Monday, June 27, 2011

The New Orleans Experience

Now that we are back from New Orleans and I have a full keyboard and wireless Internet access with reasonable speed, I can let you know a bit more about the youth group's mission trip than the snippets I have shared previously.  (Because I know your tired teenagers are not going to tell you all about it!)  Here's everything you might want to know.
  • We stayed in a house in the Garden District that has been converted to use by youth mission groups. There were 48 of us, counting Nativity's 14 people and groups from Dallas and Pennsylvania (both affiliated with Episcopal churches).  There were four bedrooms, outfitted with triiple-decker bunkbeds, plus 6 bunks in the main dining room.  There were 4 1/2 bathrooms and a large kitchen. Since there were 11 males on the trip, they took one bedroom and one bathroom, and the rest were for the ladies.  The furnishings were basic, but it was all we needed - bunks, tables and chairs, and not much else.
  • Meals:  for breakfast most days, we had cereal or a bagel, plus yogurt or fruit if desired.  For lunch, we generally packed a sandwich, chips, fruit and cookies and took it with us to the work site.  For dinner, the program varied.  The first night, the leaders cooked dinner for us.  The last night, we all ate at Bubba Gump's.  Wednesday night, the wonderful people of Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church cooked us a wonderful meal of chicken and shrimp pasta.  The other three nights, we had "Stone Soup," named after the folk tale, in which a group of 12 youth and 2-3 leaders were given $200 and told to go to Walmart, buy all necessary groceries, and prepare, serve, and clean up after a dinner for the whole group.  It was a leadership and teamwork challenge. The three groups rose to the challenge admirably!
  • Service projects: we focused on relational projects that involved interacting with people.  Our service projects included a day at Kingsley House (a Head Start program for preschoolers, an adult day care center, a summer camp for school-age children, and more), where we got to help with the children (I drew lots of pictures for several eager preschoolers who wanted to see ducks, elephants, spaceships, etc.); a day picking up trash and cleaning in the neighborhood of Algiers Point, a majority African-American neighborhood; and two days doing various cleanup projects at Renew School, which takes failing public schools and transforms the culture and education to a college preparatory atmosphere (see my previous blog posts).  We got to interact with many of the kind and gracious people of New Orleans, and (we hope) make a lasting impact on their lives.  
  • Encounter moments: One of the features of a Wonder Voyages trip is that the participants go to various pilgrimage sites in the local community, places that will impact them in a particular way.  We went to three with the full group, and then added a fourth on our own.  The three full group experiences were: (1) A visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave in Algiers Point (which two centuries ago was the offloading dock for slave ships), where we experienced and talked about slavery and about being "bound" and being "free".  (2) A visit to a chalkboard wall where someone has written, "Before I die, I want to ... " and people take chalk and add their hopes and dreams.  Responses on the wall (from others before us) ranged from the silly ("Write in green chalk!" [check mark]) to the gruesome ("Kill a zombie!) to the deeply moving ("Show my wife and sons how much I really love them").  Our group added their own dreams, which were thoughtful and hopeful.  (3) A visit to a traditional above-ground New Orleans cemetery.  Members of our group walked with at least 2 other people through the cemetery and read the inscriptions on the tombs, thought about the lives of those buried there, and considered their own lives.  This experience might seem odd or frightening, but many of our kids had powerful experiences there.  (4) The Encounter moment that we added on our day off, when we were guided by Bill Wallace, one of the Wonder Voyages leaders, was a visit to the Murder Wall at St. Anna's Episcopal Church.  The church is in a lovely neighborhood, but the rector there has made it his mission to memorialize every person murdered in New Orleans since Katrina, with a name, an age, and the cause of death.  Every week, the rector sends that week's list of names, along with a rose for each victim, to the mayor and governor, to remind them that they are not doing their job as long as so many people are dying.  Bill pointed out that the number of murders in January 2011 alone was greater than the entire number of murders in Boise, Idaho, the whole 10 years he has lived there.  (I was amazed by this, because all the places we visited were so peaceful and safe, but Bill said there are areas of town where no mission trips go, and we went nowhere near them.  I will have to say, for the sake of other parents, that there was not a moment of the entire trip when I felt that we were in an unsafe place.)  We gathered, read the names and ages and causes of death (overwhelmingly "Shot") and prayed for all those who have died, their families and all who have been affected by their murders.  
  • Cultural and learning experiences.  We learned a lot about the culture of New Orleans, in formal and informal ways.  Our formal learning included a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where we heard about African-American cultural experiences such as the "Indian" tribes that spend all year creating beautiful beaded and feathered costumes in which they march on Mardi Gras, and the Clubs that hold parades and lead jazz funerals.  On Wednesday, after our dinner at Mt. Olivet Church, we walked down the street to an outdoor summer concert, where we heard jazz and blues music and our kids danced and walked behind a trumpet player in a New Orleans "Second Line" formation.  On Saturday, we had two learning experiences: a driving tour of Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward, where we saw the grids that officials spray-painted on the houses when they searched them for survivors after Katrina.  The grids showed the date searched (generally 3 weeks to 4 months after the hurricane), the group that searched it, and the number of animal and human bodies found (happily, usually 0).  In the Lower Ninth Ward, we saw empty fields where houses used to be, where nothing was left but concrete foundations, and the new, odd-looking "Brad Pitt" houses that have been redesigned to withstand hurricanes and floods by coming loose from their foundations and floating like boats.  Later, we visited the Katrina Museum near St. Louis Cathedral and learned about the impact of the hurricane.  The well-designed exhibit featured videos and sound effects that replicated the experience of the hurricane, and many video interviews with survivors that told about their experience - climbing onto the roof of their houses, being rescued by helicopter, waiting for days at the Superdome or the Convention Center, coming back to the city months later to find their houses gone, etc.  The kids learned a lot.  All of us loved the quaint charm of New Orleans - the lovely traditional three-story buildings with ironwork balconies in the older parts of town, the narrow "shotgun" houses with wide front porches, the gracious Southern mansions with gingerbread trim.  And of course, no trip to New Orleans would be complete without beignets at Cafe du Monde, where we had breakfast Sunday morning before heading to the airport.
  • Worship and devotions.  We had two Eucharists.  On Wednesday evening we worshiped at the lovely little Mt. Olivet Episcopal Church (which might hold 75 people packed hip to hip), whose congregation cooked us a wonderful dinner afterwards.  On Saturday evening I celebrated a closing Eucharist in the courtyard of Trinity Episcopal Church, close to where we were staying (a friend of mine is on staff there).  In addition, we gathered in the full group of 48 people some evenings for a meditation led by Chris Larson, the Wonder Voyages leader, and some evenings we gathered in our Nativity group for discussions and devotions that Tara and I led.  The last evening, our Nativity group had the "Passing the Candle" ceremony, where each person says one way they encountered God during the trip, and one way they saw God working through another person in the room.  It was deeply moving to hear the ways our kids saw God at work.
I think more than anything, the kids learned from their day-to-day interactions with the people of New Orleans.  They loved the people of Kingsley House - the elderly folks singing their gospel songs, and the adorable preschoolers who are getting hope for the future from their preschool program.  They also were amazed by their interactions with the people of the neighborhoods where we worked.  What friendly, kind, grateful people they were!  We talked about the difference between the ways people behave in Arizona (no hello or smile for strangers) and how they behave in New Orleans (a smile and greeting for everyone).  Since the overwhelming majority of the people we encountered were African-American, I think the kids had a chance to think about the racial divide in America in a new way - as well as to establish new ways of serving others.  

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