Grace after crisis

New Orleans shows its spiritual depth as it recovers from hurricane
June 1, 2006

Episcopalians who have returned to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city have united to rescue their neighborhoods, help one another and speak of how the storm drew many of them closer to God.

At Grace Church in Midtown, members worshipped outdoors for several weeks and now meet in a small chapel just off the empty nave. “First you have to cry,” said Fortunata Jefferson, who lives 16 blocks away from Grace. “The second thing, for me, was I got angry at God. The third reaction I had, I was standing on the deck of my friend’s house in Monroe [in northeastern Louisiana, where she took shelter from Katrina]. It was a beautiful night, I saw every star, and I began singing How Great Thou Art.”

Jefferson and other members of Grace said they were determined to stay together as a congregation and to continue worshipping in their church, which -- unlike many other buildings in New Orleans -- has electricity again. “Katrina did not beat us,” Jefferson said.

At Church of the Annunciation, which is in the low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood, members have relied on gas-powered generators for power. Annunciation’s rector, the Rev. Jerry Kramer, helped the congregation acquire mobile homes that are larger and less expensive than those distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Monday through Thursday, volunteers from Annunciation and other parishes travel into the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to distribute water, snacks, Bibles and what Bishop Charles Jenkins has called “the eighth sacrament”: bleach.

Robert Perry, who was a bus driver for the city before Katrina struck, said he returned to the city mostly because of Annunciation and its ministry. For several weeks after his return, Perry lived in and was the driver for a large RV donated by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, which Annunciation used for diocesan-sponsored missions of mercy into the Lower Ninth Ward.

Time to give thanks

Perry’s apartment was not flooded, but a rescue squad did kick in the door. “The blessing was that I got out alive and unscathed,” Perry said. “We all want to stay in our comfort zone. This storm exposed all of us.”

Wendy Garrigues, Annunciation’s minister to youth and children, lost her apartment in the flooding, but she said she’s thankful for the changes the crisis brought into her life. “It really brought a lot of healing to me. I was a pretty burned-out youth minister before the storm,” she said. “The storm stopped all the chaos. It stopped all the long hours and the missed days off and forced me to be quiet.”

“I think this storm has brought out the best in a lot of people,” Garrigues said. “It’s taking down people’s façades, people are being very real, and people are starting to take joy in that.”

At the empty facility of St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Lakeview, church school board Chairman Julio Figueroa talked about how his home was spared, but expressed a continuing concern for the future of the city he loves. The school is meeting temporarily at another Episcopal day school in nearby Metairie and plans to return to Lakeview by the fall.

“Every day I wake up thankful,” Figueroa said quietly. “I’m thankful to be here in this gutted building. I’m grateful because we have a chance to build something beautiful. What I’ve been pushed to do, by God, is not only to demonstrate my faith through actions but also to speak my
faith through words.”

At Chapel of the Holy Spirit, near Tulane University, Chaplain Francis King has welcomed work groups from across the country. King said he had noticed fellow New Orleanians struggling under post-Katrina stress. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘I’m drinking more and enjoying it more,’” he said. “People say that to be funny, but there’s substance behind it, too.”

A touchstone moment

Bishop Jenkins said he believes the storm gave New Orleans’ religious leaders unprecedented opportunities to provide moral leadership. “People realize this is a touchstone moment for the American people,” he said. “I don’t believe that without people of faith we can deal with racism and class.”

The bishop praised New Orleans as showing greater spiritual depth than would be evident from a stroll through its best-known tourist district, the French Quarter. “I think the façade you see on Bourbon Street is just that -- a façade,” Jenkins said. “You’ll find that the bartender working the late shift will be at the Vigil Mass on Saturday afternoon.”

His recovery from Katrina is marked both by personal grief and hope for the future. “I am struggling with death and resurrection, dealing with loss. I’m thinking about the people I know. Some are dead, some are not coming back. I’m still grieving.” Still, he said, “There are no atheists in this foxhole. People are still calling out to God. People still believe in transformation.”