Shrimp Boil!

October 30, 2007

I had a beautiful small world moment tonight at a shrimp boil at John Calvin Presbyterian out in Metairie, just west of here.  It wasn’t exactly a traditional Louisiana shrimp boil, I must admit.  The volunteer group from Central Presbyterian in Atlanta staying at John Calvin wanted to meet the staff at Project Homecoming and the long term volunteers so a few of their guys who could cook fired up a boil.  They wanted to… thank us, find out how we were doing, find out what we needed, find out how to build on the work they do this week, make sure the work this week isn’t in vain.  They were trying to be more than a drop in the bucket.  175,000 homes got lost in the storm and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Mississippi, New Orleans, and the Rita-affected area have rebuilt, are you ready, 82 homes.  82 homes.  That’s a drop in the bucket.  These folks see how much work there is to do and how long we have to be committed to the area and they wanted to be involved.  So we all mingled and talked about how we’re doing.  There were some people who lost their houses, some staff, some volunteers, the church group, and even a guy from Alicante, Spain who was just rolling through town for a few days.  A few people cried.  A lot of people spoke up.  I left with a feeling that a lot of people were really inspired.  In one room, there were people from all over the country, brought together by a commitment to the coast.

In public school growing up, my peers were decided by geography, i.e. we lived near each other.  In university, my peers were decided by similar intellectual interests and roughly consistent educational pursuits.  On the coast, my peers are decided by the fact that everyone here listened to a call.  The church groups, the long term volunteers, the staffers; everyone felt a pull to this area and listened to it.  We work together all day, we often hang out on weekends and at night; we’re quickly becoming family.  And that’s encouraging, that there’s this family of people from around the world all here working and listening to that call in this city.

Dabbling in Voodoo

October 30, 2007

Some folks at Project Homecoming thought it’d be a pretty good idea to get a non-profit booth at the Voodoo Music Experience, this big music festival in town this past weekend.  Five or so of us volunteered to work pretty much the whole weekend, Friday morning through Sunday evening.  The booth was fairly cheap and gave us a chance to spread the word on what we were up to.  We also took donations and signed up volunteers to work on the cluster house, that is, a house that local churches and the community works on on Saturdays.  The weekend was a real blessing.  We were in a row with all the other non-profits and got to hang out with all these folks doing rebuild or community organizing or even the radical direct action protest people.  Some people recognized our shirts and came up to us to tell us that they had seen us in their neighborhood and didn’t know who we were.  So many locals thanked us for coming down and for rebuilding and out-of-towners in town for the festival were hopefully inspired to uproot as some of us did.  We made some money, thanks to Project Homecoming’s resident hustler, Scott.  We got some volunteers signed up.  And, we all got weekend passes to a premier music festival.

I got to see lots of acts I’d always wanted to see, like Toots & the Maytals, Common and Wilco, as well as some big local acts like Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Singers, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  Plus, I saw some [for better or worse] cultural icons Rage Against the Machine and the Smashing Pumpkins.  A general trend I found was that acts were really wanting to impress the musically discerning New Orleanian audience.  While watching Preservation Hall, I had my first New Orleanian moment.  They were playing their brass and it was overwhelmingly beautiful.  I was dancing tentatively, self-consciously, alone, when I felt compelled by the “Laissez les bon temps roulez” spirit of the city.  I was not letting the bon temps roulez, so I just let myself go and danced the way I wanted to, regardless of what it looked like (of course, those of you who have seen me dance know that my reservations are completely unfounded).  I clapped, I jumped, I stomped; it was liberating for my WASPy Presbyterian self to get Pentecostal for a hot second and feel the spirit of New Orleans jazz.

It was in that moment, and over this weekend, that I realized this city has grabbed me and it’s not letting go.  This city is like the dry bones in the valley in Ezekiel 37.  Verse 3 asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  The answer: “O sovereign Lord, you alone know.”  Sure, only God knows, but I saw these bones living this weekend.

The ghost[s] in my backyard

October 24, 2007

New Orleans is famous for its mystery and intrigue. This is a well-known New Orleanian trope but one I largely ignored before I left and for some time after I arrived. Even after our next door neighbor introduced herself and made it known that she was pagan and did rituals in the backyard, I wasn’t too concerned. Perhaps especially after meeting Dorothy, I thought even less about spirits and that sort of stuff because she’s so normal and that whole mystical thing lost all of its mystique. She told us that she blessed the backyard prior to our arrival and that we didn’t need to worry about any bad spirits or bad vibes. This was a kind gesture and we all appreciated it. Caitlin even brought her back some New Mexican sage when we were out at Ghost Ranch so that she could bless whatever else she wanted.

All this being said, our backyard is CREEPY. Dorothy’s four stumps where she did her rituals are there, representing the cardinal directions. I know this means nothing at all, they’re just four stumps, and I’m an open-minded guy. It’s just another religion’s communion table, right? But combine the stumps with the overgrowth, the empty lot next door, and the abandoned house and shed directly behind us, and you’ve got a creepy backyard!

We had a dryer donated to us by Gentilly Presbyterian. Very generous. The problem is it didn’t come with accouterments. So I went to Home Depot and got some. Our laundry room is outside the house, an enclosed room off the back porch. In order to attach the fixtures, I needed some wrenches from work. I borrowed two wrenches today but had to drive my co-worker David to pick up his truck right after work. Then, we had a fellowship dinner at Lakeview Presbyterian. The girls are at Target and I came home by myself. I thought to myself, “You’ve got the wrenches, it’ll only take a second, why don’t you install the dryer?” I walked to the back room with my wrenches, turned on the outside light, and opened the back door. Just at that moment, the wind gusted up and the trees outside shook their branches at me. This cast scary shadows in the windows of the abandoned house and the wind blew in at me, chilling me to the bone.

Of course, I experienced all of this in the 1/2 second it took me to say “Screw this” and close the door. So now I’m sitting in our front room watching the baseball and trying not to feel like an idiot for being afraid of my backyard.

Finally, an editorial note regarding the baseball. Is anyone else as bored as I am with this whole “Red Sox Nation” nonsense? I’ve never seen a [North American] sports team this good that bored me this much. May I add that Red Sox fans (barring my dear friend Anne Lange) are the most obnoxious in all of [North American] sports?* Long live the Colorado Rockies.

*I say North American because I will concede that the English soccer team Chelsea FC were as boring (when they were good) and its fans remain as obnoxious.

How can a world so small be so hard to conquer?

October 23, 2007

Today was hands down the hardest day since I’ve arrived.  After stopping at the office to confirm my job for the day, I headed off to our gutting job on Republic Street.  I’m going down Franklin and a man jumps out at me and shouts at me to pull over.  I see he is a police officer and that I’ve completely forgotten to slow down for the school zone, not that there was a sign bigger than my laptop to remind me.  I tell him I’m new in town, volunteering, didn’t mean to and would never ever do it again.  He wasn’t having it, wrote me a speeding ticket (33 in a 20), and sent me on my way.  Seeing that I was not going to get out of the ticket, I used my remaining energy to make the officer feel small.  God gave me a quick mouth and I used it.  I now regret what I said to the officer but at the time, it made me feel so much better.  So I’m looking at a big fine but I don’t know how much it is yet because of the RIDICULOUS city in which I live.

I arrived at the gut job and saw that we had a big job ahead of us.  The bottom floor had a back room added on after original construction which didn’t have a functioning roof.  So every rain storm including and since Katrina just came right on.  Did I mention the floor was carpet?  Plus, we had a fridge upstairs that hadn’t been open since Katrina rolled through town.  The group from Oregon arrived and we got things going.  They were a well-oiled machine and the woman who would be moving into the house, Miss Warren, paid us lots of visits to make sure we were well.  Miss Warren is a sweet old lady and she kept telling us how she had been praying to God for us to show up.  We hear this a lot, about people getting really desperate just before a group shows up to get the house going.  That was a blessing to hear.

The group made friends with a lot of the neighbors who were all really appreciative of the fact that we were helping the neighborhood come back.  I’ve noticed this, too, that neighbors aren’t jealous of the work our clients are getting.  99 times out of 100, they’re thrilled to have the neighborhood back.  I think the group is going to bring an elderly woman across the street some groceries.  These groups really sink their teeth into the spirit of what they’re doing, not just the work itself.

Then, a flurry of activity.  A couple, John and… I want to say Rhonda but that’s wrong, showed up to the site, asking if they could take away the fridge and the other appliances to sell for scrap.  We discover that they’re homeless and live in their pick-up truck, packed sky high with stuff.  They looked like temporally displaced Steinbeck characters.  A couple of my muscley guys  and John were getting the fridge down the front stairs when we all get a really strong gas smell.  We boogied out of the house and called the fire department, who had already been to the block to take an elderly woman to the hospital.  The whole block stunk like gas, everywhere you went.  They arrived and I showed them the gas lines in the house.  A hot water heater and a furnace upstairs still had the gas line open but the line to the house was closed so there was only residual gas in the line.  It wasn’t enough to stink up the house, let alone a block in any direction.  Then, one of the firemen got on his belly and said, “The smell is coming from the sewer!”  We all get down in front of it and agree; it’s gasoline running through the sewer.  We figured that someone was working on a car and washed some gas down the sewer and it just stunk up the neighborhood.  Our homeless friends loaded up and we told them to come back Thursday for the hot water heater and anything else we could muster up.

On my way home, I stopped for gas and had a small world moment.   I was filling up when a guy came up to me and asked for $.50.  I had some in my ashtray so I told him to just follow me around the car.  He saw my license plate and said, “Pennsylvania, huh?  Where you from?  You know West Chester?”  At this point, I’m thinking, “Who is this?  How does he know I’m from West Chester?  Get out of this situation.”  So I say, “Yeah, I’m from West Chester; how do you know it?”  He used to be a migrant worker picking mushrooms in Kennett Square and he came down south for the work.  The cold weather has been putting a damper on him getting jobs, as has the fact that he hurt his hand.  So now no one wants to hire him for day labor.

Lots of hard lessons today that I didn’t really want to learn but I’m glad I did.  Or I will be.

  1. Just because I’m volunteering doesn’t mean I get to be self-righteous to a cop who wrote me a ticket for something I absolutely did.
  2. I do indeed have a new source of money stress but I’m not carting away refrigerators and driers to sell them for scrap.  Keep some perspective, Andy.

The gutting group is building a playground tomorrow so I get to do more rebuilding tomorrow.  Gutting is great when you need to get your frustrations out but it’s hard when you discover clothes in the closet.  We’re back on the gut Thursday and I’ll be ready to go back then.  But for tomorrow, bring on the painting or drywalling.

My first home dedication

October 22, 2007

It’s a Project Homecoming tradition that whenever we finish a house, there’s a dedication ceremony to formally welcome the family back to their home.  We dedicated Rudolph and Carol’s home on Friday, the first ceremony since I’ve been here.  A volunteer group from Denver was there, all the Project Homecoming staff, and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Advisory Committee was in town to tour all the work along the coast.  Carol’s two sisters were there as well as Rudolph and Carol, of course.

As you could probably guess, this was a seriously moving occasion.  Rudolph and Carol were absolutely beaming the whole time, so proud and joyful to be back in a home of their own.  Churches around the country sponsored the home and sent gifts and greetings which the staff presented to Rudolph and Carol.  Jean-Marie, the coordinator of Project Homecoming, shared some reflections as did the head of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  Then, the family told some stories and shared what it meant to them to be back in their home.  We closed with the group singing Amazing Grace a cappella.  We did the four verses on the sheet and everyone thought it was over.  There was a moment before Rudolph started singing “Thank God” to the tune of Amazing Grace.  No other words, just “Thank God.”  We caught on and soon the whole room was singing along.

Just before we ended the ceremony to have some refreshments and tour the house, Rudolph made an announcement: “If you’re ever in the area and can stop by, do.  If you need safe haven, if you need a cold drink, if you need to rest, if you need food, it’s here.  This home is your home for as long as we live here.”  I think Rudolph and Carol were sad to see everyone leave.  They were obviously over the moon to be back in their home but it was a hard moment to leave there knowing that we wouldn’t be back to work.  We would be back to take Rudolph up on his offer, but the relationship is different.  Where before, we were the folks helping them move back in their home, we’re now… I don’t know what we are.  I promised Rudolph I’d be back when I was working in the neighborhood.  There was this sense of accomplishment but also the lingering question, “Where do we go from here?”  I wonder how the relationships we build with homeowners will be maintained now that some homes are occupied again.  I can already tell that we go through so much together and I feel like we should build on that, but I’m not sure how.

Good ol’ volunteers

October 22, 2007

Today was the start of my third week of volunteers.  I had a group from Ambler, PA that first week, which was nice.  They arrived just after the Phillies were eliminated from the playoffs so we commiserated and then gutted a house to feel better.  Then, we went on to do some drywall finishing at another house.  It’s a process called mudding, meaning after you hang the drywall, you put up this compound that creates a seal and hides the seam.  Doing this enables you to paint it without a visible seam.  It’s a hard thing and I nearly had a mutiny on my hands.  But they learned it quickly and had a good week.

Last week, a group from Chippewa Falls, WI came.  We did drywall finishing Monday through Wednesday and then they got to prep and paint on Thursday and Friday.  We were working on a house in New Orleans East where an elder at my church lived until the storm.  He’s a cute old man and paid the group lots of visits, which they loved.  Groups really seem to love hearing storm stories from the homeowners and it’s really beautiful to watch the group connect to the person who survived the storm.  Then, they can go back to where they live and be a witness for that person.  I just know that in Chippewa Falls, WI right now, someone is telling Feltus’ story.  It’s great to watch a story disseminate and know it’s going places.

And this week, I’ve got a group from Presbytery of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington.  We did a gut this morning and have another tomorrow.  They’re building a playground on Wednesday and the rest of the week is gonna get played by ear.

That first week, I didn’t know the answers to any questions.  It was frustrating.  Two weeks to the day after that crummy Monday, I’ve got more answers and I’m feeling a lot more confident in my job.  I’m not bothering my boss nearly as much over the phone and I have a bigger picture of what’s supposed to be happening.  Pray that I continue to learn a lot and communicate that to the groups.  These groups have been such a blessing.

A Case of the Mondays

October 22, 2007

Today was a difficult day at Project Homecoming.  This week, we’ve got groups from what feels like every state in the union totaling approximately 110 volunteers.  This is wonderful, of course, that people are still coming to the coast in big numbers.  What is not so wonderful is that 110 volunteers requires lots of coordination and cooperation.  There was lots of coordination and planning, not a lot of cooperation.  The weather was our main culprit.

I arrived at the office to find out where I’d be and who with.  I was with 11 people from all over the Presbytery of the Cascades in Oregon and S. Washington and our job was to gut a home in Chalmette.  Mark, my boss, gave me fair warning: it’s a ghost town.  In order to get out to Chalmette from the office, one has to drive by what I think is the most haunting site in all of New Orleans: a Six Flags amusement park, completely abandoned in the middle of a dead swamp.  The roller coasters, the ferris wheel, it’s all still there but without a soul in site.  And the swamp it’s in sustained salt damage from the Gulf in the storm so that all the trees are dead.  It was a chilling precursor to the neighborhood where we were gutting.

There was the house we were gutting.  Then, next door on one side, nothing but a slab.  The other side, a condemned house with another two slabs next to that.  Across the street, a slab.  All these slabs used to be houses.  I don’t think it would’ve been so affecting if the sun was shining but as it was, with it pouring rain and water rising everywhere, I couldn’t help but think about when the storm hit.  All these people watching the water rise, knowing they couldn’t do anything at all.

We sent the volunteers home early and then had a meeting about how to run the rest of the week.  I’ve got a gut tomorrow that features a refrigerator that hasn’t been opened since the storm.  Wish me luck!

Compassion Fatigue

October 21, 2007

Last Friday, the Executive Presbyter, Alan Cutter, gave the new Presbytery employees a seminar on compassion fatigue. It was mostly us YAVs but there were a few new long-term volunteers. Cutter is a Vietnam veteran who saw so many of his compatriots deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and who struggled with his own addiction and anger. He put together this presentation that is often delivered to veterans’ groups but he doctored it slightly for us disaster recovery people. He started by affirming that the Gulf Coast is akin to a combat zone and that we will indeed experience many of the same kind of traumas. So he defined trauma and told how one gets post-traumatic stress disorder. One of his slides was a chart of ‘F’s, all of them natural human responses to stress and trauma. The first four are well-known in psychological circles and they are: Fight, Flight, Feed and, duly modified for church purposes, Make Love. He gave the example of getting on an airplane and flying somewhere. Sitting inside an aluminum tube going hundreds of miles per hour at 35,000 feet is a trauma; we’ve gotten somewhat used to it, but it’s still a trauma. So the airlines have to satisfy one of those four responses. Three of them are impossible (some given space constraints, others not), hence passengers are fed. Cutter included a dozen or so other ‘F’s that people resort to, like fifth (that is, denial or addiction) or forget. These ‘F’s are often employed by “survivors” of trauma.

Instead of just surviving trauma, we’re meant to learn from it and then grow out of it. So the rest of the compassion fatigue workshop was on growing out of surviving and into being a witness. That is, being open about your trauma, dealing with it, learning from it, and also teaching others. Being in this hurricane zone is very difficult but this compassion fatigue session was engrossing and helpful. I came out of it with a lot of motivation for being a witness for the coast, for practicing self-care and keeping boundaries between work, rest and play.

God’s covenant with us

October 1, 2007

I thought I’d share this brief story from church yesterday.  We worshiped at First Presbyterian, which is right down the road from us.  One of our number, Leanna, is actually an intern there for the year and just started today.  But the story in question happened during the children’s sermon.

So all the kids went up to the front of the church and gathered on the steps leading up to the pulpit and such like.  The lady doing the sermon told the kids she was going to tell them a story and did: the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood that covered the Earth, killing everything except Noah and his family and the animals he kept.  She got to the end, the bit about how God promised Noah that he would never do this to the Earth again and used it to illustrate how God loves us no matter what, whether we’re glad or sad or whatever.  You know, children’s sermon stuff.  But then she added this: “Now we had a big flood in our city, didn’t we?  But that wasn’t God’s flood.  That was a human error flood.  God hasn’t broken His covenant with us.”

The storm and its aftermath is everywhere you look and in every conversation.  I wasn’t here before the storm but it’s so apparent to me that the storm changed everybody and everything.  The children’s sermon this Sunday inspired me and saddened me at the same time.  Inspiring because people still have faith that God is going to answer their prayers and help them fix their city.  Sad because so many folks turned their backs on this city and sometimes it has to feel like God did, too, I don’t know.  I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting faith here, where one expects everything and nothing and yet maintains a good, or at least humorous, outlook.  This is an interesting place.

I have a real-life job

September 30, 2007

Those of you who know me must be shocked to see that but I started on Friday.  Even more shocking, I think I’m good at it!   Let’s recap.

Since I arrived in New Orleans on September 4, I’ve been in various states of orientation here.  First in our community, then in the Project Homecoming office where I’ll be working.  All eight of us flew to New Mexico on Sunday for a five-day long orientation with all of the Young Adult Volunteers from around the country.  There were volunteers serving in Alaska, Seattle, Tucson, Hollywood, Nashville, Miami and us.  The theme of the week was “Pack nothing for the journey and listen along the way.”  Part of the program is vocational discernment, which is church talk for “What on Earth am I going to do with my life?”  The two big questions asked were, “What are you doing here?” and “Where are you going?”  Loaded question.

All of this took place in the friendly confines of the desert; all around us were beautiful mesas, canyons and rock formations.  I went on at least a hike a day.  It was a great introduction to the southwest.  Additionally, meeting the other YAVs from around the country was interesting.  Everyone brought different perspectives, from fairly conservative to committed relativism.  But they’re all admirable people, people I’m really thrilled to have in our widespread YAV community.

Another focus of the trip in Ghost Ranch was made very clear to me on Friday, the day after we got back: One’s YAV year is not a year out of one’s life, it’s very much a part of one’s life.  I showed up to work on Friday thinking it’d be a breeze, do some work for two hours or so and then get sent home.  Nope!  We drove around and saw the houses we’ll be working on and then worked with some volunteers on one of my colleague John’s houses.

Maybe I should explain this possession of houses thing.  There are five construction assistants working with Project Homecoming, four from Americorps and me.  Each of us has been assigned a specific task and the oversight of two homes each.  My specific task is to work with volunteer groups that come stay at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance village in Luling, Louisiana and I’m in charge of a house in New Orleans East and somewhere downtown.

So the volunteers we worked with were on one of John’s houses in New Orleans East.  They were doing some finishing work and John and I worked on some electrical stuff.  Then we went to a house in the Lower Ninth that’s in a way sponsored by locals who work on it in their free time and on Saturdays.

All told, I’m very glad for the trip to New Mexico and to finally be starting work.  All that orientation was starting to get to me.  Being in creation and in the company of God and really fascinating people was a great segue into the tough but rewarding year ahead.