Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Friday

This was our last work day here in NOLA (New Orleans, La.). Most of the job sites were repeats, including the Live Oak School, Project Lazarus, and the various construction projects. I spent my last day back at Ms. Evelyn's house pulling down plaster and lath. We got the huge timber installed under the sagging corner of the house, so our crew chief was excited.

I do not consider myself a gourmet by any means. In fact, I am really not all that discriminating an eater at all. But, there are some foods that turn me into that drooling vision of Homer Simpson. We ate lunch at Cafe Reconcile again, and today I had the Shrimp Creole, Crawfish Bisque, and chicory coffee. New Orleans deserves to be restored to its original condition if for absolutely no other reason, meals like this.

Tonight, I walked a few miles along St. Charles Avenue to the Camellia Grille. My daughter has been raving about this place for years on her visits. Again, my palate was delighted. They had a chocolate pecan pie. I told the man behind the counter that I do not order pecan pie north of the Mason-Dixon line, because we Northerners just don't know how to make it. He assured me that I would be delighted.

I watched as he cut the slice of pie and inverted in onto the grill. Then he squirted a little butter on the grill and flipped the pie over. After placing it on the plate, he topped it with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. Words fail me in describing that experience.

I don't exactly know what makes a memorable experience religious. Perhaps seeing a child's precious stuffed animal atop moldy textbooks in a collapsed elementary school in the Lower Ninth Ward two years after Katrina is a religious experience. Perhaps every experience is religious to some small degree. I am not sure what the percentage must be in order for an experience to be truly described as religious. I think that I have reached a point where any moment in our lives that takes us beyond the normal and routine, and that stimulates our thoughts and emotions, is religious.

Because if God is the ultimate, or the combination of all experience, or the universe, or however one views the concept, then any experience that opens our senses, our hearts, or our minds to something beyond ourselves is placing us in the presence of God. Perhaps thinking of eating a chocolate pecan pie trivializes the nature of experiencing God. I certainly do not intend to do so. I am trying to say that a simple act - feeling a breeze, wading in the surf, watching the first golden rays of sunlight in the morning - can inspire awe, and put one in a state of self awareness and awareness of our connectedness with all of existence.

The potential for such an experience should exist every Sunday morning in worship services. But, we should be on the lookout for these moments all during our hectic lives. Perhaps a truly religious life is one filled with religious experience - some that are life changing epiphanies, and some that waft on the wind like a butterfly.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Thursday

It was a rainy day here in New Orleans. We had rain storms off and on all day long, so jobs had to move in and out of doors when things got too heavy. We were also joined this morning by 20 or so young people on fall break from college in North Carolina (the two who joined our team were from Chapel Hill and were here for their fifth time).

I was back at Ms. Evelyn Green's house today. Our day started with a good example of redevelopment recycling. Ms. Evelyn's house has one corner that needs jacked up and a major beam replaced due to rot. Our team leader, Dallas, had found a 24 foot long 8"x8" piece of timber on an empty lot and had contacted the owner to get permission to take it. He got permission so long as he took the other pieces (that were not quite as nice). So, we spent an hour or so sawing this huge timber into manageable pieces and getting them back to the house. We spent the rest of the day on a variety of tasks around the house.

Other teams today went to a local school and painted some classrooms; did grounds keeping along streets; laying tile as Ms. Severe's house; and helped Ms. Jessie move into her home. Ms. Jessie's is the first house that will have gone from start to finish with Hands On New Orleans. Dave Whaley in our group did an art project presentation with the AIDS patients in Project Lazarus. Another member of our group, Kathy Gorka, went to a school library in Central City whose students have had little exposure to books and libraries. Kathy worked with the youth at her church to created art supply boxes that arrived here the other day. She will go to the Lower Ninth Ward tomorrow to deliver them to the Martin Luther King Charter School.

Everywhere we go, people ask about us and thank us for taking the time away from our families to help out their city. I think that New Orleanians will one day excel in helping others in need, since they so well understand the value of the services given through the kindness of others. Interestingly, I heard the other day that the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans collected funds recently and sent them to our church in Findlay, Ohio, which suffered huge losses from a flood recently. So, maybe all of this giving and caring is not only contagious, but comes back when you least expect it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Wednesday

Today was KaBOOM day! Almost all of the Pittsburgh Unitarian Universalist volunteers and friends went to a nearby neighborhood to build a playground (a couple of other folks worked with Greenlight New Orleans, changing light bulbs in homes to bulbs that are more efficient and environmentally sound). We were joined by other volunteers in town and a number of Americorps young adults for a total of 75-100 folks. After breaking up into work groups, we built a wide range of playground apparatus (apparati?), built picnic tables and benches, painted a mural, and moved 180 cubic yards of mulch into the playground area.

KaBOOM is an interesting organization, whose goal is to build great places to play within walking distance of every child. They have built more than 1,300 to date and ours was the 64th built in the Gulf Coast region post-Katrina. The Louisiana Freedmen Develeopment Corporation and Lunchables (which is interesting because we did not receive a lunchables snack for lunch). Coordinating this wide range of activities without any sense of the skill levels of the volunteers is enormously challenging. The process was definitely aided by the pre-training of team leaders (which took place on Monday), who coordinated the many assignments.

It threatened rain all day, and held off until just near the end of the build. But, it lasted only 15 minutes or so, allowing much of the rest of the work to be finished and the ribbon cutting ceremony to take place around 3:15. There were a number of little ones anxious to start playing, but they had to be kept off until the concrete footers dry. The final project included two slides, swings, a rock climbing wall and several hanging bars.

The setting was very logical, with about one dozen new duplexes sharing a back lot in which the playground was located. It is an excellent model for creating neighborhoods and safe places for kids to play.

This heat and humidity are starting to wear my Northerner body down. A couple of times, we have had short rains followed by sun that turned the area into a sauna. I'm not sure I would ever get used to this climate. They are calling for a high of 89 tomorrow (yikes) with more chance of rain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Are a New Orleanian

Tonight, many of the volunteers from Pittsburgh met some of the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans for dinner. In addition to the fellowship and sharing, we had a presentation by one of the church members on race and class issues and Katrina. Of course, race and class remain (unfortunately) significant factors in the lives and well-being of Americans, which is perhaps no were more apparent than in aftermath of the Katrina tragedy. For instance, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act currently in Congress lays out the deliberate racist and classist actions of people in authority at the time to shut down quality public housing sites and evict existing tenants after the disaster largely to replace public housing with higher cost housing. Ironically, one of the chief opponents of the bill is Louisiana senator David Vitter. We were urged to join the campaign contacting Senator Vitter's office to ask that he stop his efforts to block the bill.

Reverend Melanie Morel-Ensminger of First UU Church also spoke in response to a question of how we should respond when people ask why New Orleans should be rebuilt given its geographical location and the danger of another devastating storm in the future. Reverend Morel-Ensminger replied that people would not ask this question if San Francisco needed rebuilding, even though it lies on a fault line. She said that people did not ask whether the cities on the Mississippi River flood plain should be rebuilt, even though the flooding of several years ago may well occur again. These questions would not be asked because, in this case, the vast majority of victims were people of color, the poor, and often both.

"You are a New Orleanian," she told us, if you love jazz music, red beans and rice, and the other cultural contributions of New Orleans. You are a New Orleanian if the federal government controls a dam, or bridge, or other piece of critical infrastructure whose failure could cost you your home. She expressed the hope that no one ever experience the displacement and discrimination that many New Orleanians have faced, especially now that in just weeks, FEMA will be shutting down trailer camps, yet again putting low income people on the streets.

You are a New Orleanian if you believe in justice and that our government should protect our rights as home owners and citizens against the legions of the greedy, the narrow minded, and the uncaring. "We don't want your pity," she said. What New Orleanians want is for us to join with them in the fight for justice for all and in recognition of our common desire to live lives of freedom and dignity.

New Orleans Trip: Tuesday

Today, most of the volunteers went to the New Orleans Food Bank. A few returned to the Animal Shelter and some returned to the Lazarus Project working with AIDS patients. Also, the two construction crews at Ms. Evelyn's and Ms. Severe's houses returned to their sites.

I went back to Ms. Evelyn's house today. Some of us helped jack up a corner of the house that was sinking. I worked on exploring the possibility of stripping the paint from the baseboards and doors, in order to restore them to their original condition. This is a long-term job, since there is a huge amount of woodwork to be repaired in the home. Once we can set up the best techniques, then the crew leader can direct future volunteers more effectively.

This brings up an interesting situation with this organization. All of the staff and leaders are young adults, many working through Americorps, and probably all in their 20's. Few of them have extensive construction experience, but they have an unbridled passion to do a good job restoring these homes.

Dallas, our crew chief, is from Portland, Maine. He has a fiction writing degree from Colorado and is an energetic and idealistic young man. He badly wants to not just return Ms. Evelyn to a house, but restore her home to as close to its original condition as possible. Of course, we are doing this with little money, but a lot of labor. So, there are times when we volunteers have suggested want seem to be logical ideas and shortcuts. But, Dallas is undeterred.

The point is that, whoever is right is not important. What matters is that this young man and the dozen or so other young people leading these projects are learning vital skills while performing valuable public services. This experience will make them even more amazing people who I am sure will contribute immensely to society. So, whether they make the decision we older and perhaps more experienced adults would make is less important than the fact that we respect their authority and give our best efforts to help them achieve their goals for their projects.

So, coming to New Orleans is about directly helping victims of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It is also about training the next generation of citizens in leadership and giving them the confidence to strive for their dreams.

Another important aspect of our trip to New Orleans is infusing our energy and our financial resources into the community. Several of us have reported conversations with local residents thanking us just for being here. Today, our crew ate lunch at Cafe Reconcile, an absolutely fascinating organization in Center City. This five-story building currently is a restaurant where young people learn all of the skills of the hospitality business. In time, the upper floors will be developed into a banquet hall, classrooms, space for entrepreneurial enterprises, and short-term housing for students. The food was amazing - collards, okra, pork chops, crawfish bisque, among other things.

Tomorrow, everyone will be going to the Ka-Boom playground site.

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Monday

After breakfast, everyone broke into their work groups. I was part of a group of seven folks working on Ms. Evelyn Green's house in Center City. Ms. Green is a widow and I understand a very prominent person in her neighborhood. During Hurricane Katrina, her roof was damaged and the house sustained a great deal of water damage. By the time she could move back in, water had seeped everywhere and mold was growing.

After hooking up with Hands On New Orleans, crews went into the house and gutted it. All plaster was removed, down to the rafters and joists. Everything was then power washed and treated with mold remover. Now, the crews are working on restoring the inside of this interesting old house, built in the 1890's.

Today, a few of the volunteers worked on creating a window repair space and cataloging all the window parts in the house. Another group demolished a back porch ruined by the storm. We left two of the crew back at based camp to scout out the best prices on specialized equipment that will be needed to finish the outside siding and to research how some of the architectural details can be saved. I worked with one of the crew chiefs building temporary racks to how moldings and trim boards over the next few months.

About midway through the day, a very sharply dressed gentleman approached the house with a photographer. He toured the house and spoke to the workers. As he was leaving, I introduced myself and found out that he was the minister of the nearby church that used to house Hands On New Orleans. The photographer was from the New York Times! When he heard that I was a student minister, he asked if that meant I was a Reverend yet. I said, "Not quite," but I had a feeling that I may wind up in the article as Reverend Liebmann (I hope I don't get in trouble with the powers that be!)

Arriving back at base camp, we joined in the Race for the Showers - a thoroughly primitive display in less than ideal circumstances. Oh, well, what's the point of experience like this if you don't rough it a little? Dinner and the community meeting are in a few minutes. We have heard that a film crew is arriving from the U.K. for some reason. I didn't bargain on becoming world famous for one little week of volunteer work!

Lower Ninth

The experience of driving through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans yesterday was a sobering one, and many of those in our group were deeply moved. To see what was left of a thriving neighborhood two years after Hurricane Katrina leaves one little hope that this community will ever be reborn again. With their apparent lack of power, and the interests that would like to see the Lower Ninth become an oil refinery or some developer's tax shelter, these people seem to have few advocates to regain the home they once had.

Ironically, the Sunday Times-Picayune carried a New York Times article titled, "Black women face tough choice in Demo primary." If you are a member of a privileged class in America, the article makes for interesting reading. The reporter interviewed African American women in a South Carolina beauty parlor on their views toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"I've got enough black in me to want somebody black to be our president...but I want to be real, too...I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn't even have a chance," said Miss Clara, owner of the shop. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him. Black voters have noted that Obama was given Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate except Hillary Clinton, who already had protection as a former president's wife. After seeing the desolation of the Lower Ninth, and countless other examples in American history when the rights of African Americans have been pummeled into the ground, I can easily imagine why Miss Clara might feel protective of Obama.

One can hope that such fears are unfounded and we can all do more to work to improve our society so that the best candidate is elected to the presidency. After all, as one customer of Carries' Magic Touch said, she would probably vote for Obama despite her fears for his safety. "Things happened with presidents in the past, and they weren't African Americans." Maybe if our nation honored this kind of bravery as much as that displayed on the battle field, then the people of the Lower Ninth and similar communities across the country might have one more small reason for hope in the future

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New Orleans Trip: Sunday

Today is our first full day at Hands On New Orleans. It is a rest day, so after breakfast we all headed over to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. FUUNO is a beautiful facility that suffered from four feet of flooding during Hurricane Katrina and sustained substantial damage. But, the church has bounced back and is now beginning a major capital campaign in concert with two other area UU churches. I had one amusing moment. During the service, I noticed that my hymnal had a large circular imprint on the front cover. Later, I saw the following inscription on the inside front cover. "This hymnal was used to put out an 'out of control' chalice flame Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006." No deep meaning, but it seems somehow appropriate.

After church we returned to "base camp" for lunch and our first community meeting led by the Hands On coordinator Stefanie. There are several jobs we will be working on this week including: construction on two houses; building a community playground through an organization called Ka Boom; helping the Animal Rescue Shelter of New Orleans (the only 'no-kill' shelter in the city); Project Lazarus, which helps AIDS patients; and doing outdoor cleanup and planting work with Groundwork: New Orleans.

After lunch, we piled in the vans to take a tour of the city, especially the most affected areas. The tour consisted of many pages of text carefully prepared by First Church. Eventually, we drove into the Lower Ninth Ward. Watching all of the documentaries did not really prepare me for the desolation. Street after street of what used to be home-lined and tree-lined bustling communities is now just one empty, scrub-filled lot after another. One can literally count on a couple of hands the number of homes that seem to have been repaired completely. Most of the structures still remaining are in various states of disrepair, often with "Do not demolish" spray painted on their sides.

According to the tour, the former residents are besieged on all sides by bureaucracy and a society that has abandoned them. Many home owners (and 68% of the homes in the area were owned by their residents) inherited their houses from parents and never filed official papers regarding the transfers. As a result, home owners unable to prove ownership have been denied compensation or assistance. Also, people whose homes were destroyed and lack the money to rebuild, are being fined by the city if they fail to keep their unusable properties clear of overgrown plants. It doesn't matter that the population of the area probably numbers in the dozens. No matter how one slices it, the injustice looms massive. It was a sobering experience.

As we looked at the infamous levy, we learned that some people have alleged that the levies were blown up. Apparently, many decades ago, the city blew up the levy in the poorer district in order to spare the richer district from flooding. So, the legacy of this colossal act of public ill lives on. It is not hard to imagine why a local resident would believe stories of government corruption and conspiracy, especially as contractors bilk property owners out of money and developers pressure the city to take over via eminent domain.

The rest of the evening, we spent in the world-renowned French Quarter. Anyone who asks why New Orleans should be rebuilt simply needs to go to this one-of-a-kind site.

Tomorrow, the work begins!

Flying to New Orleans

I arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport two hours early to find it nearly deserted. Saturday night is a great time to fly out. The check-in area was virtually empty of people (except of course for the person ahead of me in line with three boxes of human blood!).

This gives me the opportunity to exercise my right of free speech and express my opinion that the insanity that is airport security should make us ashamed to call ourselves civilized [rank mode on]. I challenge someone to prove that the time and resources expended in this colossally stupid enterprise has actually succeeded in apprehending any credible threat to the public welfare. I accepted this absurdity until the removal of shoes began a few years ago. This endeavor is, in my opinion, the result of unbridled fearmongering...sigh [rant mode off].

Anyway, I arrived at the terminal in time to watch most of the restaurants close their gates; all but McDonald's and TGIFriday's. Not wanting to raise my cholesterol 20 points, I headed for the acronym. Just a word of warning - a half order of potato skins is still HUGE. Ron was a very friendly waiter and extremely attentive. He was disappointed when I told him that I do not fly often. So, if you find yourself eating at Friday's at the airport, ask for Ron.

So, there are 14 of us waiting for the connecting flight to Washington D.C.: 11 men, two women (one wearing sunglasses at night), and a baby of indeterminant gender. The plane is a puddle jumper that seats about 50. Mercedes, the flight attendant, is hilarious. Her's was the first safety speech I have listened to in years.

Dulles International was much busier. I strolled through a couple of shops (Border's carried Newsweek, but not Time - I wonder if that has anything to do with the UUA's national ad campaign? Just kidding). The toy store had one of those bins with annoying wind up toys. One was a chicken that did that inane birdie dance song that is so prevalent at weddings. I told the clerk that if I had to endure that cacophony for an eight-hour day, I would end up on the six o'clock news.

On the flight to New Orleans, I sat next to a nice lady from Myrtle Beach. When she saw me reading The Pipe and Christ, a book about a Jesuit priest and the Lakota Indians, we got to talking about religion. She had heard of Unitarian Universalism, having read a biography of Christopher Reeve. She could not quite understand, though, why anyone would not want to accept the joy of a personal relationship with the Christian God. I suppose I need to get used to those conversations.

We arrived in New Orleans 25 minutes ahead of schedule - amazing! On the cab ride to the Hands On New Orleans site, we passed the Superdome. It immediately brought back memories of the thousands of people stranded there with no facilities and of people dying on the sidewalks outside. It's midnight now and everyone is asleep. So, I'm in an empty room at the end of the hall until tomorrow, when I will move to the men's bunk room.