Monday, July 27, 2009

Oh, my NOLA

I think it was New Orleans Square in Disneyland that first heightened my interest as a young child in visiting New Orleans. In high school I became a huge fan of both Louis Armstrong and Harry Connick, Jr., both New Orleans natives, and I fell in love with the infectiously whimsical sound of Dixieland jazz. As a teenager, I resolved that at some point in my life I would need to go straight to the source of my musical love and visit New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.
After Hurricane Katrina, I was overwhelmed by the images I saw on TV that showed a decimated and degraded city that had previously seemed so full of life and good times. The thought of going on a trip to help the city in the rebuilding process crossed my mind a few months after Katrina hit but soon faded as I realized I didn't have enough vacation time saved up to do. Fast forward to May 2009 and the opportunity arose once again. It came in the form of an email from our good friends, Bronwyn and Jarrod, who asked if we were interested in joining a team from their church to go to New Orleans for a week to do various service projects. David and I had already spent a week of vacation time on our trip to New England, and we weren't planning on doing any more trips for the rest of the year. But something tugged at both of us to consider this unique option. For me, it was a chance to put my faith into action and serve those who need help physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I won't say that my motivations were totally selfless though---I also knew this would be a great chance to see a city I had always been intrigued by. So we bought plane tickets and were officially part of the 2009 New Orleans team from First Baptist Church (although we still represented our Covenant denomination pride, haha).
Our time in New Orleans was relatively short but our experiences spanned many emotions and therefore caused the trip to feel much longer than 6 days. For the first 2 days, we volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and got to play with power tools, experienced Gulf Coast humidity in all it's sweaty glory, and painted many, MANY baseboards. During the second day, we volunteered at a site with one of the most humble and inspiring people I've come across---Mr. Paul Branch, who lives in a town near New Orleans. He is one of the Habitat core volunteers in the New Orleans area, which for him means that he volunteers on any days that he is not working at his job as an oilfield consultant. Firstly, Paul had a gracious and generous spirit. An example of this was when he brought in a huge dish of red beans and rice (a New Orleans classic dish), potato chips, and watermelon for us to have for lunch (normally Habitat does not provide lunch for the volunteers). When I asked him how he prepared it, he casually said that he had gotten up at 4 am that morning to make it because it takes several hours to simmer and he wanted our team to have a fresh batch in order to capture the flavor best. And although we didn't have much to compare it to, everyone on our team agreed that it was probably the best red beans and rice we would ever have and told Paul we'd be emailing him for the recipe. In addition to his hospitality, Paul's strong commitment to help others in his community was also quite striking. At one point during the day, someone asked him how many other volunteer teams had come to help him on this house. He modestly said that we were the first team he had worked with in quite some time and that it had taken him 40 days to redo the roof on the house by himself. All of us were shocked to hear that he had been working on a majority of the house alone, but then he said that he's been granted the ability and the means to help those who were hit hardest by Katrina and that it's only natural that he use what he's been blessed with to help those in need around him. "Help other people and you'll be ok," he told us during the lunch break. Throughout the rest of the week I realized what he meant. The reference to being "ok" was not meant in a legalistic way referring to doing good works in order to get spiritual brownie points. He instead was referencing how helping others helps rejuvenate the soul in a way that not many other things can. So this is the simple, yet profound, mantra that Paul lives his life by and I know that after meeting him, I am more motivated to help others in my local community.
Another organization we worked with called Green Light New Orleans was very different in it's mission but just as inspiring. Their goal is to help low-income families switch from using incandescent light bulbs to more energy efficient CFL bulbs. This is carried out by having various volunteers come to their homes and install these bulbs--both the installation and the CFL bulbs are free to the homeowner. In essence, it is helping families save money on utility bills while also making the rebuilding process more eco-friendly way. This was also a great organization to volunteer with because we got to interact one on one with various families and hear their stories of how despite all odds they have come back to rebuild their lives. One woman we met named Nita proudly told us how so many church groups from across the United States had a part in helping her family rebuild their house after a crooked contractor ran off with her money (how despicable do you have to be to do this, especially to someone who has already lost so much?!). She then eagerly got our contact info because she said she liked to stay in touch with every volunteer who had played a role in her life...I felt like we hadn't done much except change a few light bulbs but I realized how every little contribution has combined to make a large impact on her life.
One other place we volunteered was at St. Margaret's, a nursing home in the ninth ward. There were so many special moments during this day, including getting to know Augustine. She is a resident who is unable to go downstairs and play bingo with the other residents due to a bad leg, so the activities coordinator sent a few of us up to her room with a mini bingo set that we could set up and play with her. When we introduced ourselves and asked if she wanted to play some bingo, her eyes lit up and she enthusiastically nodded, "oh yes, oh yes!" Normally, I think bingo is a boring game that I would dread playing for more than two rounds. However, it was so enjoyable to sit with Augustine and play bingo for a couple of hours, listening to some of her childhood stories in between rounds. She told us of growing up in rural Louisiana and how she had worked for a 'nice white man' at his general store. She later ended up being a nanny for a 'nice white woman' and helped to raise her daughter, whom she had a picture of on her windowsill. She told us of different New Orleans recipes we had to try, described how to make crawfish etouffee, and gave us her opinion on why Popeye's makes the best fried chicken (because they use red pepper in the seasoning instead of black pepper, of course). I was sad to say goodbye to Augustine at the end of the day and I wish that I could have weekly visits with her. It was just so refreshing to sit and listen to someone like her with so much life experience give their perspective on things.
Outside of the different volunteer projects, we got to spend time in different parts of the city and I fell in love with its different quirks. Fresh beignets toppled with powdered sugar in the French Quarter at Cafe du Mond. Watching the Preservation Hall Jazz Band bring to life the exuberant spirit of Dixieland jazz. Walking through the Garden District in awe of the mansions that look like embassies but are actually people's homes. Riding the historic St. Charles Streetcar at dusk. New Orleans has such a charming quality that is hard to describe. And it's this quality that causes so many residents to want to come back to the city they love so dearly, despite all the pain it has caused them. As for me, I know that at some point, I will go back as well. And like the people of New Orleans, I have hope that because of the efforts of so many working tirelessly to help rebuild, their city will rise again with it's head held high.

"If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ." ~ 1 Peter 4:11

Our team at the Green Lights New Orleans house