congregation. That number is thought to be sufficient to post as a down-payment on a piece of Central City property, hopefully with some structure already on it suitable for developing into their Church and other future structures that would help them live their mission of service to the poor people of Central City. Their goal is to raise this amount by the 1st Anniversary of their founding, which will occur in August of this year. They are already organized as a charitable organization, so all contributions are tax deductible.

Ann and I, along with our long-term volunteer partner Bill Goslin, decided to get involved in this effort, and to hopefully bring along each and every volunteer who ever set their head on a pillow in our First Street Bunkhouse. We're reaching out to as many of them as we know, and asking them in every way possible to reach others they worked with, until we've networked our way into contacting every one of them. Ann spent a considerable amount of time getting a non-profit PayPal account set up for this purpose (If you click on the buttons above, that's where you go. Trustworthy and easy.) If each of us made a small financial contribution, in addition to a small time commitment to contact their fellow volunteers and all family and friends who didn't volunteer but have followed the rebuilding effort, we as a team could provide substantial assistance to the Rev's effort to put his stake in the ground and build his Church.

To be honest with y'all, I'm not much of a church-goer anymore. But I do go to church when I'm in New Orleans, and that's because Reverend Eden spreads the Gospel in such loving and tangible ways. He does it in the pulpit, with his gifted preaching skills, making his biblical readings relevant to the realities of Central City life for his congregants. It is a gift I have witnessed and absorbed many times. As important to me, he has done it in so many ways outside the pulpit. Defending the bunkhouse and the volunteers from his superiors and congregants when they wondered what this young preacher was up to and when would they get their church back was just one way.

As we arrived here for this latest trip, we dropped in for Sunday services with Reverend Eden, and in the three weeks we've been here, we seen him three times in front of his congregation. Seeing what he has already accomplished, I have every confidence that he will lead his congregation to their own church building soon. There isn't much room in their small borrowed space, especially when you consider the size of the Rev's heart.

My love to all,