At the Forward Edge
Experiencing heaven on earth in a still ravaged New Orleans
In early March I returned from a week of house building and ministering in New Orleans organized through an NGO called Forward Edge. My motivation was to minister and bless others with my ability and willingness to meet an unmet need. Hearing the stories of other volunteers who had served in New Orleans, LA (NOLA) I was outraged that nearly four years later, (Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast August 25, 2005) the need to restore people and communities continues to be largely ignored. Now, on the eve of the departure of 32 volunteers from First Christian, Cedar Hills and Assembly of God churches—the sixth Sandpoint group organized through Forward Edge International—I am still sorting out my mixed feelings about my experience in New Orleans.
How arrogant of me to think I was making a sacrifice for the people I came to serve. The single mother and widowed sisters (in their 80s) we were able to work for were the ones who have sacrificed. Yet they collectively remained hopeful and shined radiant with joy and thankfulness for what had been done for them, little by little, team by team. I was truly humbled by my experience. I was the one who was ministered to and received the greatest blessing. These families, my volunteer partners and the charismatic revivalist style pastor, Pastor Charles, really know how to light a fire!
FEI founder Joseph Anfuso often tells the story of a man with a bucket of water approaching a building engulfed in flames. Near the building is a row of sleeping firemen. The man must make a choice: Does he throw his bucket on the building, or on the row of firemen? FEI has made its choice: they are waking up the firemen!
It is time we wake up and realize we have the resources and the manpower to help others; we simply lack the will. That lack of will is what is bringing America to her knees. We have lost sight of relationship, of what is of true value and meaning. Martin Luther King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects ALL indirectly.”
Today’s world is engulfed by crises and overwhelming need. It is easy to turn a deaf ear to the sound of our heart strings, thinking it is just too much, I can’t make a difference, why bother and the like. No, it wasn’t just the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, the below sea level and geographic location of NOLA, the inadequate levies and the corruption that contributed to the devastation of what once was the third most important city in our nation, it was and still is all our collective indifference, complacency and apathy, and I will go so far as to say the lack of compassion, that have taken the bigger toll!Don’t think I am pointing fingers! My friends have accused me many times of CDD—compassion deficit disorder. I am thankful my experience in NOLA opened my ears, eyes and heart to the value of relationship. Romans 12:10 tells us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” What a difference that would make in everyone’s life! What a gift! We would indeed experience heaven on earth and glorify God!
To this day there is not one area in New Orleans that does not still show the affects of Katrina as witnessed in our three hours of stop-and-look driving along the route of devastation. Nearly four years after Katrina’s rage! This was in all parts of Orleans Parish (80 percent of NOLA flooded). Many street signs thrown to the ground by Katrina have still not been replaced. Even in the Park Place of NOLA, along Lake Pontchartrain, one of every eight houses was still not occupied because it was not livable and the owners either lacked the funds, will or both to start anew. In the lower middle class areas where we worked, it was about one of every three to five houses.
The Ninth Ward did not hold the image of abandoned houses. It was much more dramatic. It was foundations devoid of a home, totally empty neighborhoods, and a memorial whose pillars displayed the height of the water levels over the course of six weeks, the empty chairs on the porch symbolizing the loss of neighborhood and a framed-in section of a structure representing both loss and rebuilding.
Every residence that was unoccupied, even some that were restored to homes, showed their mark. For some it was the water marks—which still have not faded in the sun, baring witness to the water’s incredible height. Or another mark of devastation—a large X on the front of every home indicating someone had been there looking for survivors—human and animal.
I felt truly sad at the site of the first numeral 1 in the bottom portion of the X and when another home displayed the words ‘no dog found,’ marking the loss of human life and man’s best friend. As we approach Passover I can’t help but wonder if those who left the X on their homes did so to ask harm to pass over them as death once did for those who had placed their faith in God in ancient Egypt.
There were an incredible number of homes with holes still in their roofs; the makeshift escape hatch for some, and both a testimony of survival—some waited five days on their roof tops to be rescued—and a testimony to poor judgment. Ironically for many, they went to the attic to avoid drowning, but were met by that fate because they had no way to punch through.
The holes in the roof also signify the complacency that contributed to the loss of life. So many had thought they had a better plan, that the evacuation warnings were exaggerated. They weren’t going to be inconvenienced by the seven-hour traffic jams, for what would normally be a one-hour drive, they had experienced with the overstated Hurricane Ivan warnings the year before.
Picture all the displaced people, the great loss—not material, but of life, of heritage, of a rich culture (I was happy to learn only a small portion of NOLA is as hedonistic as I imagined), the socio-economic impact. Now ask yourself how it is that one human being to another can just ignore the requests, the humiliation of our fellow Americans.
Was Katrina perhaps one of our first major wake-up calls urging us to unity—in what was once one of the most segregated areas of our country? NOLA was where Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to integrate a white school in NOLA lived. She had to be escorted by marshals to William Frantz Public School. This school now serves the children of nearby Musician’s Village, conceived by New Orleans natives Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. It exhibits the bright colors of the Caribbean and makes that part of NOLA look and feel very alive, perhaps mirroring the new course Ruby Bridges represented.
Louis Armstrong’s property, including two huge homes on an old plantation site, had served as a boy’s home and community center, before Katrina. It was an anchor to the surrounding neighborhoods. The buildings are still standing and look beautiful from a distance, but are now abandoned. Up close their emptiness is revealed, as are the unmet needs.
I am amazed that the city has not placed more emphasis on education. Everywhere are huge schools completely shut down. Southern University just recently opened some of their buildings, restoring the expectation of higher paying jobs through education and economic prosperity to the area once more.
We went to what resembled something from The Outer Limits—the silence was eerie, no one was around and all the doors and windows were blown out. There was no protective fencing. We walked through what a family once called home—furniture and personal possessions strewn and upended, walls collapsing—apartment after apartment ripped by Katrina’s fury.
I admired their colorful kitchens and imagined life in their neighborhood. I felt confused and ashamed. I didn’t know what to feel. These people were so devalued—what had once represented their lives and families was abandoned and discarded in a most disgraceful manner, left in a rubble of debris not much different than I would expect to see in a war-torn area. I imagined that some people lost their lives, family members and pets there—but no one would ever find them in that mess!
Their possessions and the life they represented were not even given the honor of a burial or the chance of a resurrection into a new life, retooled as affordable housing—enlivening once more the halls and classes of the newer elementary and high schools nearby, but shut down.
Frankly, it sickens me to know these people have been left to their own resources after enduring a horrific experience, directly or indirectly. Everyone knows someone personally who died or lost everything. How is it okay, in America, to ignore the needs of our fellow citizens—of relationship? It reminds me of the callousness of a person who continues to assault their victim. Indifferent to their screaming in pain and pleading for someone to help them. Where is our collective humanity, our accountability to one another?
Those who have remained and endured are just now being served. They represent the voice of the courageous, the persistent, and the hopeful. They began as voices not heard, met with fake concern and indifference, not the compassion they deserved. Really not that different from a person diagnosed with a terminal illness. Admit it, we have all been there with our proclamations, our hollow and uninformed opinions of how that person fell ill, why it happened to them, what they should have done, what they should be doing now. Does that judgment and near condemnation really serve anyone? Does it remedy the circumstance?
During this time of unemployment and overblown angst of what we have lost on paper or the material possessions we may lose or the retirement plans we may have to delay we might want to take a look at the survivors in NOLA and gain some perspective of what loss really is! We can learn from their experience; better yet, we can serve them and awaken our souls. We are ordinary people with an extraordinary purpose.
As of August, 2008, more than 250 homes and 25 churches have been restored by FEI teams. Yet astonishingly, over 16,000 families are still living in FEMA trailers as of June, 2008, and 65,000 homes are still blighted. Countless victims of the hurricane are lacking the resources they need to rebuild. There is still much work to be done! Do you want to experience a blessing and renew your spirit? Look up Forwardedge.org or connect to people in need some other way. It is the sure cure for CDD and any pity party. Helping others will change your life and show you the extraordinary things you are capable of doing!