I’ve spent the last two days participating in JRC’s second congregational trip to New Orleans. We were last here in October 2007, when we spent of our time stripping the interiors of storm damaged houses in Gentilly. It’s been fascinating to observe the difference in the city since our last visit. While there are undeniable signs of improvement and rebirth, there are clearly some areas that continue to languish – and several aspects of the city’s comeback come with no small share of controversy. And of course, there is the BP spill: a fresh wave of anguish to this already tortured region.
We spent a good portion of our first day as the guests of St. John #5 Faith Church, who welcomed us with a heartfelt hospitality and a delicious home cooked meal. St. John’s is located in the 7th Ward, an area that was hit hard by Katrina but has received little of the publicity or attention that has been paid to neighborhoods such as the Lower 9th.
The 7th Ward is plagued by poverty, gangs and rising levels of HIV/AIDS – and in many ways St. John’s seems to be one of the few institutions actually fighting to bring stability and relief to the neighborhood. The church is led by Pastor Bruce Davenport (right), a joyful, deeply religious, profoundly beloved religious leader who is committed to helping the citizens of this community one member at a time.
As we shared dinner together, Pastor Bruce was unabashedly open about his own past of gang activity and drug abuse – as were the parishoners with whom we spoke. While the realities facing the members of this community are profoundly dire, we couldn’t help but be moved by their deep commitment to God, to one another, and to their home in the 7th Ward.
At the same time, however, it is clear that they harbor a justifiable resentment over the government’s abandonment of their community. It certainly appears that if not for churches like St. John’s, there would be little significant institutional support for the 7th Ward whatsoever.
Today we spent most of our day volunteering in the Lower 9th, where we’re seeing a significant change since our last visit. In 2007 this area looked washed clean away – a once densely populated neighborhood now reduced to concrete slab foundations and abandoned rotting homes.
Today, the Lower 9th is clearly on a rebound, thanks to efforts such as Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation, which is building new green homes for former residents. It’s a noble effort that hopes to have 150 new state of the art LEED certified Platinum homes built by the end of the year.
The homes are striking and eye-catching to be sure (see above) and there is apparently some controversy that they have not been built according to the architectural vernacular of the area. It’s also hard to imagine that this project can ever replace the enormity of what was lost in the Lower 9th. On the other hand, we’ve heard from more than one resident that every act of support and kindness is welcomed and appreciated, no matter what the complexities involved.
The fifteen participants of our delegation split into work teams and mine spent the better part of the afternoon today working in the garden of a Lower 9th resident named Veronica (top pic). She and her husband (who was paralyzed) were evacuated in advance of Katrina and ended up spending over a year in Shreveport, LA where their return to their home was repeated stymied by Kafka-esque red tape. (They were told by FEMA that they did not qualify for assistance because their home, which had been completely destroyed by flood water up to the roof, was not located in a “flood zone.”) After too many painful runarounds, they received some compensation and their home was rebuilt by their son.
Of course, the BP spill is on everyone’s mind now. The timing of this latest disaster is particularly cruel: just when the city seems to beginning to rebound (winning a Super Bowl, no less), here comes yet another catastrophic communal event. The region’s fishermen, who depend upon this time of year for their livelihood – and upon whom the area depends for a large portion of its economy – have been devastated by the spill. The palpable sense of betrayal and abandonment is all too familiar – and all too tragic.