Friday, January 25, 2008

Thy people shall be my people

...and thy God shall be my God.

I am in love, and in hope, with this city. I’ve never been so exhausted, and so energized, at one time in all my life.

Yes, there is devastation. I walked yesterday from the end of the Canal streetcar line (at the cemeteries), about two miles to the homecoming center at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in the Lakeview neighborhood. I passed houses that still had floodlines on them, higher than my head. Empty houses, and empty lots. Torn screens. Weathered wood, and rusted metal. Spray-paint codes, fading with time.

There was also new construction. Signs in windows, reading, “We’re Home.” Fresh paint. Scrubbed brick. New framing, bones of houses, not gutted and weary but rising from the mud.

There is hope here. I heard it yesterday in the voice of a woman who had organized a neighborhood renewal, since spread throughout the city, based on cooperation and sharing resources. I saw her love for her home, and this city, shining in her eyes, as she talked about how she has been blessed in the gifts she’s been able to give.

I hear it over and over, in the stories people tell me of their lives in this city since the storm. They tell me why they love it here, why they came home, why they stayed. They stayed because it is their home. Because Houston or Mobile or wherever, just wasn’t. Because this is New Orleans. There is a vivacity here that is unique to this place. So much in the culture is about relationships, and about acceptance. You can be whoever you are—not only in the Mardi Gras, crazy way portrayed in the media (though there is that), but in your dailiness as well. The violence, and crime, are of course awful. But life is celebrated here, too.

I am in love with the spirit of resurrection I see and feel all around me. I’d give anything to be able to stay, longer than I can. I’m hoping and praying to come back. The spiritual rebirth is as apparent as the physical, and everything in me wants to be part of it.

I’ve been given so many gifts here. Of course there are the stories. The trust people place in me, while I’m listening to them tell about the most difficult time in their lives, is sacred. It floors me, not only that they’ve been so willing, but that they say that the telling is a gift also to them. I’ve gotten better at listening, and at asking, and I’ve seen my own skills grow. I wish, with all my soul, that I could keep doing this.

I’ve also been well cared for. Two people in particular have taken me under their wings, helped me get going, taught me something, mentored me—they know who they are, and I thank them. These relationships, I won’t have to work to hold onto—they are connections that will abide. And a few days after my car accident, the bishop of Louisiana dropped in on me at the Urban Ministry Center. He just wanted to be sure I was okay, and to join the chorus of people (playfully) chiding me for walking all the way from here to St. Anna’s. (What? It’s only about four or five miles.) And then he went outside, to talk to a community organizer in the street. It’s all just part of the day for him.

I can’t say enough about St. Anna’s. It has been, and will be, an anchor for me—both on Wednesdays when I’m here, and into the soul and spirit of this city, wherever I am. I only know the Wednesday community, which changes because that’s when volunteers go. But the mix of people that show up there, and the free, competent health care, and the music—which sometimes is great, and sometimes is the weirdest damn stuff in the world—you just need to experience it. You never know who you’re going to eat with, or what you’re going to listen to, or what conversations you’re going to strike up. This is more than church. This is life, in this city. It’s resurrection, in the middle of the week.

There’s also the healing aspect of the Eucharist. In San Francisco, I go to the healing station whenever I feel like it, either to ask for healing or to say thank you. It’s always available. But it’s about me, my need, my desire. Here, the connection between holy oil on each of our heads, and the healing of this city, is so strong it doesn’t need to be discussed. It’s just… obvious. We are rising with this city, as we come to witness or rebuild. We are living in the resurrection.

And the need for resurrection is so great. I talk about hope, and I feel it. I see reasons for rejoicing, everywhere. But there is also such anger, still. People were forgotten—and they don’t just suspect or feel it, they know it. The national and local response has come from faith-based groups, not from government. The rebuild is being done by residents and volunteers. This city is being remade by the people who live in it, who love it, who will go through fire and flood to call it home. They need help and support—one told me, “We don’t expect it (in the sense of hand-outs)—but we need it.” Please come. Bear witness. Get your hands dirty. Come and love these people.

I had a conversation with a priest the other day; it was the first time I’d met him. We talked about mission, and he asked if I see myself working long-term in DioCal. I had to answer him, my process is there but I’d be shocked if I stay there. It’s such a wealthy area. There is poverty everywhere in this world. Violence, everywhere. Need, everywhere. Inside every soul, there is suffering; there is need for God. I know that everywhere I go, I will find the people who need to find me. I also know that my place is with the exiled, the forgotten, the struggling. My skills may be nascent, at best, but I am learning. This is who I am. These are the people God is calling me to serve. Being here, doing this work, has confirmed that a thousand times over.

I keep having to remind myself, I’m not a New Orleanian. I lived most of my life in the Northwest. I live in Berkeley; I worship in San Francisco. I’m from a different world. But I feel a kinship here, that I’ve not felt in other places. Whether or not I live here again, a piece of me will call this home.

There’s something else that makes it hard to think about re-entry into California. I have loved the work here, so much. Friends elsewhere have called me a saint for doing it, and for witnessing on behalf of New Orleans. I don’t feel that way at all. This is the work I asked for; the work I choose, the work that's in front of me. I’m not special because I’m doing this; I’m privileged because I’m getting to discover the depth of my passion for mission, for this work, for these people. The work has grown me, as I’ve done it, and as I’ve discovered how much I love it. I know I’m living into my call. And I also know that the first thing I have to do when I get back to Berkeley, is get out of trouble with my advisor. Then I have to finish my academics. And that is absolutely not where my head is. I want to be in the world, getting dirty with the people of God.

I don’t know how to take the self that has grown so much in NOLA, and live into that growth in California, in an environment in which I struggle, and where I have more work to do just to hold my head up and look people in the eyes. I feel bigger—not in the sense of no longer a child, but like enough of a human being. I’m wearing the clothes of a competent soul, and they fit me.

I stand in solidarity with the people of this city. It is so clear to me that my work is here--though I also know that this is a learning ground for me, to work competently with and for all of God's exiled and forgotten children. I'm going, as I am, back to California. I will learn how to take this integrity with me.

I have to go and eat; I'm still on monster Motrin for the whiplash, and it's past time to take it. And right now I'm close to crying, I love this city so much.


Mimi said...

I'm so glad you are so fed by this city, your work is so needed.

Hugs and love!

Jill said...

This resonated with me so much:

"Whether or not I live here again, a piece of me will call this home."

It's exactly how I feel about Rome. :)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kirstin, I don't believe that New Orleans has a better spokeswoman or advocate. You are the best, the absolute best.

I am moved to tears by your moving and beautiful post. You love New Orleans as I love New Orleans. You understand why I feel that I've been living in exile for over 40 years. That won't change for me ever.

I pray God that you do return - soon and often.

Kirstin said...

Thank you, Mimi. I pray the same.

FranIAm said...

Dear Kirstin, well that is two times I stopped by your blog today and wept.

And that is a good thing.

What a powerful experience you have had in that city. It makes me think of the quote I sent you when you first wrote about St Anna's... "Blessed be the Lord! for he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city."
Psalm 31:21

He has shown you that indeed. I am awed to have witnessed it from afar.

Rarely have I read words of someone's mission and felt them so deeply in my heart and spirit. You have not only a gift for writing but your real gift is your love in action.

It is very real and very palpable, through the posts on this blog.

God has blessed you richly and I love how you keep that in motion.

Peace and blessings in abundance to you. You minister to us all.

johnieb said...


yes, dear. When you've been through the storm, to have someone listen to your story is a most marvelous gift. Need I remind you that you listen to mine? Godde has clearly blessed you in this work. May you get back home often.

Kirstin said...

Thanks again, Fran. I'm glad my words make that love visible. That's what I want them to do.

(((JohnieB))) Thank you, for reminding me. The gift goes both ways.

Anonymous said...

Your words make me, a former New Orleanian, feel remorse for all of the recent bad thoughts that I've had about my home city.


Kirstin said...

Nancy, my experience allows me to feel this hope. I never lived here before the storm. I know the city as an infatuated foreigner, not as a native.

I wish you peace, wherever you are.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Au revoir et bon voyage, ma chère amie, jusqu'au notre prochain rendez-vous.

Kirstin said...


[wipes tear]

pj said...

Kirstin, I can't really compose a comment somehow... so can I say I'm proud of you? (I go maternal on everyone these days.)

Travel safely and (((((Kirstin))))).

Kirstin said...


Thank you.

Jane R said...

Travel well, my dear. Thank you for your hymn of love to the city.

Kirstin said...

Thank you, Jane.

I'm in Charlotte; just about to board for SFO. I'm being picked up by a friend who loves the city more than I do.

Godde willing, I'll be back.

Jane R said...

Charlotte!! Dudette, you were just South of me.

Kirstin said...


Well, I read somewhere that you're coming to the Bay Area again...

doctorj2u said...

Thank you so much for all your efforts in rebulding my hometown. In New Orleans, we say you either "get it" (the allure of the city) or you don't. You obviously do get it and understand why no sacrifice is too great to make the city survive. I have lost faith in my own government. If it wasn't for wonderful volunteers like you, I would have lost faith in my countrymen also. Thank you for giving me that comfort that at least some people out there understand and care. Not only do they care, but they care enough to make great sacrifices to come and help. That is powerful and sooths our broken hearts. I can never thanks all of you enough.
Dr. Jolie

Kirstin said...

Thank you for commenting, Dr. Jolie. Everyone thanks us for caring; you don't know how much the people of your city give to us. I feel so privileged for having had this experience.

I'll be back, as soon as I can. Perhaps we'll meet. :-)