And I think about that word, love, how it is not just feeling compassion for people like Mack, but actually acting on behalf of Mack. And then I think of that word, justice, how it says that the work of justice is sometimes about the act of sorting out what belongs to whom, and returning it to them, and I’m wondering if this doesn’t sometimes mean helping to return a family’s home to them.
And I think to myself: I don’t know if it’s possible to go to New Orleans enough.
Rev. Nathan Detering
A Sermon for Mack, October 25, 2009
Why we go
Ever since the tragic floods in New Orleans in August and September 2005, when the levees failed to hold, when more than 1800 people lost their lives, when the help the survivors hoped for – prayed for – failed to arrive, when the injustices of the world were manifest in New Orleans – this American city of over a million people, a vibrant, alive city that was 80% flooded – ever since those terrible days of not being able to bear to watch the images on the TV screen, of not being able to NOT watch in disbelief and horror as people were turned away from help – at gunpoint – and from the days and months of families being torn from each other, of not knowing where or if loved ones were alive – ever since those terrible and tragic days our congregation has stood on the side of love, has given of itself, its time, its treasure, and its talent to helping our friends and neighbors of New Orleans rebuild their homes and their lives. And we have all returned home wondering if it is possible to go to New Orleans enough.
You can make a difference in someone’s life
If you are interested in learning more about our next trip, please contact Darrah Bryans at Communications@uuac.org.
What do we do there?
NOLA 1: March 2007. Our first trip, 18 months after the floods, when flood damage was still very evident, when most hospitals and schools were still closed, when many stores had not reopened. One sign of hope: the busiest businesses anywhere were Lowe’s and Home Depot.
We spent five days at Miss Orean’s home in the 7th Ward. Miss Orean is an 80-something widow who for 18 months had been living in a FEMA trailer. She and her family had evacuated to Houston. There had been four feet of standing water in her home for weeks, and the storm had torn off part of the roof, causing severe water damage in several rooms.
By the time we arrived, previous volunteers had gutted the home, so we could swing in to action. We replaced some damaged structure, insulated, hung dry wall, taped and mudded, sprayed a coat of primer throughout, rewired, replaced the kitchen counter, purchased paint and tile for some of the floors, replaced the floor in the entry including joists, arranged for a plumber and a roofer to do what we couldn’t, and more.
We also learned how to eat crawfish and other Cajun food. And we learned that the human spirit can rise above extreme hardship and tragedy.
NOLA 2: November 2007. We spent two days at Rev. Josephine Phillips’ Say the Word Pray the Word Mission Church in the 7th Ward, making it weather tight, priming the exterior, and insulating the entire building. Other volunteer groups followed, and now Rev. Josephine has a safe place where she ministers to her congregation and looks after the neighborhood children and homeless.
Then we spent four days at the home of Royce and Keena Williams in the 9th Ward, bringing their home from a gutted shell to ready for final plumbing and electrical. Royce worked alongside us every day, in the process learning new skills he would later teach others. We visited the Williams family the next year. It was so good to see this courageous family again, and to know that we played a small part in their renewal.
NOLA 3: April 2008. The first youth group trip.
Our first Youth Trip in 2008 was with a non-profit called Relief Spark. Relief Spark is a community-based volunteer organization that focuses on providing disaster relief to people and pets through an established mutual aid network.
Relief Spark provided our housing and our food. We stayed at a great place on St. Charles St. in the Garden District. We slept on cots, and it had a wonderful kitchen.
We had the opportunity to work with many non-profit groups that support the City of New Orleans and its community. Two of our five days were spent working at three different homes doing rebuilding work and yard clean up. We helped move a trailer full of disaster supplies from the Lower Ninth Ward to a storage facility. We provided lawn care through the St. Bernard Project, worked at the St. Bernard Animal Shelter caring for the animals that day, and helped finish the walls in one of the pet shelter buildings.
In Old Gentilly we took an unforgettable tour of a school and housing that had not been touched since the storm. We were instrumental in causing the rescue of some dogs and pups and we have stayed in touch with one of the adopting families. On the last day we worked with a non-profit named Green Light New Orleans, changing old incandescent light bulbs to CFL bulbs.
NOLA 4: November 2008. Miss Ifama Arsan’s home over in Algiers was not in a flooded area, but a large portion of her roof had blown off during Katrina, allowing severe wind and water damage. After making the house weather tight, and insulating, rewiring, dry walling, plastering, and painting several rooms, we were able to move Ifama back into her home from the FEMA trailer in her back yard where she had been living for three years.
NOLA 5: April 2009. For NOLA 5, we stayed at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (FUUNO), and the youth group from the Follen UU Church in Lexington, MA was with us. It was convenient to be at FUUNO, as the Volunteer Center provides and prepares nearly all the meals.
With so many of us staying at FUUNO, it was a very different trip from NOLA 3. We worked on one project the entire week, finishing up some work on Miss Ifama’s home, where NOLA 4 had been in November 2008. We power-washed, repaired, or replaced the clapboards and painted the exterior of her home. It was very rewarding to re-connect with Ifama and finish the work already started there by our church.
NOLA 6: November 2009. Our volunteers of NOLA 1, 2, 4, and 6 have all stayed at the volunteer center at First UU of New Orleans (FUUNO) in the Uptown area of New Orleans. Like much of the city, FUUNO was flooded – there had been five feet of standing water in the sanctuary for weeks after the levees failed. FUUNO lost its parquet floor, the organ, piano, pews, hymnals, classroom materials and facilities, a commercial kitchen that had fed the homeless, and much more. We spent three days working there, bringing nearly to completion a new tile floor in the sanctuary – with labyrinth! and we dry walled, plastered, painted, made repairs, and much more.
Then we moved to the home of April Williams, in the 9th Ward, where we spent another three days doing what we do. In three days 20 people can rebuild a house, and we took April’s home from a gutted shell to ready for final electrical and plumbing.
NOLA 7: April 2010.
NOLA 9: April 2011.
Are you ready to go, but wonder what you could do?
You can do a lot. We work long days, usually from Sunday through Friday. If you can swing a hammer, push a paint brush, or sweep a floor, you are fit enough. We are blessed to have the talent, time, and commitment of Terry Combs, who is a general contractor. Before each trip Terry works with our contacts in NOLA to get us a project where we can be most effective.
At the job site Terry makes sure we all have jobs, and he teaches us how to do what needs to be done. Dave “Sparky” Hatton, a licensed electrician, has been on every NOLA trip, and keeps things lit up.
Each trip includes a couple of carpenters, several skilled homeowners, and of course about half the team brings only enthusiasm and willing hearts. For more information, speak to any of us, or contact Darrah Bryans at Communications@uuac.org.
What else can YOU do to support UUAC in rebuilding NOLA?
There are many ways that people can participate besides actually going to New Orleans. You can drive people to the airport and/or pick them up at the end of the week. You can water their plants while they are gone. You can donate Frequent Flier miles or rental car credits. You can buy gift cards for Home Depot, or Lowes, or Whole Foods. And you can dig deep when the plate is passed during worship just before each NOLA trip.
We learn so much more than we teach; we get so much more than we give. We learned about brokenness: Broken things, houses, people’s spirits, corrupt and incompetent leadership, insufficient nationwide compassion, and the broken system that produces racist policies and an unfair distribution of wealth.
We learned about wholeness: The goodness and graciousness of Ifama and our other homeowners, the commitment and generosity of thousands of volunteers who’ve made their way down to help, the glorious Southern cultures and climate that thrive despite it all, and the support and affection within our group.
The most compelling thing we learned about is repair and healing. We approached the broken things with sorrow but also with energy and enthusiasm. Embedded in our actions themselves is the transformative, healing power of love.
We made a beautiful chalice of broken things. We made a beautiful home from ruined spaces. We made ourselves more whole by the actual pounding and painting and sweating and sanding and carrying. And sometimes crying.
Ifama taught us by her warm embrace that, when things are lost and patterns are broken, healing and new beauty become possible.