St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond Virginia sent a great group of 9 volunteers to work with lowernine.org for a week in February. Following is Alan’s account of the trip.
St. James’s/New Orleans Mission Write-Up
February 28, 2013
Dressed in a robe and seated on the side porch of a small house on New Orleans’ Tupelo Street,
a soft-spoken woman recalls the day relatives in Atlanta wanted her to visit the new Georgia
Aquarium. After a few minutes inside, she had to turn back. “I just couldn’t deal with all that
water,” she says, fighting back tears. “It brought back too many memories.”
The woman’s house on Tupelo Street hunkers down in the heart of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.
Flooding from Hurricane Katrina rendered 100 percent of houses in this two-mile patch of
lowlands uninhabitable, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the blocks
nearest the levees, floodwaters reached as high as 25 feet.
By August 2010, only a fifth of the ward’s 20,000 residents had returned, though the figure is
now closer to a third. Scores of houses stand empty. Overgrown with weeds, vacant lots where
houses once stood are ideal for stray dogs and cats, raccoons and snakes. But they are not good
playgrounds for the few small children trying to have a normal life here.
Trapped between the Industrial Canal, the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, the largely
working-class Lower Ninth was the hardest-hit section of the city. Residents, with good reason,
feel misused by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which was supposed to maintain the levees
that burst; by FEMA; by city officials; and by contractors. The contractors “take half your
money,” a resident says, “do half the job, and then disappear.”
With few other options, residents needing repairs to their houses, business and churches are
turning to volunteers, like our group, from St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.
We’re working through a non-profit agency called Lowernine.org, which, as of December 1,
2012, had helped some 30 residents rehab their homes. There are eight of us—the Rev. Carmen
Germino, Suzanne Hall, Russell Lawson Charles Nance, Zachary Reid, Bob Siegfried, Andrew
Smith, and me, Alan Crawford. We are staying at Lowenine’s El Dorado Street headquarters,
which could use a few repairs of its own.
For those of us who did not live in communes in the 1960s—I don’t think any of us had that
good fortune—this is our big chance. We sleep in two tiny rooms lined with bunk beds, grab
yours while you can. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you don’t throw your stuff
on a staff member’s bunk because they stay here too. Some, we hear, live in the trailers parked
across the street. We make do, food-wise, with what’s in the fridge but has no one else’s name
on it. Late in the week, one of the two toilets is clogged, but Russell—what a man!—picks up a
plunger from Wal-Mart and fixes it himself.
This is not to complain. We have it far better than many—maybe most—Lower Ninth
inhabitants. The dinners we make are remarkably good (this is New Orleans, after all), and the
homeowners we work with during the day are grateful for our help.
Zach, Bob and Andrew are building a ramp for an elderly lady who otherwise could not leave her
house, while Suzanne, Russell and Carmen help lay tile in the kitchen and porch of a young New
Orleanian who has come back home after studying and working in Washington, D.C. The mosaic
backsplash Suzanne designs might not qualify for display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,
where she works, but it is a thing of beauty nonetheless.
During our stay, some members of the team from St. James’s also return to All Souls Episcopal
Church in the Lower Ninth, where they have worked in past visits. This time they do tile work in
a playroom and utility room and organize efforts of volunteers from United Airlines.
Realizing very quickly that I am no Bob Vila, team leaders Andy and Russell have banished me
to a back wall. I scrape and caulk so it can be repainted and give it my best shot. Having been
hit hard by the rain and the floodwaters, a good deal of the boards on this wall will have to be
replaced. We’ll be leaving soon, so other volunteers will have that to do.
Midweek, Russell and I are off to a house a couple of blocks from the levee. New Orleans is
famous not only for food but for music, and we’re told that Fat Domino’s great-nephew once
lived here, and the Fat Man himself would visit. It’s plausible, since Fats grew up in the Lower
Ninth Ward, has lived here much of his life and still does. Though badly damaged in the flood,
his house is much grander than most in the area, and residents are properly proud of their most
famous resident. (Everyone here will also tell you they are related to Trombone Shorty.)
David Young, the owner of the house Russell and I are working on, has his own interesting
story to tell. A former police chief from northern Indiana, Young came to the Lower Ninth
to volunteer a few years ago and, like Laura Paul and Eileen Bacca who are on the staff of
Lowernine.org, decided to stay. Young looks like a refugee from a biker gang that lived in one of
those aforementioned communes decades ago and actually liked it.
Now Young helps rehab people as well as houses: He runs a nonprofit called Capstone that
conducts a jailhouse ministry for teenagers. On this day, he directs us as we hoist sheetrock to
the ceiling and feel the burn in muscles we didn’t know we had while the sheetrock is screwed
into place. A scrawny hipster with a handlebar mustache and fedora turns out to be surprisingly
adept with a screw gun. Who knew? A team from United Airlines helps with the sheetrock. This
is hard work, and I am convinced I will leave here looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger before
he became just another politician and got old. While we finish up, two volunteers who seem to
live at Young’s house practice line dancing in his kitchen.
Back on El Dorado Street, and once on the banks of the Mississippi, we hold our own worship
services, accompanied by Russell’s deft guitar work. St. James’s should feel relieved that he
and Andy, both accomplished musicians, did not get gigs on Bourbon Street and decide to stay.
Lowernine.org headquarters might be the only alcohol-free spot in all of New Orleans, so we
keep the communion wine (Sutter Home Sweet Red in a six-pack of screw-top bottles from a
convenience store) in the trunk of one of our rental cars. Holy Eucharist in a gentle rain on the
riverfront might seem a little uncomfortable at first, but the memory will linger.
So, too, will that of the people we have met in the Lower Ninth and those we have gotten to
know better from St. James’s. There’s much work to be done before this neighborhood gets back
on its feet, if it ever does. On my last morning here, I have gone door-to-door to find out what
projects the residents still need done, and almost everyone who answers the door in the two or
three blocks I manage to cover will invite you in and show you boards that are rotting, paint that
is peeling, fences that are falling down, and windows that are broken. Even the few who say they
really don’t need our help thank us for asking.
The woman on Tupelo Street was having a closet added to the back of her house but has never
been able to complete it. The storm put a stop to the work, and she still cannot talk about it
without tearing up. “We didn’t lose anyone in our family, and that is a blessing,” she says. “But
you never forget walking through water and gasoline and everything else up to your shoulders
and seeing dead animals float by. I had rashes on my skin I couldn’t get rid of for weeks.”
“They keep breaking into my mother’s house,” one young woman tells us, and a sign on an
abandoned house near the levee attests to a community torn apart by neglect and unmet needs.
“House is stripped,” it says. “Nothing left to steal.”
What the people of New Orleans have not been robbed of is their determination to prevail which
seems by all evidence to be rooted in their faith. There are a remarkable number of churches in
the Lower Ninth, and at a raucous locals’ nightspot in the Treme, trombonist and singer Glen
David Andrews moves seamlessly between wonderfully raunchy songs with unprintable lyrics to
gospel songs like “Bye and Bye” and “I’ll Fly Away.” The gospel songs somehow win out in the
“Sing it, brother,” someone calls from the bar. “Take us to church!”
###Share on Facebook