Monday, March 19, 2007

Lessons from Visiting New Orleans

From New Orleans, Louisiana

Spring break has brought several dozen folks from our parish, the Church of the Resurrection, Franklin, Tennessee, to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There is something surreal about a trip like this. Last time I was here was before Katrina, and New Orleans was a sweaty, bustling city, while the Mississippi coastline a haven for those seeking to enjoy the warm gulf breezes.

Today there is the jarring interface of normality with something that has hardly been normal at all. As I drove along Intertate 10 yesterday the strange emptiness in the communities on either side of the road has a science fiction flavor to them, as if streets and apartment complexes had suffered a plague of some kind.

We are here to work with the Church of the Annunciation, New Orleans, but I took a side-trip to Pass Christian, where I preached this weekend at Trinity Church. My memory of Trinity from the past was a tastefully designed facility set amidst a grove of live oaks. Today all that remains is the trees made more ragged. The frame and roof of the church are there also with walls that are rough framing stuffed with insulation to keep the worst of the cold, heat, and rain out. The offices and education building are gone -- as are the lovely houses that once abutted the church's site no more than a few hundred yards from the ocean.

But the Gulf Coast is very different from New Orleans. Whereas in Pass Christian I was proudly shown the drawings a the new facility that will rise on the site of what was the old one, in the hard-hit areas of New Orleans things are far from orderly.

I have seen a lot of shanties and barrios in the Global South, as well as the ruins of the Soviet Empire as Russia was emerging from seventy years of Communism, but adjectives used to describe these situations don't work in the New Orleans context. This morning I watched both kids and adults in our group grow quieter and more thoughtful as we were given a view of the Lower Ninth Ward and the devastation nature wrought.

I talked to an older woman named Louise, whose daughter was bringing her to see the site of her former home on Tennessee Street. She had lost everything, even the building in which she lived most of her life had never been found, and she was trying to explain how hard it was to pick up the pieces after such a disaster. "You can never forget it," she said thoughtfully, "Even if at times you can put it out of your mind for a little while."

In Broadmore, the community around the Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans there is a greater sense of order, but listening to Jerry Kramer and various of the folks working with him, it is clear that disorder, even anarchy, are not very far beneath the surface. Frustration levels are high, and the work that needs to be done sometimes seems impossibly demanding. These people rightly feel as if they have been forgotten, and have little but disdain for the politicians who have compounded the mess.

This afternoon I watched as the some of the kids in our group worked on what is going to be the Annunciation Youth House. It was good therapy for them to be out there doing something -- and I hope the activity will help them sleep tonight!

New Orleans seems to me in some ways to be a parable for our culture and the culture of our church. There are places where the city is very obviously broken, and this cannot be hidden. There are places where the place seems little changed from what it has always been. Yet as dereliction and seeming stability exist cheek-by-jowl with one another, their proximity seems much like the various textures of life that we see in the church and culture today.

I have this fear that we might in some ways be moving into a new dark age, and what we see in New Orleans is the practical outworking of that in what was once a significant city. Yet what is seething under the surface, spiritually and psychologically, is also part of that darkness that has begun to envelop us. Just as it is hard to be optimistic about a city like this, it is also hard to be optimistic about our culture and our church.

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