Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reclaiming the Sacred Space of New Orleans

Our July church services were dedicated to recognizing sacred spaces in our lives. One Sunday we celebrated the sacred space of New Orleans, and I was asked to share a few words about my experiences as a Weekend Warrior. Michael Hebert, Warrior and project coordinator, also spoke from his unique perspective of volunteering since September 2005.

I was very honored to share my reflections at this service and be part of the continued healing that our community experiences following Katrina. It was an emotional experience for me, and at moments I felt quite overwhelmed when reading. I also appreciated even more that I had been gifted with this past year of volunteer work with fellow church members and New Orleans residents. It not only enriched my life but more importantly touched that of others.

Below you will find the text of the entire service. The two slideshows that were shared during the service can be viewed below through YouTube, or if you'd like, you can download both Flash .flv files here.

Sacred Spaces We Reclaim - http://www.mediafire.com/?9b0jjlxi2my

Who We Are - http://www.mediafire.com/?au3l3q21eyy

Special thanks to Janina Lamb for sharing the service files with me in order to bring it to all members of our congregation.

From Janina Lamb:
"Chere and I created the service,
with the support of the Worship Guild. Ila provided the music, and Ann
Hoch and John Barr assisted as readers. Of course, the most special
thanks go to all those people whose pictures were in the slides, both
the volunteers and those who welcomed them!"

Sounding of the bell

Prelude, Promenade

Invocation, Life as a House, Mark Andrus/Irwin Winkler

In the 2001 Irwin Winkler film, “Life as a House,” Kevin Kline portrays George, a terminally ill architect who is determined in his remaining months to recover, to reclaim his relationship with his estranged 16-year-old son, Sam. George decides to tear down the house he’s been living in for decades, a beat-up old shack on the edge of an ocean-side cliff, and he cajoles Sam into helping him build a new house, the house he’s always dreamed of. Here’s George, talking to Sam:

My dad used to play this game. The game was to make me smaller than he was -- smaller, always smaller, no matter what! He could be almost invisible as a

human being but I still had to be smaller. So that if I got good grades in school then I was a pussy for not playing football, or if I cut my hair for him then it wasn’t short enough …

Sam, I don’t want you to be smaller, I want you to be happy – you’re not. Not here with me, not at home with your mother, not alone, not anywhere. You’re what I was most of my life, Sam, I see it in your eyes, in your sleep, in your answer to everything. You’re barely alive!

You know the great thing, though? Is that change can be so constant that you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t know that your life is better or worse until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me. Build this house with me, come on!

Hymn #1008, When Our Heart is in a Holy Place


Lighting of the Chalice
Out of love for the human community we light this flame.
Its light is a symbol of the triumph of truth over superstition and fear.
It is for learning and understanding.
We light it with hope to make this a better world.

The Hurricane Relief Project: Reclaiming the Sacred Space of New Orleans

Cheré Coen

The first time I accompanied volunteers into New Orleans as volunteer coordinator of the Hurricane Relief and Social Project of this church, I kept hearing sighs of shock from the back of the bus. Most people didn't know what to say. Others voiced angry exclamations at the government. Some cried.

One volunteer turned to me with a look of bewilderment and asked, "How can we possibly help to make this right?"

I replied, "One house at a time."

Although it was and continues to be our greatest wish to wave a magic wand and make New Orleans right again, change does come slowly, one house at a time. Our numbers show that our 1500 volunteers who visited New Orleans over the course of our grant year worked on as many as 3-5000 houses, but all one house at a time. It's standing beside Reese Brewer nailing in hurricane braces on a house he raised and is rebuilding himself. It's gutting out Rita Hubbard's house in East New Orleans and finding her leather shoes untouched by floodwaters at the top of a closet. It's listening to a former 9th Ward teacher talk about her experiences dealing with "Da Storm."

Waving a magic wand might make New Orleans right again, but what sacred spaces we have entered helping mend the broken homes - and the broken hearts - of New Orleans.

One person who knows the value of rebuilding one house at a time is Michael Hebert. In the fall of 2005, he volunteered to lead a group from our church to go down to New Orleans on a regular basis to help with rebuilding. For the last 21 months about 30 to 40 members and friends have participated in over 27 trips to peoples' homes, churches, & FEMA trailer sites. These "Weekend Warriors" have provided over 1,100 hours of combined volunteer service. They have been hard-working, respectful, patient, cheerful folks. The recipients of their help have usually been right there working alongside them, and have been truly thankful for whatever help they've been able to provide.

Personal Reflections #1:

Michael Hebert

As many of you know, I am your Weekend Warrior Wrangler and Gumbo Ambassador for our church's Hurricane Relief Project.

I had actually lived in New Orleans for two years while in graduate school, as did my brother and sister. I had a few extended family members who lived there, and had made a few trips there for business and pleasure over the years. As a child I remember a few trips my parents made down old "190" to bring me to an eye specialist, when I rode the "WIld Mouse" at the Lake Ponchartrain amusment park, had my first taste of lobster, and of cafe au lait and begnets... so I have a history with the city.

On a whim, a few months after I started the volunteer work, I decided to do a study of the word neighbor in the Bible, after the 'Golden Rule' and the 'Great Commandment' of Jesus' Good Samaritan parable tickled my interest. I went to an online Bible text search engine, and had it spit out all the texts where the term neighbor was mentioned in the Bible. I found 137 hits. Many of them were very specific, and legalistic. For example, Exodus 22:7 says, "If a man gives his neighbor silver or goods for safekeeping and they are stolen from the neighbor's house, the thief, if he is caught, must pay back double."

But several, both in the Old and New Testament, speak much more generally as to our relationships with each other, and over the last several months, my favorite one has become Romans 13:8-10. It speaks to me about the meaning of the work we have been doing:

" Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

Now I know, that if you read all of Chapter 13, St. Paul couches this beautiful quote in apocalyptic urgency, and Christian salvation theology. But I think it's just another case where the truth peeks out from behind all the mysticism. Kind of a "Paulian Slip,” if you will. To me, this text is very clear - no assent to some perplexing theological tenet is required to be in a state of grace! To a Jew, and Jesus was a Jew, to fulfill the law meant that one was in a state of grace. In fact the model that Jesus gives in his parable is that the one who fulfilled the Great Commandment was viewed as a heretic by the Jews! St. Paul, by design or accident, seems to go beyond the injunction of the Great Commandment, to love God and then love your neighbor - I posit that it states that BY loving your neighbor, YOU ARE IN A SACRED SPACE!!!

So what does this obscure biblical text have to do with the rebuilding of sacred spaces in S.E. LA? Certainly, the spaces, homes, churches, and neighborhoods that were lost, are precious space to those people who lived and worked in the area, and to those of us who cherish the area's culture and music. And of course, the losses were not just physical - many people died in that flood, and many people died in the aftermath, some were relatives of members of our church. Many cherished pets were also lost. In spite of the progess made, there is still much destruction that is untouched, and there is still much physical, social and emotional damage to rebuild and heal. So how do we continue to rebuild in the face of this?

As a child, I grew up in a Catholic tradition that spoke of "the Wedding Feast" of all creation at the end of days, with God in Heaven, the reclaiming of paradise. Over the years, I've come to believe that these stories we hear as children are only dim reflections of the sacred, and the hidden desires of our own hearts, for some painless, worry-free world. Now I see the "sacred" as that which is healthy, true, awe-inspiring, beautiful and in right-relationship. In this sense of the word sacred, in addition to all the physical work we've done, the sacred space that has been rebuilt is the space in my heart, in each of our hearts that opened up in community as we worked with our new "neighbors" and fellow volunteers. For me, sacred space is rebuilt each time I open my mind to become more aware of what is needed in this broken, wounded world, and to what it is I can do about it. For me, sacred space is rebuilt every time I open my heart to be more compassionate to those around me, and to actively respond to their needs.

Shameless plug - we're still going down, one the third Saturday of every month - come rebuild some sacred space with us!

Hymn #1011

Reading from the Times-Picayune, Sunday July 1, 2007

Excerpt from “If I Had A Hammer,” by Chris Rose

I went over to the corner of Fourth Street and Avenue F in Marrero the other night, to a cramped flophouse where some kids from my old high school were bunked for the week, their dirty Eddie Bauer work boots stacked against a wall, new tool belts slung over the bedposts.

I can honestly tell you that the last place in Louisiana I would expect to find kids from my high school -- the very well-heeled and moneyed Georgetown Prep, an athletic and academic powerhouse in the tony suburbs of Washington, D.C. -- would be on this corner, hemmed in by pickup trucks, railroad tracks and migrant roofers, just a cigarette's pitch down the road from Ms. Bootie's tavern.

But no one was complaining. Not a word of it. This is not summer vacation. It is quite something else altogether.

Spending a week on Washington Avenue near the corner of Claiborne, Prep senior Mike Curto told me: "There are all these signs that say: Thou Shalt Not Kill. If they're putting up signs like that around the city, it makes you wonder: What has happened here? I will always remember that."

David Farah spoke of how this trip to New Orleans has been the culmination of a buildup of imagery and awareness.

"You know, since the hurricane, we've seen so many pictures of New Orleans, over and over," he said. "You get tired of seeing the pictures and the images. You want to experience it firsthand. And not long ago I saw a picture of a junked car in front of a junked house and someone had written a note with their finger in the scum on the car window: 'Jesus, I did nothing wrong.'

"You could feel the power when you saw that picture but it also made me finally feel like I had to get down here and help whoever it was that wrote that."

Offertory, Easy Livin’, Eugenie R. Rocherolle

Sacred Spaces We Reclaim, Words of HRP Participants, Cheré Coen

When we first planned on creating this worship service, the theme being Sacred Spaces in New Orleans, I immediately thought of MY sacred New Orleans spaces - and most of them revolved around food. When we put out the call for input from members of the church congregations in New Orleans, and others, we did get several reflections on specific New Orleans places. Suzy Mague’s sacred space, for instance, is mornings in Audubon Park. “Walking there, or simply sitting by a lagoon, restores my perspective, calms my spirit, provides emotional space and revives my soul,” she said.

But what we found most was that sacred space has a special meaning for those displaced by the storms. For Susan Arnold of Temple Sanai of Lake Charles, it was the joy of celebrating Rosh Hashana at UCBR and “allowing us to use YOUR sacred space,” she wrote.

For volunteers, it was the opportunity to be of service.

For residents, it was the joy of having others not only help rebuild their homes, but share in their sorrows.

The following is a slide presentation of some of these sacred spaces we discovered working in hurricane recovery.

Sacred Spaces We Reclaim (slideshow), Muddy River Blues, Eugenie R. Rocherolle
For download: http://www.mediafire.com/?9b0jjlxi2my

From Rita Hubbard, an evacuee in Houston who’s a member of a New Orleans UU church:

Thank you for helping me gut and secure my house at 7830 Marefield St. in New Orleans. This generous act of kindness has been one of the things that has helped me move forward with both the physical and emotional recovery from this catastrophic event. None of the words I write can adequately express my appreciation for your most generous acts; you have “touched” so many – thank you, again.

From Cindy Pardo of Chicago to First Church of New Orleans when they began having services again in their sanctuary:

As we all prepare for Water Communion Sunday, I just wanted to let you know that we, in Chicago, are thinking about you. We will be having our own Water Communion Service, and the water Richard and I share with our congregation will include the Mississippi/Lake Pontchartrain sweat and tears we have all experienced together. Many of our Katrina CAREvanners will be sharing our thoughts and photos with the congregation tomorrow, after the service. Some of us will undoubtedly have traveled further than New Orleans this past year, but nobody’s life could be more deeply affected than ours have been, as you shared your church home and your city with us. Even if it is for only a day, it is a blessing to be back home. We will certainly be there with you.

From the Community Church of New Orleans newsletter this week:

Sunday, July 15, 2007 was a red letter day at CCUU. We held our first service in our OWN SPACE - our little annex (a renovated house) adjacent to the church. We fit almost 50 chairs into the space, and they were full for the service, with long time members returning and several first time visitors as well. Roulla, our music director, played a jazz piano prelude and the festive, celebratory feel continued throughout the morning. Rev. Jim preached an excellent sermon, looking toward to an expansive future and thinking aloud about changes yet to come. The service was followed by a pot luck lunch, inaugurating our new kitchen.

Thanks to the fabric restoration program at Florida State University and the members of the Tallahassee UU Church, the wonderful tree that hung at the front of our sanctuary is on the wall, restored. Our chalice from Fox Valley sits beside the podium, with new votive candles for "Joys and Concerns". The RE room is bright, with a small picnic table, which will move outside when we get our real furniture. Mardi Gras masks made by partners decorate the walls.

So, as we move into the next phase of our church life, we send our heartfelt thanks to all of you who continue to support us and care for us during our recovery. Now that we have a space of our own, we'll be working toward strengthening our ministry to the larger community, developing our shared ministry with the other Greater New Orleans UU churches, and growing our congregation.

Reading from the Times-Picayune, Sunday June 26, 2007

Excerpt from “Winds of Change,” by Chris Rose

I had one of those New Orleans encounters recently, a unique byproduct of the diaspora, wherein you run into an old friend you haven't seen since before You Know When.

New Orleans has become a place where one can completely redefine himself because the conventional concepts of self-esteem, social intercourse, public appearance, sound judgment and emotional adaptability have been pretty much tossed to the wind.

Get a tattoo. Become a volunteer. Buy season tickets to something -- anything. Get a divorce. Come out of the closet. Save the wetlands. Sell your home. Become a vegan. As Kermit Ruffins, Bard of the Bywater, sings every Thursday night at Vaughan's Lounge: "Do What Ya Wanna."

that's the magic of New Orleans right now: All you need to set up shop around here are the desire and the guts.

Ah, the siren call of the Crescent City: If not here, then where? If not now, when? If not you, then who?

I tell my friends from out of town whom I suspect are having midlife crises that they should move to New Orleans because, for all its dysfunction, it provides the opportunity to shed all your hang-ups and baggage and redefine yourself.

Your baggage is useless here. It's an empty airport carousel. Nobody cares about your back story. You can't surprise or shock anyone in this town anymore and trying is a waste of time.

"What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

Personal Reflections #2:

Irene Kato

I was fortunate enough to make 8 visits to New Orleans as part of our church’s Weekend Warrior team. I had answered Michael Hebert’s call one Sunday when he spoke of the need for hands to help people in their recovery process. I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but I was moved enough to get involved.

I soon found out that there were lighter work days of weeding an overgrown yard or installing blinds, and heavy gutting days of sweat, dust, and removing house parts. No matter how small or big the job, the people were always so appreciative. I learned the value of putting aside judgement and just BEing with them working together.

I began to see that through the rebuilding of their physical space came the resurfacing of their everyday rituals. With her new TV, Danielle was excited to watch her favorite horse race again in her front room like she use to. Jolie was able to kick into her talented and artistic decorating feats to recreate her beautiful home. Elizabeth Trotter’s father joked that he’ll be able to dance around in his house with his front blinds returned, I felt his humble relief to have a sense of privacy. A ninth ward mother spoke of the priorities of caring for her son and getting back so could back can go to school.

I’ll never forget though when Augusta stood in her gutted home and described to me how she missed coming home from work to relax on her couch and listen to her front fountain and wind chimes. That same day I found those same wind chimes in a dirt pile outside, untangled them, and hung them up in their old spot. There happened to be a breeze that brought life to them again. Augusta smiled, and I believe she felt a piece of her home too.

My special friend from New Orleans Holly is here with her family today, and they recover right here in Baton Rouge. Despite their dislocation she reclaims home in her value of people, making connections, and being friendly and kind with many in that good ‘ol New Orleans way.

It’s through Warrior eyes that I better understand the value of rituals in building our strengths, ourselves, and our unique sacred space. In that is the love, healing, recovery and pride of New Orleans and its people.

From “Life as a House”

In “Life as a House,” George’s ex-wife brings lunch to George and Sam while they’re building. George shares with her:

I was up on that roof this morning tearing it down and it struck me, as strong as anything ever has – I’m happy today.

What were you before today?

I don’t know what it was, the way the sun struck the ocean, or the sound of the waves … it was simple, whatever it was. And I started thinking when the last time was that I felt like this.

Do you remember?

One time I remember for sure – I was with Sam in the ocean, saving him from the waves. He had his head on my shoulder and we were laughing. I could feel his heart pounding against my chest. I remember I kissed his hair. That was before it was blue.

Who We Are (slideshow), Day’s End, Eugenie R. Rocherolle

Cheré Coen

Who were the people who volunteered their money, time and hearts to gut moldy houses and restore the homes of New Orleanians? They came from all over the country, from Boston to Austin, from Oregon to Florida. And most of them thanked ME for allowing them the opportunity to help.

SLIDESHOW, Chere reads the volunteer reflections below

For download: http://www.mediafire.com/?au3l3q21eyy

From Brenda Squibb of the Rockland/Edgecomb, Maine, UU Team who volunteered over Thanksgiving:

The group had a very good experience and I thank you, your organization and Emily for playing a very large part in that. We all enjoyed our soup kitchen experiences...Linda and Dick were excellent to work with... and it was fun to watch all the kids exiting soup kitchen on Friday evening and giving their goodbye hugs to Linda and Dick, Nancy and Fred, as if they were saying goodbye to their beloved grandparents after a holiday gathering. The whole experience was very powerful for both adults and teens in the group. I know it will live on and our connections will somehow be maintained. The hardest part for everyone was leaving with so much work still to be done.


From Wendy Page, volunteer member of Arlington Mass UU Church

Thank you for giving us a chance to give and to receive so much.


From Nathan Ryan, a former member of UCBR and RE director of the Live Oak UU Church of Austin.

In collaboration with Sylvia Martinez and 11 others from your church, I brought a group of 5 youth and adults from Live Oak to New Orleans. I spent three days working with those youths and adults doing relief work. In my many years of working with youth, I have never been more impressed with the attitude and work ethic of your youth. Every youth worked extremely hard, and required minimal motivation. They were respectful of each other, their work space, the church, and every New Orleanian they encountered. …

I have never seen youth work so hard and act with such a dedication to their values. …Youth like yours gives me great honor to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are truly great stewards of their faith.


From Brian West of the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, a group that helped musicians get their houses up and running. He wrote this to his volunteers:

We have all been changed by the events we were witness to. We have seen a level of human suffering the likes of which most people turn away from now days.

Thank you, for giving hope to those who had none. How many times have we heard that from people we've helped? That they don't know what they'd have done had we not come along.

Thank you, for the humility to reach inside of yourselves and find it in your hearts to reach-out to people we don't know who are simply in need. It is in everyone but few answer the call.

Thank you, for seeing a need and giving what you could of yourself. The value of this is priceless beyond anything you may have, for many were moved by what happened a year ago (2005) but few reached out to help. It is through this giving we will make our hopes for change a reality.

Thank you, for letting me know you. Our bond of caring is so very uncommon in today's times. I believe that it is the final measure of who we will all become in the future.

Reading from Bayou Farewell, Mike Tidwell

We cannot fully acknowledge or comprehend the breadth of what it means to reclaim the sacred space of New Orleans without at least alluding to the reclamation of the Gulf Coast. That topic probably deserves its own Sunday service. But, in lieu of that, we bring you just this brief excerpt from Mike Tidwell’s “Bayou Farewell”:

1. … what of the folks in Golden Meadow and Pointe-aux-Chenes, Chauvin and Grand Isle – and New Orleans too? The Atchafalaya River is creating a glorious mess of new land here, efficiently guarding one small portion of the Louisiana coast, offering a daily reminder of the power of the Mississippi’s sediment load while, beginning just a few miles away, 90 percent of the rest of the state’s coastline continues to melt away.

2. For all those communities on the brink of drowning, where water – hour by hour – draws a tightening noose around what little land is left, the idea of sediment buildup so thick it inconveniences boats while throwing up pesky sandbars and new islands between shore and sea – for such communities, a problem like that is the very definition of salvation.

1. But I guess, deep down, I’d never been a true believer … until I floated down the Atchafalaya River and out into Atchafalaya Bay aboard the Leah Callais. In my own hands I had held the plans for Woody Gagliano’s Third Delta Conveyance Channel, that vision of a man-made river, huge in scale yet rooted in feasible physics, designed to divert a third of the Mississippi’s flow and scatter it along the Louisiana coast.

2. … it wasn’t until I sat at the head of the Leah Callais, watching that depth finder rise and fall like a pinball, watching the boat’s hull labor through the stifling muck, its propellers actually churning up the silt and filling the air with a rich scent not found elsewhere in Louisiana, a smell like mud and musk and seaweed and salt water and hope -- all mixed together – it wasn’t until then that I truly believed.

1. Yes, I believe now. With a slight turn of the tap, with a careful redirecting of just part of the Mississippi’s flow, with a surgical precision that brings that sediment-rich water into the areas that need it most, much of Louisiana’s worst land loss would stop. Communities all along Bayou Lafourche and large areas to its east and west would be saved. Smaller diversions, like the one at Caernarvon, would help protect New Orleans in a very big way.

2. Never mind the paralyzing bickering over the cost (as if further delay were actually an option), the strategy itself is overwhelmingly simple: Arrêtez la chute. Stop the waterfall. Stop the Niagara-like flow of American soil over the precipice of the continental shelf, ushered there by the levees of the Mississippi River. Put that water to work. Let it save something truly worth saving.

Closing Hymn # 1017, Building a New Way


A whole community rises up to support Sam in completing construction of the house as George quietly departs this life. Please join hands now, as we hear what George says to us while we view the completed structure across the expanse of the ocean:

I always thought of myself as a house. I was what I lived in. It didn’t need to be big, it didn’t need to be beautiful, it just needed to be mine. I became what I was meant to be. I built myself a life. I built myself a house.

With every crash of every wave I hear something now I never listened for. I’m on the edge of a cliff, listening. Almost finished. If you were a house … this is where you’d want to be built on rock, facing the sea, listening, listening.

"So be it. Amen."

Postlude, Jubilee Eugenie R. Rocherolle

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