U-C: What I See

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Glimpses from S. Louisiana

5:00 p.m. Sunday, September 11

We’re gathered for a special meeting of the Presbytery in the beautiful sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church Baton Rouge. The pews are comfortably filled, with well over one hundred people who are talking quietly before the meeting begins. For most, this is the first time they’ve seen one another since Katrina’s one hundred and forty mile an hour winds ripped through they’re communities. It’s the first time they’ve seen one another since the levees of New Orleans broke and the city filled like a bathtub. It’s the first time they’ve been together since they witnessed the emotional and spiritual devastation of tens of thousands of scared, hungry, angry people who sought refuge in the superdome and the convention center of New Orleans. It’s the first time they’ve been together since many of their churches became temporary shelters themselves, and the first time since all of their lives as pastors have been turned upside down.

I’m sitting in the middle of the sanctuary with Neale Miller and a group of about a dozen parishioners from Lakeview Presbyterian Church, one of the churches that took the greatest beating as the city flooded. Around the room, the embraces last a long-time, and I see more than one person’s eyes fill with tears as stories are shared. I also see laughter, and feel a genuine sense of family.

The work of the Presbytery today is to establish an administrative commission to help re-establish and strengthen the work of the churches that have been decimated by the storm. Their task is overwhelming: receive and administer funds for relief, assess the physical damage, work with churches to develop a plan to assure the meaningful employment and payment of the salaries of all pastors and staff members of every church (there is a special account established through the General Assembly if you would like to help), work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team (PDAT) members to register with FEMA all those who were flood victims, plan for work campers and professionals to clean up debris and put churches and homes back together again, and support the families of our churches who have lost most or all of their possessions in this flood.

We finish the meeting with worship, and with the words of Pastor Gerrit Dawson from First Pres. as he reflected on the passage on the Old Testament passage in which all brought their treasures to lay before God. Strong words for a people and a church who must do exactly that if our brothers and sisters are to recover.

8:30 a.m. Monday, September 12

We’re gathered at the Presbytery office for devotions. Every morning the staff of the Presbytery gathers with the PDAT to begin the day with prayer and reflection. This morning, though folks are clearly tired out, there is a good spirit in the room and everyone agrees that the Presbytery meeting was a needed community moment.

An hour later, the PDAT folks gather for a conference call with John Robinson, who is coordinating PDA’s response to Katrina. The conversation is freewheeling and wide-ranging. Each person has things on his or her mind. How will the local team coordinate with PDAT volunteers staffing the phones at Ferncliff camp in Little Rock to handle all the churches that would like to send work groups to help? How do we encourage long-term “twinning” or partnerships that will sustain the affected churches over the long-haul, without overwhelming the churches themselves with all those who would like to help? Can we put some staff members, who can’t re-occupy their churches for the next few months, to work for disaster relief? Will FEMA or others help to pay them if we do? How can we help the pastors begin to recreate a sense of community with churches that are so dispersed? How many of our members will choose not to come back? Who are the volunteers who will arrive next to carry on PDAT’s work? Where can PDAT set up a long-term office? How can PDA encourage research on the response to Katrina that will help us for the next disaster? The questions are endless, but the meeting is efficient and finishes up within the hour. Everyone knows there is a great deal to do today.

4:00 p.m. Monday, September 12

Six of us are touring the parts of New Orleans that are now drivable, and trying to get to as many of the churches as possible to get a sense of what condition they are in. Interim Executive Presbyter Mike Mann drives us down to 17th street, where the first levee broke. I climb up onto a wood pallet that is leaning against the concrete barrier on top of the earthen levee. I can just get high enough to look across the levee at the workers who are continuing to reconstruct it. Huge pumps with what look like monstrous vacuum hoses draped over the top of the levee are pumping water out of the city and back into the canal.

John, a tentmaker pastor who has been evaluating the condition of the churches, tells me that if there had been a floodgate a few blocks away where the canal meets the lake, most of the flooding of downtown New Orleans could have been avoided.

As we drive out of town, we pause on an overpass and look down on the highway that leads into town. It is deserted, and where it dips under the overpass there is still four feet of water showing on the gauge mounted on the bridge abutment. A highrise building in the distance is missing most of its window. Several buildings immediately around us have lost their roofs. Even though the road is empty of traffic, there are dozens of school buses inexplicably abandoned along the road. Later, as we drive through the areas of Jefferson Township, there are boats abandoned in the medians of the highways and in people’s front yards. Most houses have been damaged. Some of them have been utterly destroyed.

We visit two churches, Parkway and John Calvin, that I spent time in when I traveled in the Presbytery back in November. Both will be active again within weeks, but it is an eerie feeling to see the churches closed up tight with no one around. At First Presbyterian Church in downtown New Orleans, the watermark on the sign out front is over five feet high. Trees look like broken matchsticks everywhere we turn. In many intersections, we drive around fallen power lines.

7:30 p.m. Monday, September 12

We’re back in Baton Rouge, sixty miles or so from New Orleans where hundreds of thousands fled to escape the storm. Our last stop of the day is Broadmoor Presbyterian, another church I visited back in November. Pastor Hawley Wolfe and members of his congregation, together with the Red Cross, have turned their large gymnasium into a shelter.

The parking lot is full of cars, many of them loaded full of people’s belongings. There are three or four people sitting outside smoking in the evening dusk. Just inside the door is a table where Red Cross volunteers are helping residents to fill out the myriad forms that are part and parcel of experiencing a disaster. In the back corner of the gymnasium, several teenagers are hunting through piles of donated clothing. On the far end of the gym, there are dozens of folding cots lined up in neat rows, and folks are sitting or reclining on the cots. The other half of the room is filled with several dozen round tables, and more people are sitting at the tables. As I search their faces, I see folks who looked tired. Some look bored. Some look genuinely bewildered. Kids are playing tag with pent up energy that has nowhere else to go.

Miss Emily, who cooks for the church’s preschool and for the Wednesday night program, is just finishing up the clean-up from the evening meal, and she greets us with a warm smile and outstretched arms. She explains that there are anywhere from fifty to one hundred people with them each night. Her good spirit is infectious; some people, I’ve learned, are prepared for the moments of test that come with overwhelming need. Miss Emily is clearly one of them.

One young boy, named Glenn, tells me that he is ten years old – just like my own son, Teo. I ask if he’s been going to school, and he says no. I ask him if he’s bored, and like my own son would respond, he says no to that too. “What do you do all day?” “I play with the other kids,” he answers. I don’t probe any further, not wanting to push him to talk about a future he certainly can’t fathom.

One of the parishioners asks if I’ll pray with the residents. In a booming voice, he asks for everyone’s attention, introduces me, and suggests that I would like to pray for them. Words come, but they clearly aren’t my own words. Only God can offer words to folks who are on the edge.

This is church. As I walk across the parking lot to leave, I think to myself that being with folks who have no security and no clear plan for the future is where Jesus placed himself time after time. The members of Broadmoor are a steady stream in and out of the building, bringing supplies, spending time with the residents, helping folks fill out forms, and cleaning tables. I’m told that some have been working the internet as they work to reunite families. Wish I could be fly on the wall for one of those moments.

As always, the compelling moments come in the midst of acts of selflessness. It’s a two-sided coin, isn’t it? I wonder again if we have it in us to involve ourselves in this kind of Christian commitment when the cause is less immediate and compelling.

Normal, everyday Presbyterians, doing their best to witness to Christ’s love in the world. Regular folks, sharing their own faith as they live it. It does indeed make me proud to Presbyterian.

11:00 p.m. Monday, September 12

One day, and I’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg. There is far more hurt and pain than I can soak up in one day. However, there is also far more hope and witness from our churches of S. Louisiana and across the country than can be experienced in such a brief visit. Presbyterians at other churches are leading material aid efforts, providing care for infants, and offering pastoral care.

As I go to sleep, I close my eyes and offer prayers for the folks I’ve met today.