New Orleans One Year Later, A Mission of Hope

Eden Prairie News Commentary, Wednesday, August 16, 2006
By Dan Carlson

I just got back from New Orleans a couple of days ago and I’m starting to recover. My body is recovering from the non-stop, 24-hour drive down and the return trip one week later, as well as from four straight days of “mucking out houses” in temperatures and humidity percentages in the 90s. My mind is recovering from the overwhelming information overload I experienced in trying to comprehend what happened down there and what in the world can be done to fix it. As for my soul, I’m not quite sure where I am in terms of recovery. The spiritual impact of this trip has been confusing. Our mission trip consisted of 20 adults and young adults from my home church, Mount Calvary Lutheran in Excelsior and from our partner church on the trip, Prairie Lutheran in Eden Prairie. Lutheran Disaster Response coordinated our efforts and gave us clarity of mission: To bring hope to the people of New Orleans whose communities were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. We were to bring that hope through our presence, through compassion, through caring and a large dose of good old-fashioned physical grunt labor.

Although the images I have of this trip are too numerous to describe or even comprehend right now, there are a couple that stick in my mind. One was the abandoned neighborhood where we worked on the third day. Mature trees lined the streets, creating a cooling canopy of shade, small sturdy houses on narrow lots making up street after street of rectangular city blocks. All abandoned and desolate. No more neighborhood, no more neighbors, no one to help because no one was left to help, just a group of Minnesotans trying to bring some hope to indescribable devastation and hopelessness. I wasn’t planning on going to a place that reminded me of home. I was going to the bayou, the Mississippi delta. Not the middle class neighborhood where I grew up in south Minneapolis. This easily could have been my home.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of unoccupied homes because of hurricane damage. Although there are many that need to be knocked down and rebuilt or rebuilt elsewhere, there are many more that will have significant value once they are gutted and cleaned. A fellow volunteer worker shared a story of how she had conversations with firefighters at a fire station located near their job site. The firefighters, who were living away from their families in FEMA trailers in the parking lot, without the time or resources to work on their own homes, asked how they could get their homes on our list of homes to be gutted. The friends, families and neighbors of these firefighters, the people they would call on in need, are unavailable because they too are in need. I know our small group didn’t accomplish much in the big scheme of things but I do know that our efforts did make a difference and I intend to return to support the effort.

I could share more of my experiences, my feelings and the impact this trip has had on me and the members of our group. But what I have come back with is the clear calling to share the story of the people of New Orleans, or at least the ones I had contact with. People did not hesitate to engage us in conversation when they saw us coming, whether it was at the gas station, a restaurant, the local Walgreen’s, touring the French Quarter or at a job site. They have become accustomed to the “church people” invading their town, driving 15-passenger rental vans, wearing a variety of work boots and flip flops, and each armed with a digital camera and glazed look in their eyes. Consistently comments from the residents ultimately included, “Thanks for being here” and “Don’t let people forget us.”

So yes, I am recovering, and so is New Orleans. Together, our bodies are being nourished and rested, our minds are gaining perspective and knowledge and our souls are finding some peace. Peace in the knowledge that work is being done and an important message is being shared. A message that says “a caring presence brings hope and people in need must not be forgotten.” We have all been called to serve, not just cops, firefighters and medics. We can all provide a caring presence and minimally, we can all choose not to forget.