Thursday, January 10, 2008

Back to St. Anna's

I went to sleep last night smelling like chrism, and I could still catch a hint of its sweetness when I woke up. A friend says that’s like “living in resurrection”—and he doesn’t know how right he is. This church is in the thick of it, and rising.

My I-guess-you-could-call-it-office is at the dining room table in the house next door to the Diocese of Louisiana headquarters. The administrator answers the phone, “Office of Disaster Response.” Upstairs are Jericho Road, some other programs, and volunteer housing. Yesterday I was displaced to the kitchen table, because Bishop Jenkins (whom I really like) had a lunch meeting with seminarians from Nashotah. I immersed myself in research; some for my project and some for myself, to understand more deeply the effects of the storm. I e-mailed some people I want to interview. And I left in the late afternoon, to walk to St. Anna’s for the Wednesday evening healing Eucharist. It was both spiritual food, and fieldwork.

One curious detail, I learned in the Urban Ministry Center kitchen. While trash pickup is restored to the city, you still have to truck your own recycling out—more than two years after the storm. The same is true in Slidell (across Lake Pontchartrain) and I don’t know where else. What I thought at first was environmental insensitivity, isn’t—it’s just the way things are, here. There is still so much to put back together.

I gauged the time for my walk just fine—but had never quite realized that an hour and a half meant approximately four miles. (I amble, particularly when carrying my office on my back.) I’m feeling it today. My body feels stretched, good-tired, strong. I could have made it shorter by heading up a side street; the city’s laid out like the spokes of a wheel. But I don’t know the neighborhood well enough to feel safe committing myself to exploration, when I’m essentially racing the sun to get where I’m going. (That’s one of the drawbacks of being here alone and carless; I’m much more self-protective than I was when here with a group.) I stuck to the neutral ground—at home we’d call it a median—walking along the streetcar tracks, down St. Charles. I saw lots of joggers; mostly men, a few women. The city is flat, and the ground is soft. Sidewalks in lots of places are broken, uneven, crumbly. The only risk while running in the neutral ground, provided you’re facing the streetcars, is mud.

Speaking of, it’s pouring right now. I love that sound!

I followed the streetcar line all the way to Canal St., which was farther than I’d thought it would be. Then turned up a fairly quiet street in the Quarter, and followed that all the way to Esplanade. (I was, by then, trying to shorten the walking distance—but if I do it again, will just stay on Bourbon. It’s always crowded, and in that way feels safer. I’ve walked in dicey places in Seattle, in the day when I could and at night when I had to—and felt less afraid than I do here. (It’s hard to scare me, ordinarily; I hate having the murder rate burned into my head. But in this city, it is.)

Turned up Esplanade just before dusk. Walked past a FEMA trailer park; the same settlement I’d biked past, last Saturday. Then past a huge, antebellum-looking house—I think it’s a hotel—surrounded on three sides by chain-link fencing, and in the front by a huge wrought-iron gate. I wondered then, and still, if they’d feel safer if they took their fences down. I think I would.

Saw the Medical Mission trailer parked behind St. Anna’s, and entered the church by a side door. They were setting up the parish hall for dinner. I recognized Bill, the rector, from behind, by his long white ponytail. He knew I was coming—but I think he was as happy to see me as I was to see him. We hugged hello, and I told him again what I’m doing here. It felt—and feels—so good to have a place in this city that feels like home. I don’t know the community at all—but I feel so safe, so comfortable there, in a way that I don’t feel in more “establishment” churches. (Ha, St. Anna’s was founded in 1846, and is Anglo-Catholic to this day. But all kinds of ragtags and riffraff worship here; locals and volunteers alike.) Part of it’s him; part is the services to the community that happen there. It’s just a good place. I won’t go on a Sunday, because they use incense like nobody’s business. But on a Wednesday night, I can hang out in the back, or duck outside—besides, the health clinic (which also includes acupuncture and massage, all free) and benefit dinner for musicians are too cool not to be part of.

[Incense is usually a huge emotional trigger for me, as much as it's a physical one. But this is not my school, my parish, my home. I don't have the inclusion response that I did when St. Aidan's used it for the midnight Mass at Christmas. It's what St. Anna's does. My work includes keeping my own home safe; it doesn't extend to changing the culture in a parish 2300 miles away, that does so much right. Bill flexes for me anyway; last time I was here, he used it, but didn't process it in. I could feel it, but I could also stay away. Other times and places, the response has been, "We're using it," or, "We're only using a little." The subtext is, "Others want it. Tough." I don't feel that, here.]

I was lucky last night; it wasn’t a feast day, so I could freely breathe. (When they use incense, it’s thick enough so that I can’t go anywhere near the altar. Asthma sucks; it's also real.) Bill had a few minutes before he had to get ready for church; he took the time to teach me some Nashotah arcanery, and tease the deacon for the way she was dressed. He showed me the closet full of copes (I'm not kidding; they have eight in there, and others farmed out around the city.). He also remembered I can't do incense, and we talked about that.

Bill kicked me out of the sacristy so he could get dressed, and I went in to church. The liturgy was straightforward Rite II; the music was gorgeous. They use LEVAS (Lift Every Voice and Sing, gospel hymnal) exclusively, at least on Wednesdays, and the song leader announces the hymns right before you sing them—so nobody knows what's coming. He leads the singing loudly enough, so that it didn't matter that many of us sounded very white. (No joke; the family behind me was from Madison, WI. They’re down here helping with the rebuild.)

The gospel was Jesus walking on the water, from Mark; the sermon was about loving ourselves so we could love others, and not being afraid of love. The Peace was much like we do it at St. A’s; not so much the hug-fest, but everyone greeted everyone else. Very open; very friendly.

Bill asked the family behind me to introduce themselves, during announcements. He didn’t ask a thing of me. Apparently, having been here once makes you a regular. He also thanked all the out-of-towners for being here; said it communicates to them that we’re still thinking about them. New Orleans is moving past the recovery phase, into the rebuild. It’s my observation that this city is being rebuilt by college students and youth-group kids. This place still needs our love and attention; our money, our skills, our time. Even if all you can do, like me, is listen to and gather stories. Everything counts.

They do use fish food; oh well. Here, even that felt sacred. I didn't recognize the wine (which isn’t saying much); I think it’s also what's used at the very middle-class St. Andrew's. Spicy. Good. Kinda festive.

We went back up for healing, immediately after Communion. The last time I was here, I was a sobbing mess, in shock from lack of sleep and the ruin of the city, floored because people could suffer so much and still be beautiful. Yesterday, this experience was joyful. We were an arc of people stretching all the way across the altar, holding hands; it didn’t matter that many of us didn’t know each other. The musicians played "Were You There," which I thought was contrived for the occasion, but I lost myself in the music nonetheless. Bill went around and laid hands on each of us, prayed for us, anointed us. It wasn't the prayer I knew from school, but similar, and he varied it; he thanked God for my life and ministry. He wore a ring that held the chrism, which I didn't see until he was almost right next to me; I couldn't figure out what he was doing with his thumb on top of people's heads.

The closing hymn was "This Little Light of Mine," presumably so we could clap (we all were) and not need the words. The deacon sang what I know as the Easter dismissal, with the many-syllabled Alleluia. Then we went next door for dinner.

There are signs above every exit in this complex, reading

You Are Now Entering Your Mission Field.

I love that. It’s so very true.

Dinner was spaghetti, veggies, salad, and chocolate; certainly adequate for the occasion. The musicians played slow, sleepy jazz; it was fun to listen to. I made a couple of good contacts; an ER doc who moved down here from Maryland with her partner (also an ER doc) after the storm, to help out, and a nurse-practitioner from the Mobile Medical Mission, who's also a Jesuit priest. Couldn't actually interview them there; it was too noisy/busy. (The parish hall was packed.) I had e-mailed Bill and told him I could get myself to church just fine, but would need help getting home. He introduced me to my ride, Diana, an RN who was running the blood-pressure checks. I mentioned to him that I was curious about All Souls. He took me aside to tell me what he knew, which admittedly wasn’t much.

All Souls is a mission to the 9th Ward, meeting in what I think is a converted Walgreen’s on St. Claude. Nobody seems to know that much about them. The priest-in-charge is Nigerian; I’ve forgotten his name. Bill wasn't positive when the services are. Buses are still really dicey out there; I may not be able to go, though I want to.

[I need to figure out how to get myself to St. Paul’s, Lakeview. The homecoming center that used to be at St. Luke’s, is now there. It is, or was, an upscale neighborhood—flooding changed everything for lots of people.]

We talked more about Nashotah, Anglo-Catholicism, church politics, whatever. I think I carry a certain seminarian charm; I’ve only met this priest once, e-mailed a small handful of times, and we caught up like friends. I'm also going to interview him; not the least because of the "murder board" outside. (There's a giant white board on an outside wall of the church, listing in black marker all the murders in this city from last April through now. It speaks volumes about honoring every human life.) He gave me a hug goodbye, and left to run some errands. I went back into the parish hall, and listened to music until it was time to go home.

Diana takes Jim (Jesuit NP) home every week; he lives near me and can't drive. She was living in New Orleans East, which was pretty much universally flooded. She said they only got three inches of water—which caused 3 ½ feet of mold. So they're living near her parents, 30 miles west of the city, and working on their house when they have time. Her parents had lived in Gentilly; their house had taken 5 ½ feet of water. (That's exactly as tall as me.) They gutted it, sold it, moved out of town. The entire extended family evacuated to Diana’s parents’ house, and stayed there for six weeks after the storm.

This city is sloshing to the brim with stories. Sometimes all you have to do is ask, "Are you from here?"


FranIAm said...

I am sitting here awed and weeping after reading this twice.

I really can't say much but I send you a thousand blessings and prayers and then after that a thousand more.

FranIAm said...

Had to come back... I was at this blog and saw this splashed across the top:

"Blessed be the Lord! for he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city."
Psalm 31:21

That had to be shared with you on this post.

CDP said...

I'm here through Fran, and this was a beautiful post, thanks for what you're doing. (Fran, I love that scripture quote).

Swandive said...

just more wow sister - for your stories, your courage, your honesty and your reflections. THANK You.

KateM said...

Many thanks, Kirstin. I particularly liked the exit sign posted in the Church. We all need to be reminded of that. I suspect it's just a bit more obvious in NOLA.

Agree with you on the incense issue. I want to keep our spiritual home in SF incense free but am not suggesting TEC should ban it across the board. We can have parishes that are incense using or not incense using but it's an illusion to think you can be a little bit incense using.

Prayers for your safety. This week a young boy was taking his piano lesson on upper Piedmont Ave in Oakland when he got hit by a stray bullet from a robbery at the Chevron across the street. Being safe and feeling safe is a luxury. We still have a fair amount of it here but less than we assume. Others haven't been blessed with it for a very long time -- who are just a mile or so from my Berkeley house or across the country in your world there. Thank you for your witness.

Kirstin said...

Thank you, Fran--and that quote is very apt.

Hi CDP (and any other new visitors)! You are welcome here.



Grandmère Mimi said...

Kirstin, simply beautiful. I linked to this post.

Nathan Empsall said...

It's so good to read about New Orleans and the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana again, especially the old Walgreens. Thank you!!

For info on All Soul's, which was still in a garage while I was there last year:

Anonymous said...

On behalf of St. Anna's; Joyce Jackson, Deacon; and all the musicians for your kind and thoughtful words. You are a pleasure to know and you are PART OF THE GANG! Fr. Bill+

Anonymous said...

On behalf of St. Anna's we are honored and humbled by your very kind words. You indeed are part of us. Incense or no there will always be a place for you at St. Anna's. On behalf of musicians and residents...thank you for caring. Peace Fr. Bill+