Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I'm Back! First Reflections on NOLA

Phew! It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks. First, I took an intensive 1-week course at another seminary. The day after it ended, I left for New Orleans on a mission trip. I'm starting to catch up on e-mail and get back into my normal routine, but I am still deep in reflection about my experience in NOLA.

I would say that the strongest impression I have about the city of New Orleans is that it is a study in contrasts: black and white, destruction and rebuilding, culture and tackiness, hope and despair.

Many in my group were suprised at how many places in New Orleans are still destroyed and deserted. In any given neighborhood that suffered severe flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2004--for the storm itself caused little damage-- there may be as many as half the houses still with crumbling walls, spray-painted X's on the front, and tattered blue tarps on the roof. Large strip malls in those neighborhoods were still empty. On the other hand, it is clear that New Orleans is slowly but surely renewing itself. Piles of debris on the sidewalk meant someone was returning home to clean-up, repair, or rebuild. Stores had "we're back!" signs in the window.

There is still much work to do, however. One of the most striking moments for me was driving to our work site through a higher-end neighborhood with some truly gorgeous (and huge) houses. One house, which could almost qualify as a mansion, looked just fine, until I took a second look and realized it was still empty. The stone fountain in the backyard was tilted in the ground, and the curtains looked ragged. I wondered about the home's owners. Why had they not come back? Financial reasons? Had their insurance company not given them the money they needed to repair the damage? Were they afraid of another storm, or of the high crime rate? I don't know.

In the days and weeks following the flooding, as the death toll rose, the SuperDome emptied, and the waters subsided, I heard various comments about God's role in the disaster, including comments that equated the damage with God's wrath for the sinfulness of the Big Easy. Theologically, I don't believe in that type of thing--particularly because I believe that God is on the side of the poor, and they were the most affected by the events of Katrina. I do, however, believe that God's presence in New Orleans is now quite evident. From the resolve of natives to make things right, to the young people in AmeriCorps working to rebuild, to the multitude of groups from all over the country who continue to make trips to help out in whatever way they can, I saw God working to restore the city.
The group I traveled with ranged in age from 25-68, some with high skill level in construction and some who'd never even picked up a hammer, and yet we all were disappointed when we couldn't work as much as we wanted to. I fell in love not only with the city of New Orleans (I'm already trying to figure out when I can return), but with the people in our group. I'm sure I'll reflect more on this experience in the weeks to come, but for now, I am simply grateful to have worked with such an amazing group of people in such an amazing place.

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