I arrived in New Orleans (NOLA) on Wednesday afternoon for the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) Ministry Fellowship conference. I haven't been to NOLA since I was 12 years old, very “pre-Katrina,” and that was a visit with my family.
As we left the airport and boarded the bus to go from the airport to Dillard University where the conference is being hosted, I was assaulted with the heat and humidity of the Southern summer. Riding through the traffic on the freeway, I looked out the window wondering if I would catch glimpses of the damage and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. We exited the freeway and were stopped at a red light and I saw a person on the side of the road “panhandling.” He had written some illegible words on a sign he was holding that I couldn't read. But I caught a glimpse of the back of the sign which used to hang at an apartment complex and read “The American Dream, for rent now!” I was struck by the completely contradictory message, this guy was definitely not experiencing the American Dream standing on that corner in the oppressive heat and humidity.
We are staying at Dillard University in the Gentilly District, which was flooded out following Katrina. The area is not totally recovered and you can still see vestiges of the damage and destruction that happened six years ago.
I wasn't too sure what to expect with the conference or with my time in New Orleans. The FTE is designed to call young leaders to renew the church. I am one of 100 fellowship recipients who is here for a week to pause, reflect, learn some new skills and put together an action plan regarding what my role is in renewing the church.
Our first full day here we started with a meeting with three faith-based community leaders in NOLA who are working, each in their own way, to empower the residents and rebuild the city. We got to hear about each of their own experiences, each of their call stories that brought them to NOLA post-Katrina, and the work that they are doing with their respective organizations. After their talk, we all loaded into buses to tour the city.
I was initially concerned about the city tour, it felt a little bit like poverty and disaster tourism. Here we were, sitting comfortably in our padded seats on an air-conditioned bus, driving around a city that is still recovering from the hurricane and flooding that hit the city 70 months ago. In many of the neighborhood we visited houses are still abandoned and there are many slab foundations where the houses just floated away. There is still a great deal of poverty effecting the city, and the unemployment rate is still very high, so there are a lot of residents who are sitting outside on their porches or in the empty lots, watching the tour buses pass by. Some wave and smile, some ignore, and some are appropriately frustrated by these tour buses.
So I was a bit uncomfortable with what we were doing. But then we stopped at a Baptist church where four pastors from across the city were waiting for us. They shared with us each of their experiences, what state of recovery their churches were in, and what they continue to do to serve their city and the people of their city. Then we headed over to a Methodist church and heard their story, which was inspiring and amazing. You see, this church was two churches before Katrina, a historically black church a historically white church. Following the storm, both churches had been flooded and lost members and both were struggling and no longer viable. They were forced to come together and join forces, and from it has emerged one of the highest functioning, authentic, multi-cultural churches I have encountered, very powerful stuff. It is a living and vibrant church that is serving God is a profound way.
After that we drove to another neighborhood and saw a predominantly Korean Catholic church that has been instrumental in the rebuilding process. We heard about how quickly they were able to get organized following the storm, providing space and logistical support for FEMA and other non-profits that were assisting in disaster relief. Finally we ended our tour at a church in the Lower 9th Ward that is in a converted Walgreens drugstore. Apparently after the store flooded following the storm, Walgreens decided it was not viable to rebuild their store and serve the residents. So the store sat empty but the parking lot became a hub of activity for the Episcopalian church, serving residents with a medical van, food pantry, distribution of cleaning supplies, and other very basic services. Finally the church inquired about the property and was able to clean it up and convert it into a church.
Powerful story after powerful story was washing over me and the other fellows, immersing us, flooding us with stories of hope emerging from the disaster. THIS is the work of the church in the world. THIS is being the hands and feet of Jesus. THIS is ministry. And this must be why we are here, developing our leadership skills and contemplating what our roles are in renewing the church.
We spent the afternoon working in the Lower 9th Ward, but I will save that for the next blog post. Thanks for reading!