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.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Miss Ida

I write this after driving through some of the thickest fog I have ever seen anywhere, so I'm a little pumped up on caffeine and adrenaline. Today we began work on a Katrina home. Miss Ida did not wait out the storm and surge in her home like other people we have met along the way, but she too has an amazing story of survival to tell. She and her parents, along with her daughter left for Jackson, MS on Sunday. Katrina made landfall on Monday.

Both of Ida's parents have medical problems. Her father has been battling cancer for some time. Her mother has a myriad of health concerns that have her confined to a scooter/wheelchair. It was for those reasons that Ida and her daughter went to Jackson while her husband stayed behind. On Wednesday, Ida's brother managed to get back into Slidell even though people were not being allowed in. Ida's husband was well, but the house was under feet, not inches, of water and debris including mud. Her husband had been injured during that time, but it didn't cause concern for anyone. On Thursday, her husband was found dead a block and a half away from their home. Ida said the coroner told her that her husband most likely knew something wasn't right and went to seek help but wasn't able to make it. Ida takes comfort in knowing that she was able to recover the body for a funeral and that he didn't drown or suffer.

What struck me about her story is that I don't know her husband's name. I know the names of all the other members of her family, and I addressed them by such when we met them. (Her mother is still in the hospital, but she has been removed from the ventilator and is doing well.) Ida never never seemed to show any outward emotion as she told me the story about her husband, but she choked up as she told me about the transitions and life changes her daughter has been through and struggles with today. Her fears with starting a new school and not wanting to leave her mother's sight. It has become better now that she's back in her hometown and among her friends, but she's still missing a part that makes it home - her dad. I wonder if this is how Ida copes with the day to day life that needs to be done now. I think about her as I write this. Did talking with me about this stir things up that will make tonight more difficult, or did it provide a sense of comfort to have a willing ear for her story? I will probably never know because it's not something I can ask her. It seems to personal to ask about that.

I can say that she is grateful to the people who come to volunteer to help those they don't know. She went straight to the store to pick up ice and soda to provide for us. I've learned not to refute those offers. It's more than politeness - it's an opportunity to provide for others when that have not been in a position to do that before. It seems like a feeling of accomplishment, or getting back to normal, when they can provide for someone else. It's deeper, and I don't know how to describe it beyond that without becoming wordy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A tale of two cities...

I thought it might be nice to post a few of our pictures here.

Getting dirty

It feels good to take action. After all we have seen, it was good to pick up a hammer and begin destroying some of it away. Now, I know we weren't working on a Katrina building today (we worked on a building that UMCOR had been using that had a fire), but I went at it like had been damaged by the storm. I am stiff and sore after taking out screws, taking out nails, removing fiberglass and demolishing dry wall. (Drywall does not want to give to my demolishing will. In the end, it lost the fight.) The heat and humidity takes a toll on your body. It's hard not to let it take a toll on your spirit. The going seems so slow in the midst of it, but an hour later you can see the rest of the group through what used to be a wall. The sun shines through the place where the roof used to be. Rebuilding is ready to happen.
It was interesting to work on an UMCOR building. (Tomorrow we being working on Katrina houses doing more of what we did today.) While it wasn't what we came here to do, we came to Louisiana with the intention to do whatever we could, wherever we could. I felt like we had an opportunity to be a servant of the servants. These people had been taking care of those who lost their homes and so much more. Now they were in need, and we could provide assistance to them. This is what ministry is all about - not just mission. It's providing for a need and trusting that God is in control of what needs to happen. Not my will, but thine, be done. It's not easy, at first, to hand myself over completely to that trust, but it's getting better.

Impressions and Digressions

I am a few days behind on the blog. A little backtracking will be necessary at a later date to give you, the gracious reader, a daily chronicle of our activities. Until then, please accept these impressions, which I write hastily before fatigue renders me mute. Form an image, and offer a prayer or a smile or a laugh or a curse, but not a shrug:

The wilderness plains of the Lower Ninth Ward, and grassy, weedy fields where there used to be neighborhood blocks

An Upper Ninth Ward church being re-built, ready to be re-born, like the body of Jesus on Holy Saturday neither dead nor alive

The tent cities of homeless hurricane survivors encamped by Canal Street under Interstate 10

Food for the soul and pearls of great price at Christian Unity Baptist Church, and soul food at a seafood buffet hidden like a pearl in the West Bank

Duke Ellington and Cole Porter and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis jazzed and funked up on a sweet Sunday night on Frenchmen Street

The cafes and circuses of the French Quarter, kaleidoscope of class and kitsch, and the Superdome bathing in the colors of the season of Mardi Gras

Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters sit above New Orleans with endless expanse

Today's unmourned casualties of the hurricane, who continue to die of broken hearts in exile or be wounded by nightmares

The angry ministers of New Orleans whose love for their people is more fierce than the surging floodwaters of Katrina

The welcoming into New Orleans, their home, by people who do not take home for granted

Monday, January 7, 2008

One woman's story of survival

Yesterday we met Vera. A quiet, reserved and wildly funny woman. She sounds and looks like a woman full of wisdom, and when she speaks, it's time for you to listen. As I write this, I am trying to find the Time Magazine article she told me to seek. It's her own story and the story of those from her neighborhood. They couldn't leave when Katrina came, and they became even more stuck when the levees broke. The hurricane brought in water through the back, but the bursting of the levees brought it in through the front.
Now Vera's mother was in a wheelchair. Her mother was in water up to her chest. She never said it was the toxic floodwater, and I would have a hard time sleeping if I knew it had been. They just couldn't believe all the water that came in so fast and so quick. They managed to make it on to I-10, but she never said how. You see, this is a story where you just listen... you don't ask. Vera's on a Holy Mission - to let you know how God works in your life during the darkest moments to let you know He's still there - telling you how much He loves you.
Vera said it had been ages since she had seen stars like that. The filled the night sky like the Lord had put them there. She said that the words just came to her, "I am the light." God was letting her know that he had not left her there. Everyone shared what they had. Vera had filled a pillowcase with food, water, clothes and some other supplies so she had a little more to share. She said if someone said they had a cracker another person would shout out they had peanut butter. That was life on I-10 in the aftermath of Katrina. Vera also mentioned that she had found a dog, I think it was her neighbor's dog, all alone. She emptied out a bag to put the dog in because if (when) they were rescued the dog would have to remain hidden or it would have to be left behind. Everyone, person and animal, was a part of this community on the overpass of I-10.
Vera said she was in a house in Baton Rouge but it's not her home. She's still trying to get home, and I think that woman will either get there or die trying. She said she's just passing through right now, and it's evident to the listener that's how she deals with some of the frustration, anger, sadness, depression she feels and sees.
However, Vera, Gail and Diane are a force of nature all in their own. Each of them has a different story with amazingly similar undertones. They will get home; they will rebuild; they will create a community; they will not fail. They showed all of us such hospitality. It's moving to see people who are rebuilding everything in their lives share all they have with those who ask, "How can I help." These women put both silver coins in the coffer. The church they attend takes time to welcome those who are home or on their way home. I couldn't help but wonder if that's what heaven is like. "I'm not settled here yet, but Lord I'm on my way back." Then there is the applause... not thunderous but the beat of it stirs your heart.
Personally, I have to share my distant connection to this congregation. A congregation from my hometown area of Milwaukee, WI donated money for them to put in their elevator. They allowed people to do one more thing that brings them home. Everyone, I hope, has pride for the place from which they came. I have never been more proud of my roots than I was at that moment. There are so many stories to be told and shared. These are just a few of the beautiful ones. There are many that are not so beautiful, and both need to be shared. I think the hope lies with riding the crest of the beautiful moments and continuing to create them.

The link to the Time Magazine with Vera's neighbor is,16641,20050912,00.html

Friday, January 4, 2008

Settling Into Slidell

Our volunteer team has made it safely to Louisiana, thanks be to God. Our flight to New Orleans via Chicago was comfortable -- and while the view of frozen Lake Michigan from 30,000 feet was breathtaking, it was a pleasure to see all that icy whiteness disappear from the landscape as we jetted southward.

We are now settling in at the Christian Family Center of the First Presbyterian Church in Slidell. We're fortunate to have a full-service kitchen, refrigerator and pantry, washers and dryers, bathrooms and showers, and a common lounge for reflection and meditation. (I'm writing this from the computer in the lounge.) We're bunking with a volunteer team from Willamette University in Oregon that is also working with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission program to do home construction.

We'll be fixing most of our meals here at the church, but tonight we dined out locally at a very good Mexican restaurant and cantina (with live music). You can also be sure that we'll be delighting in some of New Orleans' fine cuisine during our excursions there.

Tomorrow it's on to New Orleans to meet with pastors involved with an interdenominational coalition of congregations called Churches Supporting Churches. The mission of this group is to promote "a comprehensive and just recovery strategy for the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Our focus is providing assistance to thirty-six hard-hit areas of New Orleans whose facilities were destroyed or seriously damaged by Hurricane Katrina." After a morning meeting with coalition pastors and their partners abroad, we will go on a guided tour of flood-damaged parts of the city with some ministers. We look forward to listening, learning, and being a loving presence with our sisters and brothers in the Spirit. In the evening we'll explore the cultural nightlife of New Orleans, taking in some good Cajun food and maybe a jazz band or blues combo. We'll have more than some company -- LSU and Ohio State football fans are flocking to Louisiana for the big bowl game (don't ask me which one -- all I know is that I was told to say "tiger bait" if I meet any LSU fans!).

Until tomorrow, be well in God's peace, and please continue to lend your prayers to our volunteers and the people we meet.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ready to Go

It is 12 degrees in Boston as I type this with my slightly chilled digits. The forecast says the high temperature in Slidell on Saturday will be 68, on Sunday it will reach 70, and on Monday it will climb to 73, saints be praised. If for no other reason than the change of climate, I am quite ready for this journey.

A good night's rest to all, and now it's on to Louisiana....

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Working for Workers' Rights in New Orleans

Our mission team is glad to be offering its amateur home-repair skills for free to the citizens of Slidell. But before our volunteers pick up their paintbrushes and take up their trowels, they will pause to reflect on the realities facing low-wage workers who have come to Louisiana to rebuild but struggle to make a living.

"It was ... with great sadness that I witnessed open and flagrant abuse of workers' rights when I began visiting New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina," said Ted Smukler, public policy director for Interfaith Worker Justice, in testimony on June 26 before the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee, which convened to evaluate the performance of the U.S. Department of Labor following Hurricane Katrina.

"After Katrina, immigrants rushed to New Orleans with the promise of good, well-paid work," Smukler said. "These workers were used and exploited, denied their legal wages, exposed to toxins without proper health and safety training and equipment, and lived in unspeakable squalor. Those without documents knew if they confronted their bosses or reported abuse to government agencies they could be deported. Meanwhile, the mainly African-American displaced workforce was excluded from possibilities of work due to lack of housing, schools, health care and appropriate job training."

Smukler expressed dismay that the federal Department of Labor, once renowned as a can-do agency committed to the improvement of workers' lives, was virtually unknown among the workers he surveyed. "Not one worker mentioned the DOL as either a source of information about workers' rights or as an agency to which one could file complaints."

In response to the widescale exploitation of laborers and neglect of state and federal labor laws, Interfaith Worker Justice has organized a worker center in New Orleans, one of 16 such groups it operates around the country to educate, organize, and mobilize workers and people of faith. The group also issued a report, "Working on Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans," which documents withheld wages and occupational safety and health hazards among a cross-section of African-American, Latino, white, and other workers.

But IWJ is hardly the only organization beating the path for social and economic justice. Along with workers and other policy advocates, Smukler testified with Saket Soni, lead organizer for the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. The mission of this center is to organize African-American and immigrant workers to ensure fair treatment of all laborers in the reconstruction of post-Katrina New Orleans. Our volunteer team will have the privilege of meeting with Soni on Saturday, Jan. 5, to learn more about issues of workers' rights in the ongoing reconstruction of the region.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Name of Our Blog

Why is our blog titled "Wading in the Water"? We have drawn our inspiration from a haunting spiritual, Scripture, and tradition.

Wade in the Water is a song of liberation in which "God's a-goin' to trouble the water" to bring about the release of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity. According to Owen Sound, Harriet Tubman sang this spiritual as a warning to runaway slaves. For oppressed peoples, it is a stirring call to faith in the face of fearful threats to the community. To "wade in the water" is to trust in a God who helps the people overcome obstacles to freedom and thwarts the plans of those who tyrannize the poor.

Water is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. In the biblical narrative of the Flood and the story of the Exodus, water is a source of life and the gravest threat to it. In the context of Christian baptism, immersion in water symbolizes a descent into death and ascent into new life. Where there is water, God's presence has always been near: In the Priestly account of creation, from the beginning "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2, NRSV). An Israelite hymn to the God who reigns over the storm, probably borrowed from the Canaanites, offers this praise: "The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters" (Psalms 29:3, NRSV).

Of course, religious symbols gain and lose meaning over history, and Hurricane Katrina has troubled the image of God troubling the water. What was a salvific event for the Israelites was anything but redemptive for the thousands of women, men, and children of the Gulf Coast caught in the deluge. If God's wind swept over the waters filling New Orleans like a bowl; if God's voice spoke when the levees broke; if God was thundering over the mighty waves of water that pulverized thousands of homes and drowned hundreds of people, then what does that say about God? Among other things, our mission team aims to reflect on the meaning of God "troubling the water" and what the call to "wade in the water" means after the devastation of the Gulf Coast.

For a moving rendition of "Wade in the Water," click here:

Greetings and Happy New Year

A brief hello to all of you who are chancing by this blog. We are a team of eleven from Boston University School of Theology journeying to Louisiana for nine days of mission in January. We are coming to rebuild homes in Slidell and hear the stories of survivors in New Orleans. We are coming to listen, pray, work, play, laugh, grieve, give, and receive. We are coming to learn justice and peace from those who have hungered and thirsted the most for righteousness, and we are coming to rejoice over the life that endures in a place where life had been destroyed. We are coming because the Spirit remains in New Orleans, Slidell, and all the communities of the Gulf Coast. I hope this website will become a rich record of our faith-filled experiences in Louisiana.

When I think about the journey coming up in less than three days, my heart begins to beat faster. I've never done any relief or mission work before. I've never been an adventurer or a traveler. I'm content to follow the Spirit when God's designs appear to be orderly, clear, and distinct. But when it comes to rebuilding communities in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, little has been orderly, clear, and distinct. How is God present in Louisiana at this moment for these beloved who have suffered so much? How has God been known (and unknown) in the trauma of Katrina? How may we be present to God with our hopes, doubts, desires, joys, anxieties, and anger? May God grant us the wisdom and vision to bear compassionate witness to the women, men, and children re-creating a community charged with your freedom and overflowing with your love, and give us the serenity, patience, and flexibility to participate in the work going on slowly and steadily under your watchful, benevolent eye.

Grace and peace to all of you, and pray for our volunteers and the people we will meet.