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Sunday, April 27, 2008

We Can Make It On Broken Pieces

Report from New Orleans, March 2008

It began with a sermon by a guest preacher, Rev. Joe Howard, at the revival some members of the CBC work group attended at the St. John Baptist Church on Wednesday evening. Reflecting on the shipwreck Paul and other prisoners survived by floating to shore on pieces of their storm-ravaged ship (Acts 27:44), Howard drew a parallel between Paul’s experience and that of the residents of New Orleans who are attempting to recover from the “shipwreck” of Katrina. For those in our group who heard the sermon, the phrase "We can make it on broken pieces" shaped our experience in New Orleans and provided a realistic goal for our week of repairing houses.

There were certainly many broken pieces in New Orleans. Staying in a dormitory at the Hartzell United Methodist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward exposed us to these pieces in ways our earlier trip had not. The church was one of the few structures still standing and still occupied in a wasteland that stretched for blocks between the Intercoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal. As we walked through the neighborhood we passed an abandoned elementary school, a once-shaded basketball court, a playing field where lights on poles that were still standing pointed to a history of night games, a deserted pharmacy with an “open” sign still in the window, several abandoned churches, and piles of artifacts outside bulldozed homes that included a child’s pocketbook, Christmas decorations, and a muddy sneaker.

At one of the homes where members of our group made repairs, a tree still lay on the roof and buckets in a bedroom collected water from the hole it gouged in the ceiling. There were overgrown weeds outside and black mold inside and the owner, Debra, lived without hot water (the tank was stolen) and suffered from asthma and walking pneumonia.

We discovered, however, that some people are picking up the pieces. As a few of us arrived at St. John for a luncheon with Churches Supporting Churches pastors, we came upon the executive committee of CSC preparing a grant proposal for construction of homes in one of the 16-square-block areas they are committed to rebuild. Later in the week we met with Hezekiah Brinson, the music coordinator at St. John Baptist; Rev. Boutté; Dorothy Waters, chair of St. John’s education committee; and Jacqueline Robinson, president of the choir, to plan an after-school music program for at-risk youth.

Some of us also attended a meeting of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association where committee chairs reported on houses that are being rebuilt, a community garden project, crime prevention activities, and Quick Start grants. The day before, we cut lawns and weeded lots in an adjoining neighborhood. The city has the right to tear down any homes where the grass has not been cut, even though the owners are still trying to find a way to return to the city from the places they were sent following the storm. The Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA) administers a volunteer landscape program to save these homes.

The builders in our group literally picked up the pieces for two members of St. John Baptist. Brenda received a new roof that allowed her to begin replacing wall board inside. Debra’s roof was patched, the damaged room cleaned, and the outside landscaped. Meanwhile, Jeff Kimsey-Carroll videotaped both the devastation and the repairs for a DVD to be produced by the Baptist Peace Fellowship that will draw connections between the problems in New Orleans and similar problems, often on a smaller scale, faced in many communities today.

As we reflected on our experience over pizza the last night in New Orleans, we realized that we have sometimes bought into the image that is so popular among planners in this devastated city: the blank slate that erases the history of peoples’ lives and institutions and provides a clean palette for educators, developers, and politicians to impose their idealistic (or materialistic) plans on a desperate population, reaping individual fame and fortune. Instead, we can help the people we have met use the broken pieces to shape for themselves a community that sustains their physical and mental well-being. We pray that our brief visit contributed to this process.

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