I'm back at work after a long Christmas break. It was nice, but I was barely at home. I spent the first half of my break at my parent's house in Northern Minnesota. It's a beautiful retreat-type setting.
Then, I traveled to the Celebrate! event in New Orleans. Every year, Lutheran Student Movement has a gathering over Christmas break. Every four years the event goes ecumenical, so this year there were Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, UCC, and Disciples of Christ in addition to the Lutherans.
My official role was as an exhibitor for Lutherans Concerned/North America. I had a booth with information about sexuality and gender identity. I even recruited some new members of LC/NA! I was the only denominational organization that advocates for fuller inclusion of GLBTQA people in the life of the church, so I became a consultant to many of the other denominations.
I also participated in a good portion of the program. Because we were in New Orleans, we heard a lot of stories about evacuation, displacement and recovery. One jazz musician played a song that he composed to put his father to rest. Because of the difficulty with flooding and identifying the bodies, no one had a proper funeral, so he composed a song to help lay his father to rest.
The most powerful moment was when we took a bus tour of New Orleans. We had been walking around the French Quarter, and we could not tell that there was any damage. However, when you drive around the rest of the city (the ENTIRE rest of the city), you can see a water mark more than halfway up each building. We drove through an upscale neighborhood near a broken levee. Only a few houses were inhabited. Many were gutted. Every building had an X sprayed on the front. On the top quadrant of the X was the date when some group entered the house to search for bodies. At the bottom of the X was the number of bodies found within. Even in this upscale neighborhood, homes and businesses were obliterated.
We drove through the City Park. All the grass was dead and none of the trees had leaves. The soil is so contaminated that nothing can grow there.
Then we finally reached the Lower Ninth Ward, probably the most well-known neighborhood related to Katrina. The bus stopped at one point in the middle of an entire square mile that had NO standing buildings. All we could see was the remnant of streets and the foundations of houses. It was barren. One guide commented on how much better it was, 16 months later.
Even now, we were told that there are still houses that need to be gutted. We were told that you never open a refrigerator, because the food has been in there since August of 2005. It seems surreal at how slow this is all going.
The next day, we were supposed to do work projects. However, the weather turned bad. We had rain and tornado warnings. The streets were flooding from this heavy rain, so I can imagine what a hurricane could do. Only 150 of the 600 participants were able to do a service project. It was very frustrating for many students to see such destruction and not be able to do anything to help.
However, we learned that many of the victims are also very happy to be able to tell their story to a listening ear. We were thanked so much for being present and being willing to listen and help. If nothing else, this trip was an invitation to come back and do more.
It will take New Orleans 10-15 years to fully recover from Katrina (unless another hurricane intercedes). Even though the city has fallen off the front page (along with the rest of the Gulf Coast), it is a place to consider when you want to do a service project. The government has not been much help at all, so the residents are depending on charitable organizations to help.
The other sad fact is that only the richer folks are going to be able to return and rebuild. All the stores that were open were large national chains. Mom & Pop stores are not going to be able to re-open easily. This city could become a playground for the rich. Our help can make sure that there is economic diversity in New Orleans.
I was quite moved and shaken by my visit. I left frustrated. I want to figure out what else we can do. I encourage you all to go and visit and help as much or as little as you can.