New Orleans parish ministers to musicians while feeding the hungry

October 11, 2007

Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins plays at a "mission to musicians" jam session at St. Anna's Episcopal Church in New Orleans. On the Wednesday evening during the House of Bishops meeting in this city, Ruffins helped St. Anna's do what it's done every Wednesday for nearly two years, since the great storm raked the city: Feed people and open its doors to jazz.

A PBS television crew filmed a worship service as the exuberant rector, the Rev. Bill Terry, talked of healing the wounds of Hurricane Katrina, the two-year-old disaster that flooded the city and destroyed great swaths of the Gulf Coast.

After a pay-what-you-can supper of jambalaya and cornbread, Ruffins led a jam session in the sanctuary, where the blue walls are decorated with gold fleurs-de-lis, a French symbol that denotes New Orleans' roots.

The rector, a 56-year-old former insurance broker, wore his long white hair in a ponytail and sat down for a conversation about the "Mission to Musicians" at St. Anna's. Music plays a significant role in the culture of New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and such musicians as Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis. With visitors and conventions slow to return to New Orleans, many musicians have found their livelihood endangered.

"In October or November of 2005, I had a conversation about the plight of musicians [after the disaster] and how we are in cultural peril in the city if we lose our musicians," Terry recalled.

Musicians' resource center
As part of the diocese of Louisiana's disaster-relief program, St. Anna's is the base for a huge rolling mobile medical unit that makes daily neighborhood rounds. "We thought, 'Why couldn't this be a resource center for musicians?'" said Terry, noting that the church is located in the Tremé section not far from the French Quarter.

While clinic services such as diabetes screening, psychological counseling and blood pressure reading at the church are open to all, there is a special effort to attract musicians. Performers in the Wednesday night jam sessions are paid.

"They are paid $100 each to play here, and the meal is free to musicians," Terry said. "Usually we might not attract someone with a name like Kermit Ruffins, but it's a special event because [of] the bishops."

The church also offers legal aid and help in navigating the forest of paperwork and bureaucracy that has developed for people who make plans to return home. "We lost two-thirds of our congregation," Terry said. "Some died. We had a number of older people. They have all died since Katrina."

Deep scars
Life for the survivors, he said, has been a physical and mental challenge. The city also bears deep psychological scars, he said.

"Our entire culture has been disrupted … Our networks, our patterns of movement during the day have been destroyed," he said. "A lot of stores haven't reopened. I've got to drive two-and-a-half miles to get my groceries. It is a neighborhood celebration if a major chain store opens. There is a lot broken here. It is a netherworld experience in New Orleans."

His parish is as diverse as the city. "It's mostly African-American, mostly poor or entrepreneurs or artists," Terry said. "But there are also some extremely wealthy people in the French Quarter. And there is a large gay community. I love walking down Bourbon Street and saying, 'This is my parish.'"

His congregation is slowly rebuilding its numbers. "Our first priority was locating our parishioners. We spent hundreds of hours on the Internet, and we located 60 to 70 percent."

St. Anna's is taking a stand on another feature of post-Katrina life: increased violence in what already was a city coping with crime. A huge board outside the church lists the name of every murder victim in 2007. It already has more than 150 names.

"Each week, we and other church groups send a rose for each victim to the mayor, the chief of police and the city council," Terry said. "We pray for the victims, the perpetrators. It is a sign that these are human beings, not numbers. No one is born a killer. I've had calls from the parents of kids on that board who say, 'Thank you for not forgetting my son.'"