In October of 1995, Hurricane Katrina had already devastated the city of New Orleans, leaving behind death, destruction, and millions of dollars in damage. America was riveted to their televisions when the levees broke, flooding much of the city. I distinctly remember Kelsey Rowland telling me, “We should get some college students to go to New Orleans to help.” Kay and I love Kelsey so much because she’s always been a great example of Christian courage that is full of faith. As I look back ten years later, it was her suggestion that got me going down a path for the following five years only to have shaped much of my thinking about loving my neighbor in a broader context and what it means in part to love the poor. For five years, over ninety college students gave up a week of their winter break, either right before Christmas (in 2005 we returned home on Christmas Eve) or right after, so they could be a part of God’s redemptive work in New Orleans. I will always remember people camping out the night before outside my office so they could make sure they got a spot on the trip.
A group of about twenty of us touched down in New Orleans the week before Christmas 2005 ready to partner with Castlerock Community Church located in the Central City district. Driving from the airport to the church was deeply unsetting. In our car we sat silently as it seemed like we were in a war zone with much of the city deserted and shut down. We pulled off the highway around Xavier University and took side streets noticing the clear markings of the water line on the sides of homes as well as the “X” which signified if the home had been searched. Occasionally we would see a number in the “X” which meant they had found a body inside.
Our smaller team was assigned to work on Linda Fitch’s sister’s home. Water had flooded the entire house so our job was to remove all the drywall and the ceiling to make sure mold didn’t spread. For four days straight we woke up and started working at 8 am, often wearing masks to keep the dust and mold out of our mouth. We came back to the Yellow House covered in dust every night, exhausted from what seemed like an endless job. But our souls were full.
Linda became like an auntie to us. In subsequent years, I would even call her to let her know that I was coming back again and wanted to drop by the house with a few others to see her. We even saw the house after it had been rebuilt!! What humbled all of us is here was a woman who had just lost everything. Yet, when it came to treating us with hospitality in a home that had been wrecked by the hurricane, she welcomed us into her heart. Even though we had packed our own sack lunches that morning, she insisted on feeding us with glorious jambalaya, BBQ, and fried chicken. Grace said before a meal takes on new meaning when you realize Who it ultimately comes from and the circumstances in which it’s given. We would sit on Linda’s front porch enjoying a good gift from God for a moment while we rested our weary bodies.
It’s funny how hard places you serve in the world become like a second home to you. The people who live in those difficult places often end up feeling more like family then flesh and blood. Why? Because your hearts are knit together in light of something greater. I think often of people like John, Tre, Dingo, Katie and so many others who are in it for the long haul because it’s their city (do I care about my city like that?). It was in the midst of disaster and working hard that we found time to laugh together (nothing like a powder sugar war at Cafe Du Monde), worship together, and weep together in the Ninth Ward.
Ten years later I’m absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do to go to New Orleans and give resources to help rebuild the city. What serving does is open your heart to the “other” with no conditions attached, no need to reciprocate back, no skepticism if people deserve it. It’s amazing how that pictures grace. If Christ ultimately served us (Mark 10:45) in our greatest need, then that is our motivation to serve others in their greatest need.