A quiet, unassuming presence inhabits the citizens of New Orleans. Many came as first responders and remained. Still others stayed and reached out to their neighbors. And thousands were members of work teams who rolled-up their sleeves, helped muck-out after Katrina, and continue today to bring their faith and skills to a city on the rebound.
On Thursday Aug. 27, 2015, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, more than 300 members of faith-based groups gathered for a thanksgiving dinner at St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church and Community Center in the Lower Ninth Ward. Jambalaya, bread pudding and New Orleans choir groups carried what began as a somber remembrance to a celebratory note, acknowledging the ways faith-based communities came together within the city and throughout the nation to respond to one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history.
“Their response to Katrina represents an extraordinary example of ecumenical cooperation, as organizations worked together across denominational lines and faith traditions toward a common goal of recovery,” said Kris Pottharst, director of Project Homecoming and a member of the Faith at Work steering committee. The Faith at Work committee includes Annunciation Mission, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, Louisiana Interchurch Conference, Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response, the Presbytery of South Louisiana and Project Homecoming.
“The committee hoped these events would provide organizations and volunteers a coordinated means of revisiting and tangibly reconnecting with the neighborhoods and local organizations they served,” said Pottharst.
“We felt that faith-based organizations and volunteers have played a transformative role in New Orleans’s ongoing recovery from Katrina over the last decade,” she said. “They’ve given millions of dollars, and provided many many thousands of volunteers, to this day.”
That transformation was more than evident to John Hill, past Presbyterian Village manager—the dormitory-style housing complex that hosted, and continues to host, thousands of volunteers—and a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response team.
“The most encouraging part of the week was to see all the hard-working folks still serving the community after ten years of rebuilding,” he said.
Hill and four other Presbyterian Village managers responded to a Facebook invitation to form a work team for the anniversary week. They were among the dozens of PDA “blue shirts” volunteering at ongoing projects.
Faith at Work volunteers worked to the rhythmic swish of paint rollers at the home of Anita Jones, where Presbyterians from several churches from the Rochester, N.Y., area labored together for the eleventh time in since Katrina.
“I’m finally home,” said Ms. Jones, admiring the finishing work being provided by one of many of the teams that came to help her reclaim her home after losing her insurance reimbursements to unscrupulous contractors a decade earlier.
Sally Altobello, from Laurelton N.Y., said that reality made her ongoing volunteer service in New Orleans “all the sweeter.”
The Faith at Work committee also highlighted the exciting work yet to be accomplished during its celebration time. Working in tandem with ecumenical organizations, they scheduled events to remember the past and also focus on the future. Area Presbyterian churches held a memorial service to remember the tragedy while accentuating possibilities and Pottharst told stories of work completed by Project Homecoming, the recipient organization for the evening offering.
The Rev. Dan Robertson of Metairie Ridge Presbyterian shared his excitement for the commitment his church has made to Project Homecoming and their vision to rebuild blighted neighborhoods, providing affordable homes for purchase and rent.
“Project Homecoming is an organization that we have all been able to get behind,” he said. “Nine different churches came together for our Ten Years Later service with the offering collected supporting Projected Homecoming's ministry. Katrina was a decade ago, but we are not done, God is not done, and we will continue to support the people and community of New Orleans.”
Friday morning, Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry, along with the Rev. Greg Buerman, Rebuilding Hope In New Orleans (RHINO), and Elder Jane Els, past Presbyterian Village Manager, participated with representatives from Muslim and Lutheran disaster response organizations to discuss A Decade of Putting Faith to Work.
“These are days for remembering, but also for blessing the future,” Buerman reminded the panel. He pointed out that his congregation’s sense of mission had been transformed in their commitment to rebuilding community. St. Charles is home to RINO, a ministry of hospitality that hosted more than 6000 volunteers since Katrina.
Later on Friday, the panel members joined other volunteers, city officials, disaster survivors and community leaders to walk the Levee Exhibition and Memorial Garden located at a key breach of the city’s levee system—the London Avenue Canal Levee. After placing flowers in memory of the tragedy, the participants were escorted by a second-line band across the street to another once-vacant lot that, until recently, had been a substantially blighted eyesore. Project Homecoming broke ground for twelve new dwellings: energy efficient, storm-resistant, affordable homes.
Dylan Tete, director of Bastion—an organization building neighborhoods for wounded veterans—addressed the gathering with enthusiasm for the new homes. Bastion owns the five-acre lot next to Project Homecoming’s lots where his organization will build an intentional community for veterans with brain injuries. Project Homecoming is doing a formal assessment for a foster family-based Generations of Hope project, similar to the efforts of Bastion.
Friday evening, the city honored key stakeholders such as philanthropic organizations, corporations, individuals and foreign nations for their investments in the city’s recovery over the last ten years.
Saturday morning, PDA “blue shirts” were spotted during the city-wide Day of Service with more than 10,000 other volunteers. “Meeting homeowners is always a special treat and the fact that [homeowner] Alvin and I share a common bond of working [in Louisiana] law enforcement together was even more rewarding,” said John Hill of his culminating day of service with the larger group of volunteers serving on Miro Street.
Pottharst says the festivities were recognition of how Presbyterians have put their faith to work in New Orleans with a decade of support that includes more than 53,000 volunteers, contributing two million hours of service and millions of dollars in financial support.