Monday, January 28, 2008

One of the things lamented by the pastors at the Churches Supporting Churches meeting we attended in New Orleans was the dearth of national dialogue about rebuilding on the Gulf Coast. It is astonishing that in an election year, the candidates are not talking about the Katrina debacle -- even though the hurricane and her aftermath brought the problem of the social disenfranchisement of the most vulnerable members of our society - the poor, the elderly, the disabled - into sharp focus.

This is a letter from the RFK Center for Human Rights that explains one easy way we can help put the issue of a just rebuilding back onto the table -- by voting for a question to be asked of the candidates for each party's nomination for President.

Dear Friends,

More than two year after the 2005 Hurricanes and the levee failures, thousands of Americas remain displaced from their neighborhoods as the Gulf Coast region struggles to address an ongoing community infrastructure crisis.

ABC, CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and the other networks hosting Presidential Debates will not question candidates on how, as President, they plan to rebuild Gulf Coast communities and help residents return.

ACORN, Color of Change, Gulf Coast Civic Works Project and RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights are working to make sure the issue of Gulf Coast rebuilding is addressed in the California Republican and Democratic Debates on January 30th and 31st.

Together we can urge, co-host of both California Debates, to ask the candidates whether they will support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, H.R. 4048, but we need your help.

At you can vote for questions to be asked of the candidates -- can you vote for a question about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act? It's easy and just takes a minute or two. Click the link below and follow the directions on

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, if enacted, will help residents realize their human right and rebuild stronger communities by:

- Creating 100,000 living wage jobs and training opportunities

- Rebuilding schools, police and fire stations, hospitals and flood protection and restoring the wetlands

- Promoting local businesses and improve economic and social conditions

- Helping displaced families to return home and participate in rebuilding with safety and dignity

- Giving residents a voice in how their communities are rebuilt

With the help of our supporters, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act questions on have risen to the top 5 most popular questions for both Democratic and Republican candidates.

If enough of us vote for these questions, we have a very good chance of bringing the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act into the Debates and shining a national spotlight on this issue. But we can't do it without your participation. Will you help?


Monika Kalra Varma

Director, Center for Human Rights

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Storm Survivors Face Hard Choices in New Orleans

Audio for this story will be available at approx. 12:00 p.m. ET
Angele Givens is rebuilding her home in the Gentilly district.
Nishant Dahiya, NPR

Angele Givens' home in the Gentilly district was destroyed by waters from the levee. She's now rebuilding it in the same spot, only a few feet higher.

Ray Brandhurst in the gutted remains of his old home.
Nishant Dahiya, NPR

Ray Brandhurst in the gutted remains of his old home in Chalmette. He's moved his family to Slidell.

Weekend Edition Sunday, January 27, 2008 · The Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans used to be a middle class area. It was dominated by solid, ranch homes built mostly in the 1960s and '70s.

After Katrina, as much as eight feet of water poured through Gentilly. Many of the post-war houses are still standing but they're gutted and empty.

As Angele Givens walks along her old street, she can point to the devastation:

"That one's empty," she says. "This one's renovated and it had a 'for sale' sale sign in front of it. I don't know why the 'for sale sign' is gone. I don't know if they sold it or they just gave up."

What used to be a lush, residential neighborhood is now a mix of construction sites, vacant lots and empty buildings. Givens had her house demolished and now is in the process of rebuilding. Pressure-treated wood pilings that will serve as her new foundation stand like squat sentries across the vacant lot.

"We raided out 401K so that we can build this new house," Givens says. "So we'll never retire now."

A Hard Place to Be

New Orleans is a very hard place to be right now for Givens and so many others. She is paying a mortgage on a vacant lot and paying rent while she rebuilds. Almost two-and-a-half years after the storm, there still are no stores, no gas stations and no post office in the Gentilly neighborhood.

Givens says losing her house and belongings to Katrina was "the easy part."

"Let me tell you what I did lose," she says. "My neighbors. My church. My kids' school. My social network. My friends. Today your friends are all here. Tomorrow they're in Conneticut and they're never coming back. And here you are coming back, rebuilding. Most days I say, 'I must be crazy.'"

Givens and her husband were born and raised in New Orleans. Before Katrina they expected their house in Gentilly would be their last. At times she second-guesses her decision to rebuild here, but she's committed to it now. Standing in a wasteland of construction debris and vacant lots, she says she stays because she wants to help make the new New Orleans.

"This is our chance to make it better," she says. "This is our chance to make that city that everybody wants to live in, that has good schools, public safety. And great libraries. Are we a long way from there? Yeah. But here's our chance."

Struggling for Basic Services

To try to accomplish that Givens and thousands of other volunteers have been clearing vacant lots, rebuilding playgrounds, boarding up abandon buildings and various other tasks that would normally be the city's responsibility.

Earlier this month, Paul Rainwater took over as the new head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He agrees that the overall recovery has moved slowly and that the task ahead remains huge. But he predicts that in 2008 state government will start to deliver significant tangible results: police and fire stations built, schools rebuilt, water and sewer service restored.

The LRA also oversees the billions of dollars in federal compensation for people who lost their homes to the hurricanes. The agency has vowed to process the roughly 90,000 remaining claims before the third anniversary of the storms.

One of the areas among the slowest to recover is St. Bernard Parish to the East of New Orleans. While the New Orleans population is now at about 70 percent of its pre-Katrina level, only about 40 percent of the residents of St. Bernard parish have returned.

Leaving Gentilly

Ray Brandhurst is one of the people who has not come back. He sold the house his family had lived in for 20 years to the state's Road Home program and moved his family to Slidell. Now his old house is gutted down to the studs.

Brandhurst says it was a tough decision to leave the neighborhood where he had spent most of his adult life. Some houses nearby are being rebuilt but many others are still empty. On some nearby streets houses are still packed with mud, debris and smashed furniture just as they were in the days after Katrina.

State recovery officials say a decade could pass before these neighborhoods fully recover.

Brandhurst says he didn't want his kids to have to live through all that.

The 'New Normal'

Before Katrina, Brandhurst worked as a shrimper, with a small seafood business in St. Bernard Parish. The hurricane sunk his boat and destroyed his retail store. He managed to refloat his shrimp boat. It's seaworthy even though it still isn't fully repaired.

With his shop gutted and his clients scattered across the country, Brandhurst says it has been hard to get his business going again.

"I had a business here for 22 years," he said. "The building and other things can be replaced, but when your customer base is displaced, that's a whole different situation because you got to start from ground zero."

Before the storm Brandhurst and his wife had four to six employees, depending on the season. Now it's just the two of them. They sell most of their seafood at local farmer's markets and via mail order, shipping Lousiana crawfish, shrimp and soft-shell crab to many former clients across the country.

This is the "new normal." Business isn't back to what it was before Katrina. Brandhurst's commute and his work day are a lot longer. Yet he's excited about the prospects of selling seafood over the Internet.

Brandhurst and many other people say they are staying in Southeast Louisiana because they have hope not just that things will return to pre-storm levels, but because of the possibility that businesses, life and communities might bounce back even better.

Chronically Homeless in New Orleans-

Chronically Homeless See New Woes in New Orleans

Listen Now [7 min 46 sec] add to playlist

Tent in downtown New Orleans public park.
Chris Graythen

Many of the homeless in New Orleans had been living in Duncan Plaza, across from city hall. But the city recently fenced off the park as part of a new construction project. Getty Images

Tyronne Smith of New Orleans.
Joseph Shapiro

Tyronne Smith was homeless for months after Katrina. He started painting again when a group moved him into a new apartment. NPR

Ann O'Hara talks to Benjamin Parnell.
Joseph Shapiro

Ann O'Hara of the Technical Assistance Collaborative in New Orleans talks to Benjamin Parnell, a 38-year-old blind man who wants to move out of a nursing home so he can resume his normal life. NPR

Morning Edition, January 23, 2008 · Austin Earl is so poor that the only place he could find to sleep at night was a spot of hard grass in a city park.

Earl has few possessions. But even when you have almost nothing, it's still not safe to live on the streets of New Orleans.

"I got robbed about a week ago," Earl says. "Broad daylight, coming from the grocery store. Two youngsters.

"They took the money I had. Took my cigarettes, my lighter. I found my wallet about a block away. You know, to rob the homeless is something I really couldn't understand, but there's guys that does it. "

Earl, 52, has been on the streets for four years — even before Hurricane Katrina. He has a mental illness, but it's been a while since he's taken the medications he needs. He's one of an estimated 12,000 chronically homeless people in New Orleans.

Housing Plan Emphasizes Support

Since Katrina, the city's homeless population has doubled, according to groups that work with the homeless. Almost all the city's affordable housing was destroyed.

So Louisiana came up with a bold plan to house the most desperate and hardest-to-help homeless people like Earl. The state is building thousands of new apartments and houses.

They're for "permanent supportive housing." The idea is to give the most chronically homeless people a permanent place to live.

Unlike in other programs, these people are not required to get off drugs or alcohol, or to get their mental illness under control before they can move in.

Just getting them off the streets is considered therapeutic.

According to the plan, when the homeless have found a permanent place to live, the state will offer them whatever social services they need to succeed in that house, from substance-abuse counseling to simple help in learning how to shop or how to balance a checkbook.

Congress gave the state of Louisiana millions of dollars to provide the social services the people need when they move into the new apartments.

It also gave millions of dollars of tax breaks to developers to build housing for homeless people. In return, the developers agreed to give low rents to the poor and to set aside at least 5 percent of their units to the most chronically homeless.

The first of those new homes and apartments will be available in the next few weeks.

No Money to Move In

But there's one problem: Homeless people are not moving in.

That's because Congress never got around to coming up with the third part of the program.

"What we don't have are the rent subsidies that will help people pay their rent," explains Ann O'Hara of the Technical Assistance Collaborative, a national housing group for people with disabilities.

For the last two and a half years, she's made dozens of trips from Boston to help Louisiana build these homes.

"We're at an incredibly critical point," she says. "Because if we can get the funding for the rent subsidies from Congress, then Louisiana will have a 3,000-unit permanent supportive housing system that will be in place for years and years and years. If we don't get these subsidies, then the whole program could fall apart."

Louisiana lawmakers believe Congress will come up with the $70 million this spring. But that's what they expected last year. And the year before.

Still Looking for a Normal Life

Before Hurricane Katrina, Benjamin Parnell, who is 38 and blind, shared a house with friends. He was self-sufficient. He cooked for himself and he had a job.

He lives in a nursing home now, he says, because he has no other place to go. His room has dull cinderblock walls and a flimsy pink curtain that separates him from the elderly man in the next bed.

Parnell says it would be great to have his own place, especially so he could get his electric guitar back and play his music.

When O'Hara arrives for a visit, Parnell is sitting outside to smoke. He's running a plastic comb through his long black hair and beard.

"What is it like to see nowadays?" he asks O'Hara. "I've been like this 15 years, seeing black. What's it like to see nowadays?"

"Well, today the sky is blue with a little bit of white clouds kind of underneath the blue," O'Hara tells him.

"I'm going to tell you something, Ann. It must be beautiful to see."

"I bet it would be great if you had your own place to live, too," she says.

"Yeah," Parnell says wistfully and laughs.

Out from Under a Bridge

After Hurricane Katrina, Tyronne Smith lived under a bridge. His life was out of control. He was depressed and addicted to drugs.

Now Smith has a place to live. A year and a half ago, a group called Unity of Greater New Orleans moved him into one of just a small number of permanent supportive housing units that already exist in the city.

He rents a three-room apartment for $80 a month. It's crowded with the brightly colored abstracts and landscapes he paints in the back room.

Smith, who paints using the name Mouthy, recently sold his paintings at two exhibits.

He says he knew his life had changed the day he moved into this apartment.

It was an overwhelming joy, he says, "to have a place over your head, to start your life all over again."

Permanent supportive housing has been used more widely, and with success, in other cities. Now thousands of homeless people in New Orleans are waiting to try it, too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Prayer for Louisiana

This afternoon our mission team gave a presentation to the School of Theology at the weekly community lunch. The week before, community worship at Marsh Chapel was oriented around the mission trip, with the sermon, prayers, and petitions drawing upon our experiences and reflections.

During our brief program today, our volunteers offered testimonials to the overwhelming generosity and hospitality of the pastors, ministers, and ordinary folks who welcomed us. We recalled the desolation of the Lower Ninth Ward and our feeling of smallness in the face of all the work still needed to be done. Yet we also remembered the hope of our hosts, and we realized that this is the most important thing to be rebuilt in New Orleans. With that understanding, we knew that our humble contribution was of enormous value. Our listening presence and our pledge to bear the many stories we heard back to Boston were the greatest gifts we could offer. Our promise to return again to help the men, women, and children of New Orleans return is the way we will covenant with these children of God. We hope the School of Theology may covenant with the people of New Orleans through partnership with the Churches Supporting Churches coalition.

We also issued a call to action on behalf of thousands of New Orleanians who risk losing the public housing that is their home to demolition. Although these buildings survived Hurricane Katrina and are structurally sound, they face the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. We collected letters to send to Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, urging him to use all his powers to prevent the demolition from taking place.

Here is the prayer given at the conclusion of today's presentation:

Most good and gracious God,

You are the Lord of sea and sky, the Spirit that sweeps over the face of the waters. Your prophets have taught us to have faith that when we pass through the water, you will be with us, and in the rivers we shall not drown. Gently you encourage us to fear not, for you are Emmanuel, God with us. We praise you for being an anchor, saving us, the fragile vessels of your Spirit, from being swept away and overcome by the powerful tides of sin and suffering. We thank you for leading us like a beacon through the storms of misfortune into the clear calm of consolation.

Trusting in your merciful power, God, we humbly but confidently seek your aid and comfort today. As when you once led Moses and your holy people through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom and further on through the burning desert and the wasted wilderness to their home, so now gather your children scattered across this nation and bring them back to their homes in Louisiana. We call upon you to remember the promise you made to your people through the prophets: “From the east I will bring back your descendants, from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north: Give them up! and to the south: Hold not back!”

Lord, listen to your children praying in a special way for the people of New Orleans. They rage, weep, and mourn not because of the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, but because of the mildness of heart of the privileged people who have forgotten they are their brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. God of history, God in history, help us to remember our brothers and sisters who call New Orleans home. Let us be mindful that the covenant that binds us to you is also a covenant that binds together the human race.

Fill us now with your Spirit of truth, justice, and peace, so that we may be full of determination to pray and work in love for the return of all your people to their earthly homes even as we continue our pilgrimage toward our eternal homes. Let us walk with Rev. Dwight Webster and Deacon Julius Lee, with Sarah Edgecombe and Miss Ida Kikendall. Let us sing with Christian Unity Baptist Church, dance with the beat of the street corner jazz bands, break bread in the French Quarter, and rejoice always and everywhere. And as we rebuild, let us not forget to walk humbly with you, for without your blessing presence we labor in vain.

We make all of these prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, who shelters us from every storm, who prayed and worked and died with us to prepare a place for all of us in the peaceful reign of God. Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


One of the most striking things about New Orleans is the spirit of chaos (and sure, of music and revelry) that imbued the city even before the flooding of Katrina, and now permeates each street corner like the water that rushed in with the storm surge. After a week of listening to lilting creole and cajun voices tell their stories, I realized that the post-K narratives are broken pieces of a larger whole which may or may not ever be fully articulated -- so part of our work there, aside from the ripping down and the steri-fabbing, was gathering up as many pieces of testimony and experience as we could, and attempting to put them together into some coherent picture of "life in the after the storm" as one man, brother julius, put it.

In the midst of the confusion and the music and the stories and the chaos, though, there are parts of the city that offer refuge from the raging mess of the rest of it. On Thursday afternoon, we discovered the labyrinth in Audubon Park and walked its circuitous route silently together amongst the massive oak and sycamore trees with spanish moss drifting from their branches. The labyrinth claims to be "a symbol of hope and will offer our New Orleans community a place to heal, to walk together, and to celebrate new life." A place for the people to find their center, in the spiritual practice of walking meditation, in the quiet beauty of the park.

As I reflected in my walking upon the images seared in my memory of homes abandoned and empty fields where whole communities thrived, I stirred the pot of my simmering anger and tried to be open to the new taste of bitterness that had developed in it over the week. Slowly, though, the labyrinth worked its transformative magic. I began to notice the touch of fall in the january air, and in recognizing the strangeness of the season, I relished the feeling of the stone path against my bare feet... to everything, there is a season, a time for everything. Now is the time for the simmering anger to turn into action, re-creation. Beyond rebuilding houses, rebuilding community and seeking justice for those who have no homes to rebuild.

my story has found its center.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Three Words

A friend asked me this afternoon to describe Louisiana, New Orleans especially, in three words. Not given easily to brevity, I laughed. A while later, the words found me: Music, stories, and hope.

Music ... there was more music than your ears could hold. A blind person is a little less poor in New Orleans for the sheer sensation of sound. It surrounds you like a cool breeze, leads you like a wandering creek, follows you like a scent wafting slowly. It insists on being heard. Conversation will stop for the second line passing by. Every street corner is a stage, every sidewalk a scene for itinerant buskers. Everyone can join in the neverending parade. Numb is the soul who doesn't feel stirred to hum or sway, if not to dance or sing outright. And we did ... our team will remember a little karaoke bar called Cat's Meow in the French Quarter for some time to come!

Here's a little sample of what we heard one Sunday in a nightclub called d.b.a.

Stories ... the story of the hurricane, what Douglas Brinkley calls the Great Deluge, can be heard from at least a thousand sides crashing like water into each other. I prepared for the trip by learning to surf that story as best I could. Our group travelled to Louisiana to enter into another story -- the story of life after the storm. What we discovered was a weaving of narratives. With no exaggeration do I say that accounts of the storm and its aftermath are biblical in scope. That is to say, they are akin to one another, but not to be collapsed one into the other. Matthew and Luke may borrow threads from Mark, but these Gospels are not woven like the Gospel of Mark. Likewise, you have no bespoke silver thread that you can run through every cloth of the Katrina quilt the same way. Indeed, many colorful yarns have been spun together, criss-crossing now, running parallel later, forming patterns and patches distinctive in their singularity.

I thank the pastors, deacons, and all the people of faith for entrusting us with their stories, the fabric of their lives, their varied melodies. Now we are a part of the story, the quilt, the tune. We will not be the voice our Louisiana friends have, but we will lend our voices to theirs as we sing our songs of life after the storm.

Hope ... hope is a game of football at the end of the road on an otherwise deserted street of the Lower Ninth Ward. Hope is a sunlit morning drive over placid Lake Pontchartrain, a reverie in blue on blue, where the road and water run on forever. It is talk about the weather over fried chicken and sweet potatoes. It is purple, gold, and green Mardi Gras beads draped over you and your friends as you drink Dr. Pepper and chat about nothing important. It is the unexpected feast held in your honor by a people thankful for your being there no matter what you did or didn't do to raise their wrecked or razed homes. It is the conviction that God is extravagant love and desire, and as such this God has neither the time nor the patience for sad-eyed frugality. It is a joyful and noisy and mirthfully indiscreet Yes and Amen to a resurrection that fills the eyes, ears, and stomach as much as it soothes the worried mind.

Music, stories, and hope. That's Louisiana, and that's New Orleans.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong ... this feeling's gettin stronger
The longer I stay away
Miss them moss-covered vines ... the tall sugar pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi ... hurryin' into spring

Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans"

Return of the seminarians

It felt good to be in my own bed last night. My own space. This morning marked the beginning of my normal daily routine. I spoke to a woman at the bus stop today about my experience in NOLA. First, it's odd enough to get into a real conversation with someone at the bus stop at Kenmore station. Second, I didn't realize how powerful the experience had been while I was living it. My eyes got misty as I spoke of the people who still needed help. However, by the time we parted from the 57, she was moved to speak to her congregation about help they could provide. They had been giving money, but she understood that money is only one way to help, and she wanted to do more.

Speaking to my own congregation was a wonderful outlet for me. I had no idea what I was going to say, and I still don't know exactly what I said. The Spirit of the Lord must have been present at that moment. There is nothing else that could explain it. I spoke honestly and faithfully about what I had seen, heard and felt. I know my life has been transformed because I met people who have faith the size of a mustard seed, and I know that because I saw them move mountains. Not physical mountains, like the Rockies, but emotional barriers and tapped into the hearts of those who met them. I saw how, in their darkest hour, they fully relied on God, and the FROG idea will forever be transformed for me.

My faith can not stay the same it was before I left. I see it most clearly as I try to write a sermon for Feb 17th. I started working on it before I left, and I dabbled here and there on the trip. Now that I've returned home, it's changing again. We shall all be changed before the Lord, and His presence is ever with us. He speaks to us through the most unlikely of people and situations.