Bishops' spouses answer call to service in New Orleans, encourage others

October 26, 2006

In post-Katrina New Orleans, recovery efforts are sluggish and many people are still homeless. Volunteers are as important now as ever.

Ten women from across the country heeded the call and arrived on October 10 for a five-day mission visit to New Orleans. It just so happened that these volunteers are married to Episcopal bishops.

While in town, the women focused on three programs that the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and its Office of Disaster Response (ODR) have implemented to help the city in its recovery.

Gutting houses

When the City of New Orleans flooded, more than three-fourths of the homes in the city flooded. Many homeowners hope to repair or rebuild their homes but before this can be done, everything must be removed from the residence, salvageable or not. The house must then be stripped to the bare studs to remove mold and grime left by the flood waters.

Some of the bishops' spouses gutted houses in the neighborhoods of Gentilly, Arabi and the upper and lower Ninth Ward. One of the residences where the women volunteered was the home of an elderly couple. Not much work had been done to the home. Most of the couple's possessions had not been removed yet. The women were able to help the husband and wife by carefully removing their possessions before demolishing walls and removing cabinets.

The real ministry was not just the physical labor they contributed but the compassion the volunteers were able to offer the couple as they helped them sort through their belongings. Before ruined items were taken out to the street, the bishops' wives listened to the stories behind each personal treasure. The women helped the couple cope with the loss of their lifetime's worth of belongings. Fortunately, some items were able to be rescued and will be able to be restored.

With the help of volunteers from all over the country, such as this group of bishops' wives, approximately 400 homes have been gutted to date through the ODR. The office has a waiting list of persons whose homes are in need of gutting.

Mobile Respite Care Unit
In the lower Ninth Ward destruction stretches for miles in every direction. Hope is measured by the return of potable tap water, which was restored only three weeks ago, or the return of a traffic light which had been dormant for more than year.

The diocese's Mobile Respite Care Unit (MRCU) sets up every week at a busy intersection in the lower Ninth Ward to meet that community's needs. The MRCU, and the volunteers who serve with it, minister to the people of the area by offering pastoral care and the distribution of goods such as toiletries, snacks, cleaning supplies and other products.

A line of people had formed in front of the MRCU waiting to get supplies when the bishops' wives arrived to help. An equally impressive line was waiting for medical help from St. Anna's Mobile Medical Mission which was parked nearby in the lot across from a boarded-up Walgreen's. A city bus pulled up and everyone got off the bus to get supplies, including the bus driver, before continuing on their route.

It was an average day, assured Deacons Quinn Bates and Mike Hackett, who supervise and drive the MRCU. The bishops' spouses handed out Ramen noodles, Vienna sausages, toilet paper and water.

"I am grateful to my diocese for enabling me to do this," said Annie vonRosenburg from the Diocese of East Tennessee. "I have been waiting for a chance to do this for a year."

When asked if the Ninth Ward was anything like she expected it would be, vonRosenburg replied: "I was not prepared when I came over the bridge. We call it the ‘Oh-my-God bridge.' When you come over it, you just say, ‘Oh my God.'"

She was referring to the St. Claude Bridge over the Industrial Canal that crosses into the beleaguered lower Ninth Ward.

The women brought gifts to be handed out at the distribution site -- a collection of books to help replace those lost in the flood waters and several boxes of toys.

Since its inception, to date 45,302 people have been served from the Mobile Respite Care Unit.

The Dragon Café

On Thursday and Friday of every week, St. George's Church opens its doors to feed the public in uptown New Orleans. All people are welcome for a free dinner and occasionally a musician or two. Following the meals at the café, a service is held for the volunteers to reflect on the work they have done.

At noon, several bishops' spouses were in the kitchen of St. George's to begin the supper chores for the coming evening. Pealing away layers of cabbage, the women worked to prepare some 150 dishes of food for the café's nightly meal. The women stayed through the night to serve the food and to clean up afterwards.

The spouses had discussed coming to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck when the House of Bishops met in Puerto Rico last year. The buzz began from there and grew until this past June's General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, where there was a sign-up sheet for anyone interested in making the journey to the Crescent City.

The mission to New Orleans was not the first service trip the bishops' spouses have taken together. The group has been to Honduras twice, where they built schools, houses, and septic systems. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, several spouses went to Mississippi to help in their relief effort.

The spouses who made the trip to Louisiana were: Ann Vest of Southern Virginia, Anne Labat-Gepert of Western Michigan, Karlah Gibbs of Michigan, Kate Smith of Connecticut, Marilyn Jelinek of Minnesota, Annie vonRosenburg of East Tennessee, Virginia McDonald of Alaska, Pat High of Texas, Hyde Tennis of Seattle and Kit Bainbridge of Idaho.