One of the things that struck me in New Orleans was the very visible presence of cemeteries throughout the city. The shortest route between where we were staying and the conference events led through a cemetery, and so I walked through several times each day. In the places I have lived (Pacific Northwest and California) we choose remote places outside of the hustle and bustle of daily life to build our cemeteries. They are places to make a pilgrimage to on Memorial Day or other special days, but not part of the day to day life of most people. But in New Orleans, cemeteries seem to be everywhere. In part, they are simply more visible because (as was explained to me) if you try to burry someone "six feet under" you'll find water--so burials are done above ground. This leads to raised tombs and multi-story mausoleums. The grave sites are also very close together, making the cemeteries quite visible in neighborhoods--even when the cemetery is small (which many of them are). And yet, it seems like every neighborhood has a place to bury their dead--and there are some sections of town where there is an entire neighborhood of cemeteries. As I reflected on the graveyards and the struggles of the entire city, I was struck by the similarity in the appearance of the above ground tombs to the bare concrete pads of homes destroyed in Katrina. Like the tombs, these homesites are present and visible in every neighborhood, and bear constant witness to the reality of death and loss.
It seem as though--in contrast to most of American culture--there is something different about death in New Orleans. The tradition of the "second line" funeral procession--a joyous celebration with marching bands that follows the solemnities of funeral services--bears witness to this. Death and the dead are not sequestered away to romantic, wooded retreats, but are part of day to day life. In the aftermath of Katrina the reality of death is even more present--with the spray painted "X" marks of the search parties remaining on many of the homes noting how many dead were found in this particular house. The presence of destroyed homes and businesses reinforces this reality--as it's hard not to remember that many, many people lost their lives here.
And yet, the spirit of New Orleans is not one of hopelessness. You can hear in the stories of those who have been working for years on the efforts to rebuild that there continues to be a great deal of hope despite the hard realities that they have faced and continue to face. The people of New Orleans are finding strength to keep going and to re-create their lives and communities. And you can see and hear in the Christian communities that the resurrection of Jesus is not only a source of hope for the future, but the daily hope that they are working together to embody. The work of restoring neighborhoods, of cleaning up trash, of helping people and churches return to their homes, of supporting one another, and showing to the world that there is hope despite all appearances, that there is light even in the midst of deep darkness, and that there is profound worth in what seems so worthless--this is the work of resurrection. And thrust into the shared story of seeing their city brought to its knees by Katrina, the people of New Orleans have found connection to the resurrection story--as Christian communities are leading the way to not only restore hope, but to embody new life in visible, tangible, and transformative ways.
In my many walks through the cemetery, I noticed the abundance of flowers on the graves. Perhaps the constant presence of the dead is a reminder to those in the neighborhood to remember and celebrate life. Flowers in funerals and graveyards are meant to be symbols of resurrection--dead seeds that lie in the ground all winter that then burst forth with new life in spring bringing renewed beauty to an all-too-barren world. The image of New Orleans I carry back with me is one of these tombs/homesites full of blooming flowers--death and resurrection together, of crucified people drawing on their shared stories and shared pain to bring about real hope in the midst of hopelessness.
I struggle, as do many people in my generation who are involved in the Church, with moments of hopelessness about the possibility of transformation for this institution that seems so broken--that seems at times to be doing more harm than good, and often proclaiming anything but the Good News of Jesus. And yet, I continue to believe that God has chosen the Church to be a unique witness to resurrection in the world. But sometimes it's hard to see what God is doing, and hard to imagine how we Christians will be able to get over the petty bickering and side issues we spend so much time on and really focus on being God's people in the world for the sake of the world that God has created and loves so much.
One of the things I value about all my work with FTE over the years is that through these events and especially through the people I have met, I get to see and be a part of the Church that God is bringing into the world. It's a Church where we have found unity in Christ and are working to overcome those denominational and other issues that have divided us. It's a Church where we truly value where one another are coming from, and the unique gifts that each of us brings from our traditions and our unique stories. It's a Church where the Scriptures and the ancient spiritual practices (and some new ones too) create a community that nurtures the callings of all of God's people. It's a Church that intentionally cultivates leadership in young people, helps them notice their giftedness and their callings, and walks with them as the develop into those callings. It's a Church that makes a difference in the world and works for justice, that isn't afraid to confront racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and all the other systemic violence that affects all human endeavors. It's a Church that in word and deed bears witness to the power of resurrection, to the Good News of God's love that we are privileged to get to embody with and for one another. For a few days this week I've gotten to be immersed in this Church once again, to participate in the good work we share together, and to be blessed by the amazing young people God is raising out of this generation to lead the Church into the future God has in mind for us. As we are now scattered to the ends of the earth (well, ends of the United States anyhow) I find myself filled with hope that like New Orleans, we are rebuilding what has been torn down--and that the power of resurrection will continue to blossom and spread.