Saturday, June 18, 2011

Four hours of service and sweat in the Lower Ninth Ward

On Thursday afternoon, I spent four hours doing some basic clean-up, beautification and restoration work in the Lower Ninth Ward with the FTE group. (If you are confused about what FTE is or what I am doing in NOLA this week, read my previous post here.)

You are probably asking yourself, what difference could I possibly make doing four measly hours of community service in the city of NOLA. Don't worry, I asked the question myself! I am still not sure if I have an answer to that question, but I am going to try anyway.

We worked with a group called the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. These guys are doing some great work in NOLA, addressing problems of poverty, racism and oppression at a grassroots and systemic level. They work with residents on their houses and do neighborhood clean-ups, but they are also working at a systemic level trying to break the cycle of poverty by getting the city involved, creating sustainable housing projects, and doing lots of other great things. You can read more about this organization by clicking here.

We met up with them in the sanctuary of a tiny Baptist church in the Lower Ninth Ward. They explained to our group of fifty volunteers that we would be helping to clean up the streets a bit, work that the city just doesn't have the resources or manpower to do. We were issued saws, hedge-trimmers, grass clippers, work gloves and lots of sturdy garbage bags. The team of 50 FTE volunteers was being led by some employees of the the organization as well as some residents of the Lower Ninth who just have a heart and passion for seeing their neighborhood transformed and rebuilt. Both groups had some pretty powerful stories to share.

We hit the streets and started cleaning, picking up trash, trimming trees and hedges, and cutting overgrown grass in the medians and around the sidewalks. We walked down a divided boulevard that had two lanes of traffic and a 30 foot wide median down the middle with trees and shrubs that needed some help. Keep in mind the temperature was 98 degrees and the humidity was over 80 percent, so the heat index was about 110 degrees!

As I was working, hacking some dead limbs off of a tree, a woman drove up next to me and started to talk to me. She told me that her name is Angela and she lives in the neighborhood and said that a block down there is a huge bush in the median that blocks the view of the oncoming traffic. Angela said she had called the city four times and asked them to trim it. She asked me if I could go down there and trim it for her so that she can see the traffic in the mornings as she is turning out on the street to drive to work. I wandered down there and took out a large portion of the bush to open up the view for traffic. Angela was so grateful for the help, she drove by an hour later and thanked me.

Here you encounter a form of systemic oppression. The City of New Orleans is continuing to suffer following Katrina and the flooding. Their tax base is way down and city services just aren't what they used to be. However if you drive through some of the nicer sections of the city, the streets are kept up very well, the trees are trimmed, and there are no bushes blocking the view of traffic. As the residents told us, “The city just doesn't come down here.” It is amazing to see very real examples of this happening.

Another group a few blocks down was asked to clear out a vacant lot. They worked hard for a few hours hacking away weeds that were over six feet tall. It was a lot where a house had been that was literally ripped off of its foundation during Katrina. After a few hours they discovered a sidewalk beneath them. There was something deeply theological about working hard and uncovering a “safe passage” for the residents that was hidden beneath the weeds and overgrowth.

The experience was not without its frustration. Many of our volunteers were walking down the street picking up trash in the medians, on the sidewalk and in the gutters, only to have a resident walk by and throw down more trash. It definitely caused the group to pause and ponder if the work that we were doing had any real impact. If the local residents don't seem to care enough about keeping their own neighborhood clean, what good are we doing by walking through and helping to clean up?

I look at some of the residents who are so despondent because of the conditions, so trapped in the cycle of poverty that they have lost nearly all of their hope. Does my presence there make a difference for those residents? Do they get any hope out of walking out of their houses and seeing a cleaner street with trimmed trees? Does this kind of work have any sort of a lasting impact? I don't know that I have answers to those questions. I do know that Angela will be able to get to work more safely in the morning because I trimmed back that bush. You have to start somewhere.