Yesterday and today our service project was with Renew School, a charter school across the street from the house where we are staying. This was previously a failing public school; after Katrina it was closed for a long time. Last year it reopened as a science and technology magnet school for k-8. It was amazing to hear the teachers' stories of how they have created a college preparatory culture with New Orleans public school students who entered the school an average of two years behind grade level, and many of whom had their educations disrupted by Katrina for a year or more. One of their ways of turning around the culture has been to create a clean and inviting physical plant. We helped with this goal, doing everything from painting stairwells to organizing a resource room for k-2 teachers to landscaping to painting the playground to painting New Orleans posters for the school's entryway. Our kids felt useful and rewarded in knowing that their work will give hope and a future to New Orleans' next generation.
We also had some cultural experiences today. We went to a fascinating museum called the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where a delightful elderly gentleman named Sylvester told us about the history of New Orleans' "Indian" tribes at Mardi Gras and the African-American clubs who stage jazz funerals and parades almost every Sunday. We also had the opportunity to visit a traditional above-ground cemetery, an "Encounter" moment - one of several times when we have slowed down to think about how we encounter God. Our Nativity group has also been gathering every night for discussion and devotionals.
Tomorrow is our free morning, and we head out at 9 am to see the sights. High on everyone's list is a visit to Cafe du Monde for beignets and a visit to the hurricane-ravaged Lower 9th Ward. We also have a 2:00 visit to the Hurricane Katrina Museum and Cathedral Square, and Magazine Street, a quaint street of shopping and cafes. We have dinner at Bubba Gump's, a closing Eucharist in the courtyard of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a special closing ceremony tomorrow. Then it's off to home with a tired but happy group. We've bonded, learned a lot about ourselves, discovered a whole new culture (including the culture of the majority African-American population here), encountered God in unexpected places, and served our neighbors. A successful mission!