Saturday, March 31, 2007

Rabbit holes

Michael flew home yesterday afternoon; the rest of us are leaving tonight. Yesterday was our play day. We went to the New Orleans School of Cooking. We had a great time, and were fed very well on crawfish etouffee, shrimp and artichoke soup, bread pudding, and pralines. The chef (Kevin) was a riot; he loved bantering back and forth with us, and he told great stories. It was the most fun I’ve had at lunch in a long time.

We went around the tables and said where we were from, and he asked us what we were doing in New Orleans. People shouted, “touristing,” “eating,” and suchlike. Michael called out, “Gutting houses.”

Kevin stopped us. “What?”
“Gutting houses.”
“Thank you.”

Several locals in the audience also thanked him/us. I felt really proud of Michael for having been able to do that; I have asthma and am rightly afraid of black mold. Vivian, Judy, and I did very worthwhile work here, but what is most clearly and widely needed is house gutting. Many neighborhoods in this city have block after block after block of flood-damaged homes. Kevin cited New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, who writes in his book One Dead in the Attic, “Our city has a bathtub ring around it.” From what we saw, that is literally true.

This exchange got me thinking. Most people, who live in cities that are not prone to hurricanes, and who have safe, sturdy houses, would view teams of strangers coming in and taking their houses apart from the inside, down to the studs, as a shockingly gross invasion. Here, the houses were damaged by being flooded with toxic water for up to six weeks. They have to be taken apart to be saved. There aren’t enough contractors in the city to do what needs to be done here, and most people couldn’t pay for that level of labor anyway. So, volunteers come in with Tyvek suits, respirators, and crow bars, and tear apart houses for free—to preserve the homeowners’ property rights.

You can’t just leave a flood-damaged house indefinitely; there are deadlines. One is coming up in mid-April; I don’t know if that is city-wide or only for the 9th Ward. But if houses aren’t “improved” by the deadlines given, they are condemned. Gutting counts as evidence of improvement.

I understand the issue. But the reality here once again makes my head spin.

We met a group of ABSW students for beignets, afterward; the Baptists had traveled from Berkeley to a town in Mississippi that was literally blown away by Katrina, to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Then we walked around the park, into the cathedral, and back outside to listen to music. You know you’re in New Orleans when the street musicians are good.

After that, my friends visited a voodoo temple; Michael had met the priestess ten years ago. There was too much incense for me to stay, so I sat outside in the courtyard and called my friend Max, who gave me a piece of wisdom. Max traveled to El Salvador with a group from our church recently. They met Bishop Barahona, worked with children, and I don’t know what all they did there. Max told me, “I was there to do the work, but I was really there to let it change me.” One week is not enough time to save the world, or New Orleans. It is enough time to be changed forever, to be more deeply committed to being the body of Christ, to loving people everywhere, and to raising people’s awareness so that more can be done.

I really feel that I’ve found a piece of my calling. I can’t wait to get home and test it.

No comments: