Top 10 Things I learned in NOLA

Written March 28th, 2016


(Justice Sunday reflection, 3/6/16)

In April I will make my 9th trip to New Orleans.  If you had asked me in 2009 if I thought we would still be going down there, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I have learned a lot on my trips, and I today, I want to share with you the top 10 things I have learned on my New Orleans trip.

10   Stay away from fire ants.  Seriously, you don’t want to mess with them.  We have have more than our share of run-ins with them.  Warren, who is from Louisiana, tried to warn us about them, but you know, they’re ants how bad could they be?    Learn from us.  Keep away

9 Be friendly. I mean really , people don’t bite, and what have you got to lose?  As a New Englander, born and bred, I am not used to just striking up a conversation with strangers, or having them talking to you.  But in New Orleans, people just do. And nothing bad happens.  try it,  you might have fun.  And you might make a new friend. 

8 As long as your house is still standing, you’re doing fine.  We’ve had 2 bad experiences with water damage due to ice dams in our house.  The first time was right before our first trip to NOLA. We had a bad leak, and it ruined an entire wall and flooring of one room.  I was really stressed out about this, and for whatever reason convinced that the house would be taken over by black mold. Then I went to New Orleans and saw what water damage REALLY was.  Last winter, our ice dams were back.  I came home one night to find the kitchen ceiling on the kitchen table.  As I surveyed the damage, all I could think was “Ah, wet wallboard. the smell of New Orleans”. I went to garage, got my gloves, and safety glasses out of my NOLA bag, and pulled down the rest of the damaged ceiling.  I was fine, my cats were fine, my house was still able to keep me safe from the weather.  What more did I need?

7 There’s no better way to get to know people than to spend a week living and working with them.  One thing I like about our trips is that we bring people of all ages, from 15 to 75 in ways we just can’t do here at church.  We work together, we play together, we clean the bathrooms together.  When you spend 8 hours in a cramped bathroom trying to fit drywalll around a tub surround, it’d be pretty hard not to learn a little something about your partner.

6 You don’t have to agree with people on everything to work with together. Since we are a church group, people down there tend to make a lot of assumptions about our beliefs, especially in the first 2 years, when we were working with a faith-based organization.  At one church we worked at, the pastor was working along with us, and we did a lot of praying.  In the beginning, it was uncomfortable. I didn’t believe what they thought I believed, and their words did not have the same meaning for me.  Over the years though, I have realized that this isn’t about why we each have chosen to come to do this work,  it is about the fact that we choose to do it.  We can come together there.

5  Go where you don’t belong We stick out in New Orleans.  More than just our Red Sox hats, and our accents, or the fact that we think that 80 degrees is summer weather.  NOLA is  culturally different from NE, the food, religion, politics, construction practices –  in so many ways.  On our first trip, we had to have the waiter explain all of the side dish options, because we didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know that I could feel so alien in a city in my own county.   It’s good to see the world through someone else’s filters, you will find there are a lot of things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

4 Community Matters I get asked a lot why the people in New Orleans wanted to rebuild when we all know it could happen again.  At first, I didn’t have an answer.  But in 2013, we were in NOLA when the Boston Marathon bombings happened. It was a strange thing, seeing your own city on the news every morning.   In the response of the people here, I started to better understand the people of New Orleans. After Katrina, the people in New Orleans got out their boats and rescued anyone they could find, whoever they were.  In Boston,  people in the streets treated the injured, and helped the stranded runners get in contact with their families.  We swore that the Boston Marathon would go on again, even though there was no way guarantee it couldn’t happen again.  It’s the same in New Orleans. It isn’t about the houses, or the race, it’s home, community, and traditions.

3 Choose hope.  I don’t believe that bad things happen for a reason.  While many good things have happened in NOLA since 2005, I would never say that Katrina was good thing.  It was a disaster.  I do believe that when bad things happen, you have a choice in how to respond.  When Father Jerry at Annunciation came home to a church under 12 feet of water, and a congregation scattered all over the country, he had a choice.  He chose hope.  He opened up his church to volunteers who had started flooding the city.  He turned his parking lot as a distribution point for water, food, bleach, clothes, and the thing his community needed most, a place to come together and support one another.  Pastor Ella chose hope when, after realizing she couldn’t afford to fix her house up enough to move back,  she chose to turn the house  into a food pantry to feed those who had moved back. You can’t change the bad things of the past, but you can choose to bring about the good things of the future.

2 No matter how small, what you do matters For 5 days in April, I will go to New Orleans, hang some drywall, and paint a few walls. Then I will go home to my intact house, in my intact neighborhood, and go back to my normal life.  In itself, it really doesn’t seem like much.  But since 2003, hundreds of thousands of people have volunteered in New Orleans.   When we were talking to Robin, at Annunciation, she said that without the volunteers, New Orleans couldn’t have been rebuilt. Together, we have made a difference.


Blue Tarp Mardi Gras outfit

2006 Mardi Gras outfit made from a blue tarp

2006 Mardi Gras made out of blue tarp

2006 Mardi Gras dress made out of blue tarp

1 No matter how bad things get, there’s always a reason to party.  The big question in the fall of 2006 was whether or not New Orleans would be able to have Mardi Gras.  They did of course, It was smaller than it was before, but no less of a party.  There’s an exhibit in the Katrina Museum of that first Mardi Gras showing traditional Mardi Gras costumes  – made out of the ubiquitous blue tarps used to cover hurricane-damaged roofs.
Laissez les bon temps roulez – Let the good times roll

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