I spent last week in New Orleans with a group of young women and Sisters from the Federation of Charity. It was our annual service & spirituality trip, the fifth January trip since Hurricane Katrina. Our work project was to clear out Corpus Christi elementary school so that it can be reconfigured as a community center.
Mr. Earl Raymond was our foreman for the project and as he walked us through the building on Tuesday the job seemed overwhelming. Three floors to be cleared of desks, books, file cabinets…”everything must go”. Even worse was the damage done by vandals that needed to be cleaned up. There was no elevator so the furniture and boxes had to go down the stairs – or out the windows. There was no electricity. The roof in the oldest part of the building was leaking and the walls were wet. Mr. Earl just sighed and shook his head.
In our evening reflection we talked about how sad the building felt, abandoned and violated. The chalkboards still bore the assignments for August 29, 2005. Children’s notebooks and journals had only a few pages used. We threw away boxes of new textbooks. We hurled them out of the windows into the top of the almost-full dumpster. We jammed trophies and report cards into every nook and crannyso that I’m sure the trash fell out in a compact mass at the landfill. As on other trips, I had a sense that it requires out-of-towners to come into these places and remove possessions too dear to the owners to be tossed into trashbins. The people of New Orleans have done more than their share of letting go.
On the second day Fr. John, the seventy-something pastor of the parish, joined us for our sack lunch. He thanked us for the amazing amount of work we had already accomplished. It was raining and we sat in the cold cafeteria while he unfolded his vision of the community center. “You aren’t just clearing out trash. You are moving the dream for this building forward,” he said. He hopes for nine agencies to develop programs in the building, as diverse as a neighborhood history and culture museum and a theater arts group. “They have to be able to visualize what this can be,” he said, “and that can’t happen with the building the way it is.” Someone asked him how he will fund the programs. “I don’t know- but we’ll find the money somehow.” He says that he sees the school as an anchor for the entire Seventh Ward neighborhood. “If we get this going then maybe we can get a grocery store back again.”
By Thursday afternoon we had filled the second dumpster. Everything that could be sent for scrap metal had been collected. The cafeteria was arranged like a yard sale. The floors were even swept. Mr. Earl presided over the ceremonial closing of the dumpster door. His smile lit up the whole playground.
In our reflections at the end of the week someone shared that it seemed that the school was “happy” again and that you could almost hear the laughter of children in the halls. There was a sense of hope and possibility. And we had a wonderful feeling of accomplishment!
Apart from the work- or maybe in the midst of the work- community developed among the volunteers. We discovered each others’ gifts and abilities. We learned how much easier it is to pass desks and boxes down the stairs like a bucket-brigade rather than each person climbing the steps heavy laden. As always, a common project created a remarkable bond among us.
We met so many good people who are working hard to bring New Orleans back. It is a privilege to be part of that effort. I am grateful to the young volunteers who began their new year in service to others. I am grateful for the warm welcome at the House of Charity where three Sisters have made a home-away-from-home for volunteers.
It’s good to leave the ordinary and comfortable places of our lives now and then to discover the wonderful variety of our human family and the goodness that God has created within us all.