It’s the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating hit on the city of New Orleans. I can remember when I first heard the news, and I remember the news kept getting worse and worse as the days wore on. I was safely at home in Indianapolis where it’s tornadoes that cause destruction. What did I know about hurricanes?
All we knew to do at the time at church was to pray, and we did. But soon after that, we began learning about our denomination’s efforts to get volunteers there to help in the relief effort. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) called first responders in those early weeks, and then the DOC began establishing mission stations in local churches for an even greater and sustained effort.
At first I couldn’t imagine that my church could participate. We were small and (mostly) old and still working through issues left behind because of bad behavior by their former pastor. The congregation was doing its best just to look out for themselves. They were just getting to know me as their new pastor.
On a personal note, David and I were just getting to know each other. We were in the very early days of a relationship that led to marriage in 2007. But at the time it was a relationship that required a commute of over 450 miles. We saw each other every other weekend, if that. After Katrina hit, David’s employer, New York State United Teachers, offered its employees a week of leave time to go to New Orleans to do relief work. He wanted to go.
In writing this I can see where this is going. But at the time I didn’t have a clue. Many things had to fall into place. First, the DOC effort was very conducive to smaller churches forming mission teams. And so, one Sunday morning, I stood in the pulpit and said: I want to go to New Orleans to do clean-up work, and I know a way to do that. Anybody want to come with me?
15 people did. 15 was a HUGE number for a church our size and state of mind. No one had ever been on a mission trip before. We had no idea what to expect. I’ll admit now how nervous I was. But we went anyway. We were there in January, 5 months post-hurricane on the first week people (even the homeowners) had been allowed back in to the lower 9th Ward.
Our instructions were simple. Just clear everything out and put it on the curb. And whatever you do — DO NOT OPEN THE REFRIGERATOR! Advice well taken. We worked all day clearing out a house that belonged to a 90 year old woman named Miss Winnie. She’d lived there with her invalid husband until he died just weeks before. One of the most difficult tasks of the day was breaking down the hospital bed that was in the living room. It was a tiny pink house with bars on the windows and paper snowflakes on the front window made by neighborhood school children who used to come over to Miss Winnie’s house after school. A skillet was still on the stove containing what would have been dinner that night had the storm not hit. The walls were covered with active mold, still wet to the touch. We found one wall where the marks were still visible showing how tall Miss Winnie’s children and grandchildren were every year. On that cold wet first day, Miss Winnie arrived for her first time back home since the storm hit. We wondered what she would think of these 15 strangers trashing everything she owned and carrying it to the curb.
One of the best pieces of advice I received before I made this trip — given by a much more experienced mission tripper — was this: The work you go to do is important. But the most important thing you will do is to listen to people’s stories. When people want to talk, put down your tools, and listen. Miss Winnie wanted to talk. She told of her harrowing experience of being rescued from her home, being rushed onto a helicopter at Tulane Medical Center, and of how God was with her every step, even with her legs as old as they were. As for how she felt about us tearing out her home, she gathered a few of her returning neighbors on the corner, and they held hands and prayed for us, thanking God for bringing us to Lizardi Street in the Lower 9th Ward that day.
I’d never been so dirty and I’ve not been that tired since. Even an air mattress with a slow leak and the sounds of 15 people snoring throughout the church could not not interfere with my sleep.
To this this day I remain extraordinarily touched by the hospitality shown to us at Grace Christian. Housing us. Allowing us their kitchen. Even coming and having dinner with us. And these folks had their own problems — their homes and jobs and schools had been affected too. And yet they were still able to reach out to us. That’s church at its finest.
David and I went back on two more trips, and each one had its own set of memories from the work that we did and the people we met and those who worked alongside us. I’m grateful for this 10th anniversary that is bringing those memories back in a rush. I’m grateful for the progress, for the rebuilding and resettling, but I’m also praying for those who are still without homes or jobs. For those who left and are struggling in new places that still don’t feel like home.
One more personal note. Even in those first days and not being together often enough to suit us, David and I knew that we were extraordinarily blessed to have found each other again. (The first time was in 5th grade, and now it’s 40+ years later.) It wasn’t easy to figure out how to get that 450+ mile commute down to a manageable size. It took us a long while and it took me moving to Cleveland. But those are just details and we worked them out. We made a commitment to each other in those very early days that we would always do something that was beyond ourselves. It wasn’t enough that we were together, there was a big world out there. Our first venture into that big world together was New Orleans. We did what we could, and others — thousands of others — followed and kept the work going.
It’s really true what they say. For all that we were able to do, we received far more in return.
Pastor. Parent. Activist.