When Sr. Joan offered our parish the opportunity to go to New Orleans to build houses for Hurricane Katrina victims, my first thought was, “I’ve always wanted to do something like that!” My second was, “Who am I kidding? I can’t hammer a nail into a stick of butter let alone a wall.” But then I looked at the Nun’s Build website and saw this was no excuse. Here were women well into their sixties hammering, sawing, drilling, painting, mudding, smiling… and still standing! What could I say? Sign me up!
So many memories come to mind when I think of my week there, it’s almost impossible to choose among them. However, I want to share something Nun’s Build founder Sr. Mary Keefe told our group of ersatz construction workers. If all the volunteer groups in New Orleans continue to rebuild at the present rate it would take sixteen years to complete the homes needed for those who wish to return to New Orleans. Did she say sixteen years?
I wondered why more people weren’t volunteering to go to New Orleans. Then I realized most people don’t know the problems that still exist there. I certainly didn’t. Sr. Mary Keefe’s news motivated me to work as fast as I could. I wanted the owner of the house on which we worked to be able to return as soon as possible. I dove into every task with enthusiasm and was delighted to learn I wasn’t half bad at the tasks necessary to turn a house of mostly two-by-fours into a home.
Our work site was the home of a well-known New Orleans jazz musician! Sullivan Dabney came by to meet us and told us his story of loss and displacement. Sullivan and I talked about music. I found out he and my husband have something in common. They go to schools and inspire children with their gift of music. Since my husband couldn’t join me for the trip, I felt this connection was God’s way of helping me thank John for encouraging me to go. I couldn’t wait to give John his gift of an autographed CD! But nothing could have moved me more than meeting Roosevelt Huston. Roosevelt has an ancient, weathered face, rich with sorrow, humility and patience. He’d been living in a FEMA trailer for five years on his property in the Lower Ninth Ward, waiting for his home to be restored. I met him at a “welcome home” luncheon, where he cut a yellow ribbon by his front door and invited us in to share a piece of cake emblazoned in yellow icing with the word “Congratulations!” Now, after five years, he could finally be reunited with his wife.
Following Hurricane Katrina Louisiana’s state flower, the fleur-de-lis, became widely used in New Orleans as a symbol of grassroots support for its recovery. When driving around New Orleans, it’s impossible to miss the number of houses still in need of help. Many of them are marked with the new fleur-de-lis of their time, a large spray-painted X. Each quadrant of the X tells a story: on what day it was inspected and by whom, how many died there, and the number of hazards left behind. It’s a brutally honest tattoo shared by tens of thousands of homes. Yet, even when houses are restored, people keep their X’s, a symbol of courage in the face of disaster, and the determination to survive. Roosevelt still had his X. It looked a faded white scar.
I came back exhausted. The only thing that didn’t ache was the tip of my nose. It took a week of sleeping late and going to bed early to get back my energy back. But I’ll go again because I want to turn sixteen years into sixteen months. It’s going to take more than this little fleur-de-lis to make it happen, though. It’ll take meadows and meadows. Join me. Please.