We spent the day today (a long one) more deeply connecting to the city of New Orleans--first with a bus tour to some of the parishes and neighborhoods most affected by hurricane Katrina. (This image shows where the flooding was the worst, and we saw most of these). We saw some of the flood damage, and the efforts to rebuild. We listened to leaders like Pastor Sean Anglim at First Grace United Methodist Church whose congregation was the result of a merger when two struggling churches whose buildings were damaged by the storm. Though they had been less than a mile apart for 100 years, they had never worked together. First UMC had been historically white, and Grace UMC had been historically black. In the conversations about working together someone asked a self awakening question: "Could we better bless our city together or separately?" When they took that question seriously, the began the process of becoming one congregation working together to make their community better. Inspiring.
After a trek around the city in which it was hard to take in all the hardship that people continue to endure so long after the storm, we enjoyed authentic New Orleans po-boys (mine was oyster, yum!) and then set out to the lower 9th ward to roll up our sleeves and do some hands on service.
It was close to 100° and at least 3000% humidity, but it felt good to actually do something constructive after seeing so much need. One topic of conversation among the folks working was "What good does a few hours of picking up trash or cutting grass actually do?". And it's true, our service sees pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of need--and perhaps might even be seen as patronizing by the folks who's neighborhood we invaded for a few hours before getting back on our air-conditioned busses. But the conversations we had around the value of this time were to frame it more in terms of participating in the Christian spiritual practice of service. It was one simple way to practice what is meant to be a lifelong spiritual activity--serving ones neighbor wherever one found one's self.
In fact, the entire week was set up to lead this community of future pastors through a time of practicing Christian disciplines that are connected to vocation and ministry. New Orleans became the context and the frame in which the students explored creating space to nurture and deepen their vocational discernment. We used as a tool the practices developed through FTE's Calling Congregations program--tools for opening up conversation, story telling and holy listening, reflecting theologically on our stories in light of God's story, and moving towards action, both individual and collective. Along with those came the spiritual disciplines of service, worship, prayer, fellowship, and shared meals (good ones at that!).
We ended the day with a spectacular crawfish feed and worship at All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center.
All Souls has also come to be known as St. Wallgreen's because this church was founded post-Katrina in a former Wallgreen's drug store that the chain decided was not worth rebuilding.
This seems to be the theme in much of the 9th ward and other of the hardest hit (and also the more impoverished) areas of the city--these areas which were impoverished before the storm are simply not worth rebuilding. But the residents of those communities, and the churches and other agencies working tirelessly to rebuild there, are telling a different story--a story where all of God's people are valued and where everyone's community is worthy of being cared for and rebuilt. Our tour guides shared with us some of the less well know issues that have gone along with the reconstruction--including demolition of homes that were not storm damaged to make room for the green space that is in the new city plan and what they called "disaster capitalism" a wave of folks who came (and continue to come) to New Orleans to make a buck off the disaster often at the expense of those with the least resources. It's clear that the work of rebuilding continues and will for a very long time, and that there are lingering issues of justice, racism, classism, and all that goes along with systemic oppression. There is much work that continues to be done.
Though today was exhausting and emotionally challenging, but as I debriefed with the students I was working with, I saw a great deal of hope in them. They were inspired by the people we met--people from churches and neighborhood groups who have overcome the differences that previously divided them in order to do the hard work that God has called them to do together for the benefit of one another and those in need. And as I listen to these young people and the hope they see in New Orleans, I am renewed in my hope for the Christian church. Through this time together with FTE these young people from a whole range of denominational and cultural backgrounds have also been practicing overcoming differences with one another, and are beginning the work of overcoming those differences so that they can work together for the benefit of the whole Church and the whole world.
(This blog post is second in a series. The next installment is here.)