Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Secret We Forgot

It’s not as though we wouldn’t know
If you gave us a test on it
If you asked us, really asked us, we’d tell you right
If we hushed up the horns and set down the clangs and listened
To the real Mother
We’d tell you the secret we forgot
We’d tell you that we do believe we’re made of stardust,
science says so
But this isn’t science.
If you sat on the dirt floor with us in our rondovel
if you shared a Black Label on a moonless night, we’d tell you
what we’ve known since the stars were young
ain’t no me without you
And ain’t no you without me, sisi.
It has to be all of us.
If you really needed to know, we’d put on some music
And dance the sema together
Hearts circling heaven
And we’d show you
all spinning whirl and whisper “learned theologians do not teach love.”
If you begged us, baking on that rickety table,
we’d untie the cloth strips from your hands and feet
And carry you down the mountain trail and tell you what he said
Being chosen isn’t easy, but what do we find in the binding?
And he was rooting for us, you see.
If you were dying to know, as if you didn’t already
We’d tell you shame got the best of the men that day
But the women persisted as they do
If you hadn’t done it where would we be?
Shadows crouching in shadowy rooms
And you loved anyway
And you smiled and said
It has to be all of us
If you asked us about doctrine we’d rush to find a few textbooks
(Liturgy requires another set of books.)
And if you pointed out all those fancy things got us was
Wars and blood
you’d be right and we’d know it.
It’s all horns and clangs we’d admit if you really stared us down
We’d gulp and stammer that books get dusty but people never do
An afterthought worth thinking, we’d say
A broken compass still marked with true North
It all came from the dark rooms and dusty tables and spinning dances and dirt floors.
If we put it all away and returned the gaze
we’d tell you the secret we forgot:
We can hear each other’s heartbeats
And when we do we know
It has to be all of us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

With Jesus In Between

“There they crucified Him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in between.”

The shad are running in the James River right now.  Millions of shiny ocean fish swimming upriver to spawn, then heading back out to sea.  Shad are not a great fish to eat, but they’re wonderful to catch when they’re running. They put up a great fight, and you can catch 20-30 in an hour.  Two days ago I rose before the sun and went fishing down by the 14 St, bridge. As I stood on the south shore facing downtown, the river looked docile and just…normal. There was no sign of the great swarms of fish swimming up the river.  The normal appearance on the surface of the water belied the twisting, shimmering turmoil of millions of shiny silver creatures chaotically, instinctively, swimming upriver.  Standing on the shore I was aware of the gulf the river makes between each shore, the juxtaposition nature gives us: a powerful, ever-changing force, roiling with unseen life, chemically distinct from the stoic land masses at either shore.  A river is a dynamic movement in between two static masses. 
          This is the time of year when the sun and the moon hang in the air together at sunrise and sunset, and as I stood on the shore I saw both the setting moon on my left and the rising sun on my right. These two celestial bodies greeting each other from opposite horizons reminded me of Marilynn Robinson’s description of a similar scene in her novel Gilead.  She writes of that great orbital tension, “Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.” 
We exist between the sun and the moon, illuminated by those great skeins of light.  A planet full of life and action; people, animals, plants, all growing, living, dying, and reproducing themselves over and over again throughout the ages. Our earth, our world, is a dynamic movement in between two heavenly bodies.  
          The movement in our lives can be found in what’s between.  Not the before, not the after, but the space in between.  The birth and the death are significant, but it’s the life that matters.  The growth of our bodies and our hearts and our souls, they don’t happen at the beginning or the end, that transformation happens in between. 
          And so Jesus trudges up the hill to the place of the skull to inhabit reconciliation, and become a wild, primal river between the shores of life and death. To become the great skein of light between the heavenly sphere of the divine and the dirty sphere of the human.
Now, at the place of the skull, we have Jesus in between two criminals, one chastising Him and one asking for salvation.  The criminals on either side of Jesus that day may as well be us. Sometimes we chastise and sometimes we ask for salvation, but we always have Jesus next to us, in between who we are and who we want to be.  In between God’s dream and our reality.  And most importantly, in between ourselves and everyone we encounter. Those criminals may as well be us, but they could be an estranged parent and child.  Victim and perpetrator. You and someone you don’t understand. Jesus, the river, the Light, is the dynamic movement in between all of us. He is the teeming, roiling life just beneath the surface of what we can see.  He is the Light that stretches out across the world and brings life to all who bask in it. In the heartbreak of this day and this moment, consider the gift we’ve been given: a life with Jesus in between.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

We Killed Anthony

This is a story about a man named Anthony (not his real name) who became my friend while we rebuilt his house in 2008.  Over the next few blog posts I'll explain how we killed him.

About a month after I joined the The Rebuild Program, Katie Mears asked me to meet a potential homeowner. Anthony was in his mid-50's and living in a half-gutted house on France St, two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina.  My job was to build a relationship with Anthony and ease his anxiety about having volunteers working in the house.  In the chaos of the storm he was evacuated to North Carolina, while his octegenarian parents were sent to Atlanta.  Anthony suffered from mental illness, and when the social services system in NC was tired of him they packed his belongings in a trash bag and plopped him on a bus back to New Orleans.  This is called Greyhound therapy, and it was a common practice among the overburdened, underfunded state-run social services programs after The Storm.  This is what the safety net really looks like.  Greyhound therapy only happens to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Anthony walked the three-plus miles from the train station to his Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood and began squatting in his old home where he had lived with his parents.  There was no running water or electricity.  I met Anthony and his parents at the same time--his parents traveled from Atlanta to New Orleans to discuss rebuilding the house. "Hi, I'm Pete Nunnally, nice to meet you.  I think we're going to rebuild your house."  It was the first time Anthony had seen or talked to his parents since the storm.  He was not a cute picture of hopeful poverty that you see in brochures, a farmer with his arms wrapped around a goat like on the cover of Heifer International.  His eyes were a watery yellow and far away.  His teeth were mangled and decayed.  He had a gut and his hands were knarled and cracked like pieces of ancient machinery.  Anthony had no sense of order or hygiene, and there was only one time I thought he may have bathed.  This could have been because there was no plumbing in the house and no place else to bathe, but also was likely an effect of his mental illness.  He smelled like rotten urine and faintly of shit, and had the acrid body odor of someone who lives, awake and asleep, in one food-stained pair of sweats.  
Inside the house was much worse.  From the outside it was a beautiful lavender shotgun, narrow but long, with white and teal striped awnings and an iron gate around the porch, the kind found in inner-city neighborhoods where crime came to live during the white and black flight of the 60's and 70's.  We walked up the concrete stoop past the iron gate and inside to take a look at the place, and as the door opened the situation went from bad to appalling.  The walls were gutted halfway to the ceiling, exposing the scuffed old wooden beams and rusted nails and the thin wooden lathe that kept the house together.  It was like standing inside a skeleton dressed with strips of cloth.  Closer to the ceiling the walls were intact, plaster over the lathe to make the imperfect walls of the early 20th century, but they streamed toward the floor like jagged fingers. Half-eaten cans of fly-ridden food--tuna, beans, and Saghetti-O's--crowded the window sill beside used plastic forks.  The front room smelled like piss, and you could tell Alvin either peed in a corner or indiscriminately all over the place.  Clothes and trash littered the ground like an old dumping ground and you couldn't see the floor.  I kept looking for the bed, and finally realized he simply slept on top of the clothes and garbage, using a patchwork of cardboard and a thin piece of plywood.  Beside his "bed" were fifty or sixty empty Sweet and Low packets.  I fought for air as we walked in, turning my nose into my shoulder to avoid retching.  As we kicked our way through the trash and into the rest of the house I was acutely aware that despite Anthony's mental illness, he seemed embarrassed at the state of things.  I felt wildly uncomfortable knowing I'd be going home to sleep in a nice bed in a well-appointed house in the Uptown neighborhood of Broadmoor, socioeconomic light years away from Anthony.  We all struggled with that part of our work but couldn't talk about it.  

How do you reconcile a world in which you are born into good favor and others aren't?  Where is God in a world where you can go back to your air conditioned home, away from this horror, and unwind on your couch with a nice craft beer?  Why do you have this privileged life when others don't?  How is this even making a difference? 
You think you are godly, beating out your white guilt on the pavement of France St, don't you?  
Don't you?
So you open up a beer and then another and then another and push the questions away.  But they never go away.  You can leave New Orleans and get a regular job and make new friends and try to ignore them but the questions never go away.  
Does God go away?
Where is God?
Can you hear me?

Just off St Claude Avenue--once a thriving corridor of commerce--Anthony's house must have been stately in another time, with soaring 13-foot ceilings and the strong bone structure of old buildings in New Orleans that were often built with barge wood.  Like the street itself, the house suffered the indignity of watching the neighborhood slowly arch away from a lively, bustling community to a pock-marked, addled place nice people quickly pass by with locked doors.  France St was as rough a street as there was in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Most of the houses were gutted and empty. Even those that were inhabited bore a garish "X" on the front, the spray-painted tattoo leftover from search teams who came after The Storm to pluck bloated dead bodies out of attics and living rooms.
Still, France St was alive.  People on their stoops, people walking, people biking, young men hanging on corners.  Everyone waiving and greeting with "alright," a New Orleans version of "hello" favored by many black residents.  It felt lawless, but strangely not unsafe because we were (mostly) white volunteer do-gooders.  A corner store two blocks down (which was jacked three times while I worked on Anthony's house) let our volunteers use their restroom, and most people on the street were at least outwardly friendly.  Our volunteerism seemed to create a bubble around us, the community and even the very obvious criminal element acknowledging that we were "off-limits."
That attitude slid from appreciation to passive toleration to exasperation as the years wore on.  

"What we'll do is finish gutting the house, starting in the back and working our way to the front, so Anthony's room isn't disturbed too much, then he'll have a clean place to sleep while we work on the front room where he's staying now."  
As we walked around the overgrown perimeter of the house Anthony showed us his toilet, a used 5-gallon bucket half-full of shit, baking in the sun next to a bottle of bleach. 

The next day I grabbed a couple Cokes and headed down to visit Anthony.  "How you doing, Anthony, want a Coke?"


"What do you think about us rebuilding your house?"

"It's good."

"I know you're not used to having strange people in your house, but they're all nice people, and we're going to rebuild it really well for you."

"Will they be there all the time?"

"No, just during the day, and I'll be here too.  If you ever feel anxious or nervous, just make sure to tell me and we'll leave for the day, ok?"

"Ok.  Do you know about the Word?"

"The Word of God?"


"I do, man.  I'm a church-going man myself.  Actually, everyone who is going to work on your house knows about The Word."

"God says He's going to save us."

We Killed Anthony Part II

Please forgive the delay.
This is the second installment of a story about Anthony (I've changed the name for this blog), a friend and homeowner I worked with through The Rebuild Program, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's post-Katrina gutting and rebuild  program.  It takes place in late spring, 2008.

A few days after I met Anthony, Katie and I stopped by his house to prepare for volunteers to begin working the next week.
"Anthony, how would you feel if we cleaned up your room a little bit?"
"We'll just put the trash in a bag, and then your clothes in another bag over here in the corner."
Katie and I put our gloves on and began picking up the trash that littered the front room where he was squatting.  I picked up all of the empty Sweet and Low packets and put them in the trash, wondering where he got so many, how many he ate at a time, and why.  I held up an open, crusty can of food.  "You going to eat any more of this?"
Anthony picked up another half-empty can of beans with sauce that had spilled all over the outside of the can, now dried and cracked like desert clay.  He looked hesitantly at us.  "Do you want to throw that away?"
He nodded.  "Yes."
"Here you go, drop it into the bag."
It was the end of spring in New Orleans, which comes and goes in a breath, shoved away by big brother summer, which sits on the chest of the city for almost six months.  Inside the house the air raged thick and stagnant, pungent with garbage and urine and raw human survival.  We did not wear masks--Anthony lived there, how could we don protective gear to clean his house?  I took in air through my mouth to lessen the stench and fought the taste.  I tried to breathe in big gulps of air, pulling my shirt over my mouth when Anthony wasn't looking to escape in my own sweaty exhaust.  We worked as fast as we could, trying to ignore what we were doing, that this was someone's room.  That a human being lived here in this piss-drenched garbage can.  That two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina two white kids from out of town were clearing a 10X15 foot space in order to give Alvin a better quality of life.  That it would take months to complete this one house in a city with tens of thousands like it.  And that is what keeps you sane: ignoring where you are and what you're doing.  You cannot look up.  You cannot look around.  You just clean the room.  And it gets harder and harder to reconcile.

In twenty minutes the front room of the house was uncluttered, Anthony's clothes in the corner, and the bags on the street.  The sun found open spaces to spread out on the floor, and all three of us felt a change in the place. "Next week we're going to have some volunteers come and we're going to start taking the ceiling and the walls down so we can rebuild new ones for you."
Katie and I walked back to the truck in silence.  We stopped and looked back at the house, and then at each other.  "Jesus."
We had just trudged through what felt like man's abandonment--God's too--and the detritus was all over our arms, our clothes, and in our nostrils.  Working in post-Katrina recovery was not a sterile, sing-song, feel-good time.  You left the worksite with the tangible wreckage of the storm on your body.  You didn't wash off just sweat in the shower.  Two, three, and even four years later you washed off soggy gunk from someone's old waterlogged clothes you threw out, or putrid floodwater that filled a vase during the storm, sat through three New Orleans summers, then broke open and bled all over you. You washed the grime that collected in your fingernails as you desperately tried to wipe clean family photos you found, hoping to save anything that might be valuable.  The images often wiped clean off, leaving streaks of developer, fixer, and wash.  And you looked at those pictures. You saw the denizens of the house, smiling, posing for graduation pictures, wedding photos, old family reunions.  You wondered where they were now.  If they were ok.  How they were going to be able to come back from Atlanta, Houston, Memphis.  It was a five-sense experience, each reinforcing the others.  When you gutted a house you had the storm, the city, and the lives of strangers in your hair, smeared across your ankles and arms.  It does not all wash off in the shower.  Some of it never washes off.
I threw my gloves into the truckbed in disgust, and looked around at the neighborhood, glanced back at the house, and then at Katie.  She was the smartest, most astute person I'd ever met, and her calm, analytical manner reassured all of us, especially in unpredictable situations.  You knew it was going to be okay because Katie was there.  She stared back at me in pain.  On our way back to the warehouse she broke the heavy silence and asked me to bring Anthony a mattress.  
The next day I brought Anthony a twin mattress we had at the warehouse.  He beamed as I laid it down over his cardboard bed.  He thanked me, then we sat and talked on the front porch for a while, waving at neighbors through the iron bars.
He went and got a raggedy bible, and started showing me passages out of the Old Testament that he'd marked with strips of newspaper.  "God is going to come and save us."  As we talked about God, Jesus, and the bible, Anthony grew more animated, and began to make some eye contact with me.  I enjoyed listening to him recite scripture--he focused on salvation and the passover.  "Not all will be chosen."  He flipped to another spot, and the marker fell onto the floor.  I picked it up.  It was a faded photo ripped from a newspaper of a beautiful woman in a lingerie ad.  I handed it to him and we looked at each other.  For the first time a broad smile opened across his face, and we both giggled.  We talked for a little while longer, and when I left I wasn't a white upper middle class kid and he wasn't a poor black man, we were just two human beings sitting on the porch in the Upper Ninth Ward.  I wasn't the helper, and he wasn't the helpless.  
"Ok on Monday we're going to have the first crew of volunteers come to the house.  They're good people, I know them from Virginia, where I'm from."  
On Monday I met about 8-10 volunteers from St James Episcopal in Richmond, Virginia at the warehouse and told them Anthony's story.  "We're going to be gutting the inside of a house, and Mr Anthony will be there with us.  We haven't worked on an occupied house before, but I've been spending time with Mr Anthony, and he's ready for y'all to come and help out."  I explained his social anxiety, and asked the volunteers to be open and respectful, and to let me know if they felt uncomfortable at any time.  
They followed me to Anthony's house and he was waiting on the front porch.  "Y'all, this is Mr Anthony.  Anthony, these folks are from St James Episcopal Church, in Richmond, Virginia."
The folks from St James were great, and introduced themselves to Alvin on their way inside.  I have them a tour of the house and explained how to properly gut a house--ceilings first, then walls, then the floor, everything put into the ubiquitous black construction bags and set out on the sidewalk.  At the end of the day I checked in with Anthony--he spent most of the day on the porch, but wandered in from time to time.  "How did that go?"
"It was good."
"Ok, same thing tomorrow."
 It took a couple days to get things gutted, bagged, and set on on the street.  The group was wonderful in every way, sensitive to Anthony, and hard-working on site.  They took to heart Anthony's story, and worked with purpose and efficiency.  
"Agh!  Oh God, gross!  What!? Ugh!!  Aw, man," I heard someone scream from the back of the house.  I walked around to the back of the house, where they were pulling off old siding.  People were spreading out away from a volunteer who looked surprised, confused, and angry.  "I just kicked that bucket over and it spilled all over me!"
He had knocked Anthony's crap bucket over and now had baked, soaking feces all over his shoes and socks.  I laughed.  "Man, that's rough.  They might let you clean up down at the France St Market."  We all kick over buckets of crap sometimes.
We finished the day and brought Anthony's radio back to him.  After lunch he had tentatively walked into the middle room and set his radio down, facing the volunteers as they were working, then resumed his post on the porch.  It was tuned to the local Christian talk station. He was evangelizing.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

We Killed Anthony Part III

We continued to make progress on Anthony's house (I've changed his name for this blog) throughout the weeks.  The longer we were there the more I got to know Anthony and the neighbors on the block.  The wonderful thing about long-term disaster recovery work, when it is done correctly, is that you don't drop in for a photo-op and then leave.  You stay.  You are present.  You build honest relationships.  The recent pendulum-swing around mission work criticizes mission trips, arguing that they a) are a misallocation of resources (or inappropriate/unsustainable), b) create dependency, c) dehumanize those served, and d) promote paternalistic cheap thrills and a messiah complex for the volunteer (complete with look-at-me-helping selfies; poor, often black/brown people in the background, smiling [usually] white volunteers front and center).  This is all too-often true, but the fault lies not with the individual but with the leaders of both the individual groups and the mission organizations.  Mission work is a wild and complex place into which volunteers step for a short period of time because they have families, school, jobs, etc.  Importantly, volunteers have a heart to help, which is beautiful.  A mission agency operates in the field full-time (churches and dioceses should too.)   It's their responsibility to hold tightly the humanity of those they serve and help their volunteers understand the razor-thin difference between helping and hurting.  In the Rebuild Program we always tried to protect the agency of our homeowners.  That means understanding the power dynamic in the relationship, and being careful with requests.  A simple "can we take our picture with you?"  can force a homeowner to weigh their actual desire with the guilt of declining someone who is rebuilding their house for free.  It can put them in a position where they have to say yes.  Remember, the people you serve don't owe you anything (that whole unconditional love thing).  A story circulated online recently, penned by a horrified young woman who realized that she went about her mission trip all wrong.  She forgot about the humanity of the people she served, and selfied away, posting photos of herself around black kids to show people what a great person she was, and to get as much credit as possible (google #InstagrammingAfrica for more on the subject.)  I'm glad she's realized her mistake, but I'm sad she feels solely responsible--the people who led that trip should have gone over all this.  Too often volunteers aren't properly oriented to what is a completely unfamiliar reality, so, naturally, they never shift their paradigm.  It's the duty of the leaders of the trip and the host agency to correct this.  It's easy, and it's a magnificent thing to do.  THAT piece of the trip, really understanding your position of power as a volunteer and the perspective (personhood) of those you serve is the difference between a hand reaching down and a hand reaching across.

Weeks passed and other groups came and went.  Anthony's neighbor Stephen would often visit with us, and chat up the volunteers.  Stephen was extroverted and affable, and looked at life a little differently.  
"I always tell the people at the register to keep the change."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'm gonna build up credit, and then I'll just go in there one day and get something for free."
"You sure that's how it works?"
"Yeah, man, I know that's how it works."
Another time: "I made up my own money."
"Yeah?  Whaddaya got?"
"This here is a two dollar and eleven cent piece."
"Let me see that."
He had taped a dime and a penny in between two one dollar bills.
"That's awesome, man.  Let me know how it goes."
"Oh I ain't using it.  Just gonna keep it here at my house."
"Why is that?"
"It's valuable, man."
Stephen brought some levity to an otherwise dour situation.  While hanging in the street during a break with some young men from a private school in Virginia he asked them where they were from.
"Where y'all from?"
One of the boys answered "an Episcopal school in Virginia."
"Oh, that right?  So y'all religious people."
This was funny, because we all know the relationship between students, a religious school, and religion is not always straight as a poker.  
One of them stammered "um, yeah, kind of."
"Y'all believe in Jesus?"
More uneasiness.  "Yeah."
Stephen stretched his hands up to the sky and his eyes grew wide and he said "I believe in Jesus Christ Superstar."  Then he walked back into his house. 
We all giggled.  Oh, the power of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
After talking to Anthony's parents we framed out an extra room in the back to serve as Anthony's apartment, with his own entrance.  The house had been gutted, and the smell of cut lumber and sawdust ushered in a different feeling.  Anthony played Christian talk radio for us every day, and his appearance began to improve some.  He became a little more social, and was even making eye contact with volunteers.  One day a volunteer noticed he needed a new can opener, and offered to bring him one the next day, which was a Saturday.  We don't work on Saturdays, so she asked me if it was alright for her to drop it off.  "Go ahead."
The next morning I got a call from the volunteer.
"I found Anthony face down on the porch this morning," she cried.  "I called the ambulance and they're on the way."
I called Katie, and met her at the house.  By the time I got there the EMTs had ripped off the iron gates to the porch, put him on a gurney and taken him to the hospital.  We rushed to the hospital and waited for a couple hours before someone finally came out and talked to us.  Anthony had had a stroke due to a blood clot in his brain.  His condition was not good, but the doctors couldn't say much more than that.  Anthony's parents lived in Atlanta and we eventually got in touch with them that day, and a nice couple who were family friends.  But at that moment, with Anthony in a coma, and no family or friends in New Orleans, it felt like we were his guardians.  And to me it felt very lonely. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Seder Dinner

My friend Charles is one of those rare people who is down for anything.  It is one of the many rare and excellent things about him.  I am one of those people who constantly seek out new and different experiences in life and so our friendship consists of conversations like this: "Hey, there's a group of vaguely spiritual people getting together tonight for fellowship and maybe dinner.  I don't know anyone there, I can't remember how I found out about it, and i dont know how to get there, but we should go."
"Yeah man, definitely!"
 Charles and I are both spiritual people, and grew up in the Episcopal church.  Charles has a crush on Judaism, and though he'll never cheat on Christianity, he is Judeo-curious.  At least he used to be.  For that matter so am I.  I really didn't encounter many Jewish folks growing up, so my first real introduction to the Jewish culture came when I moved to New Orleans, which has a strong and influential Jewish network and culture.
Back in 2010 Charles and I worked out--religiously--at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), and about once a month there are funky hours due to Jewish holidays and so I've been gradually introduced to some Jewish things.  Occasionally the JCC would host Jewish events, and we'd sneak in and just walk around among the Jews (it's a really cool feeling).  During Hanukah we got to eat some latke's and apple sauce, and that was my first experience eating "Jewish food."  
Charles' fascination with the Jewish faith and culture opened my eyes, and we talked a lot about it to each other and with our Jewish friends--most of my first friends in New Orleans were Jewish and we were adopted into their group of friends.  Like Christian parents, Jewish parents often name their children by naming them after important figures in the bible.  Sarah and Rachel, for example, are very important female figures in Judaism, so those names are common in Jewish circles.  It can get confusing, however.  Charles and i were at the gym stretching and chatting and a friend of mine, Allison, walks in.  She is Jewish.  I introduce Allison to Charles, and 3 minutes later he just starts calling her Rachel.  I become confused because she works with another Jewish girl who is named Rachel.  And I don't hear well.  And I was only about 90% sure that Allison was really Allison, and not Rachel.  So then I took a chance and called her Rachel too, but soft and mumbly, so she hopefully couldn't figure out I wasn't sure of her name (even though I introduced her to Charles as Allison).
It turns out she was Allison.  
It came to pass that we invited ourselves to a Seder Passover meal.  Adam, a really wonderful friend, who was on my JCC basketball team twice before we hung out and I found out he was Jewish, said we could join his family.  Charles and I are so excited we're talking abut the Seder like Jesus is going to be there.  The day before the Seder, Adam tells Charles and me to bring 2 bottles of wine and two boxes of mahtza.  I'm really excited about bringing some of the Kosher food and a little nervous about what's going to happen.  The next day I'm in the grocery store buying wine and mahtza, and get a text from Charles.  "At Borders.". It is 5:30pm, the Seder dinner is at 6, and he texts me, "at Borders."  What am I supposed to do with that?  What the hell is he doing at Borders?  Has he forgotten about the Seder?  
Maybe I'm a little flustered and I don't know where the Kosher section is.  Maybe I'm stressing because I don't want to be late, Charles doesn't seem to care if we're late, I don't know what kind of wine to buy, and I don't want to screw up my first official Jewish Seder.  And now Charles is in a sea of yoga pants sipping a goddamned mocha frap at Borders, and I'm hunting and gathering this stuff solo.  I don't know, but whatever the reason, I was rushed and anxious.  I picked up not two but four boxes with the word mahtza on them, wanting my friends to know how excited and honored I was.
Charles accuratley describes our methodology as such: I am a tidal wave, and he is a squirt gun.  Tidal wave: buying double the amount of what's asked for.  Squirt gun:  arriving at Borders 30 minutes before you need to be somewhere else.
So it's 6:01pm I'm tidal waving it up the steps and into the Streiffer home.  Got my four boxes and two bottles of wine.  Feeling good.  Have absolutely NO idea what's about to happen in the next three hours.  So I give the boxes to Adam's aunt, and say, "I brought four boxes instead of two.  You know, just in case."  She looks inside, shrieks this giddy, horrified noise and says "Pete, why on earth did you bring Matzo ball mix?"  "Adam told me to bring two boxes."  It's about this time that I realize that maybe he said Mahtza, and not matzo ball mix.  In fact, I don't ever recall him saying anything about balls.  Reflecting even further, I wonder why I would bring boxes of something unprepared while everyone else is carting in plates of delicious-looking prepared food.  Maybe I thought we were all going to cook stuff together.  I don't know.  Adam's aunt was also loudly thinking the same things, and pointed them out repeatedly, and couldn't stop laughing.  It was pretty embarrassing, and I don't embarrass easily..  I figured I'd make a Gentile mistake or two throughout the night, but I didn't think it would be the first thing I did.  "Hey Rachel, look what Pete brought!!"  "Hey Sarah, look what Pete brought!!"  Every single person who arrived got the same story.  Thank God the other Rachels and Sarahs were nice about it.

"So I brought the wrong thing, crucify me."

Introductions are made and we all hang out awkwardly for a while.  Charles and I loudly announce our Gentilehood (gentility?) whenever possible.  When it's time to sit, there is much discussion about who sits where.  For me, this is a big deal and determines how the rest of the night is going to go, because I'm deaf in my right ear.  Can't hear a damned thing out of it, so I need to be positioned on the right end of the table, with my good ear facing the rest of the table.  The problem is most people are already sitting in what I call "my good spots," and there is a cute girl so Charles and I are both jockeying to sit next to her.  In the end I get to sit next to Charles' cute girl, but on the wrong side of her so I can't hear anything. I can see all those people to my right--they look like they're having so much fun.  But I can't hear them at all.  Poor Marissa (the cute girl) is talking to me and I'm just responding to what I imagine she's saying.  I'm literally guessing what she's saying and making up an answer.  "Yeah, well you know, New Orleans."  I'm trying not to do my patented owl-spin, where I turn my head around so far that I'm looking at the person beside me directly in the ear so that my left ear can pick up a signal.  I used to do it all the time till I saw a pic of me doing it on Facebook and realized how awkward it must be for someone facing the same direction as you to turn and look you in the ear.
The great thing about Seder is that there's the Haggadah, which is like a playbook, and everyone gets to read from it, so Charles and I got to participate in the Seder.  I found myself getting into it, and really enjoyed the rituals.  Christian orthodoxy has its roots in Jewish culture, so to read about the Jewish exodus and escape from Pharaoh had special meaning to me.  In fact I felt like I was taking it more seriously than anyone else. Celebrating a religious service in the home is a wonderful gift and something I wish Christianity could build into its structure.  There is a different element to it, and it proves that the religious experience is portable.  God is not locked up in your church.  In fact, God probably only hangs out in there on Sundays, and probably isn't impressed with your stained glass windows..  
The food comes out, it's delicious, we drink wine, and we all have a good time, laughing, telling jokes, etc.  And then it happened.  One of the cool things about Seder is that there's a lot of music.  And the songs we sang at the end of the Seder were hilarious.  They were all about leaving Egypt and slavery, but to the tune of Gilligan's Island, These Are A Few of My Favorite Things, and Just a Spoonful of Sugar.  Well I love A Spoonful of Sugar, it reminds me of my childhood, and its a nice happy song, and I'm trying to impress Marissa, so I'm belting this thing out (different words of course), and really hamming it up.  I have a decent voice and have been drinking wine, so in my mind people need to know I think I'm talented and Marissa really needs to know.  Everyone's laughing, and I'm feeling sufficiently awesome about the whole thing, but something's not right, and everyone is laughing and looking directly at me. "Are you laughing at me?"  "Yes."  Marissa points to the lyrics, which describe  how the sweetness covers the bitter herbs in the mahtza sandwich.  "In the most disguising way."  Oh.  Well that's something.   I had been waving my hand over my nose, making a poop face and singing "in the most disgusting way."  So first I brought the wrong food, and then I pretended to smell a fart and said the real food was disgusting.

Charles and I are were painfully single, so at every event we were hoping to find our future hot rich wives, and Marissa seemed to fit the part.  She talks to me first (kind of talks at me).  When I drop the ball she moves her attention to Charles, then of course she moves on to the witty Jewish tennis player.  He was losing his hair but something was working for him because Charles and I ceased to exist in Marissa's world.  This didn't mean we stopped talking to her and trying to be funny, but eventually she actually got up and physically walked out of earshot to sit across from him after the meal.  

The night ended well.  Adam's parents are the cutest couple in the world.  Adam's Dad was the master of ceremonies, and in the end we all sang secular tunes, and his parents sang "I'm in love with a big blue frog," which had special meaning because their chocolate shop is called Blue Frog Chocolates.  It was adorable.

On the way out, Sarah's husband Ernie, says "Hey you guys aren't Jewish are you?"  Ernie had been in the bedroom all evening calming down their son Ari, who apparently was still fleeing Pharaoh.  So many things had gone on that night I couldn't put an ethnicity to it, but Ernie had an accent and I assumed he was Israeli.  "No, man we're Episcopalian, although with my hair I can pass."
"Haha.  Oh cool.  I'm Catholic.  Yeah, this was a pretty loose Seder.  Sometimes they get real weird with it."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Isn't it weird to ask poor people to provide lunch for you?

While I'm here in Virginia I'll be reflecting back on New Orleans, and sharing stories of my time there.  This is one of those stories, from the spring of 2008.

I began working for The Office of Disaster Response, the post-Katrina recovery arm of The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, in 2008.  After volunteering with ODR several times through my church in Virginia, and guerrilla weekends on my own, and after a thrilling summer in 2007 which forged a life-long friendship with Charles Cowherd and a passionate love affair with the city herself, I moved to New Orleans on February 5th, 2008, the day before Mardi Gras, which is called Lundi Gras.  Two days later I met with Katie Mears, the coordinator of the Rebuild Program, ODR's gritty little powerhouse that gutted over 1,000 houses and rebuilt over 100 in the years following The Storm.  "Glad you're here to play with us.  You'll be a crew chief in charge of sheetrocking.  Work starts at 7, be at the warehouse at 6:30 to load the truck."  "Sounds great."  I was twitching with excitement, having quit my teaching job, sold my house, and moved to a city where I only knew one other person, just so I could do exactly this.  Never before have I felt such a pure calling, and I was thrilled to be a part of this team, a band of whip-smart, dedicated 20-somethings who had all either quit school or jobs and left their homes and friends to give their life to this city and these residents by leading volunteers gutting and rebuilding houses by hand.  They were rock stars, and I just got called up on stage with them.  We were a force, a tiny group of around 10, bound together by the fight against the massive and overpowering fatigue of helplessness and despair in a city suffering from our nation's largest disaster in history.  Katie Mears was our leader, and she set the tone and tempo for the rest of us, whose marvelous leadership skills belied her age.  She understood the importance of being the first to arrive and the last to leave the warehouse, but importantly, never talking about it.  She held weekly trainings over red beans and rice on Mondays where we debriefed what worked and didn't during the last week, and role-played scenarios so we'd be prepared for anything the work or the homeowners or the volunteers might throw at us.  It was a highly efficient, extremely well-run program.  Katie created a culture that emphasized good leadership on site and valued the time and effort of the volunteers.  We worked hard to make sure that no one was left standing around or holding a ladder for someone else.  Our volunteers came from across the country (and the world) and spent their own money and time (usually a week) to come here, and we wanted to give them the best work experience possible.  We began to get groups who had experience working with other programs, often nationally known and significantly better funded.  Those volunteer groups told us they appreciated the time we took to explain the story of the storm, and particularly of the homeowner, and that they did much more work on site with us than the other programs.  That was a particular point of pride among us, as was the attention to the emotional and sensitive nature of our work.  Perhaps the most important value we cherished was honoring the dignity and humanity of the homeowners for whom we worked. We knew volunteers would want to have that homeowner contact, and that they likely wouldn't receive it.  We saw this as a teaching opportunity for volunteers.  From a staff meeting: "The homeowner may not come by.  That is ok, and if they do come by, great.  If not, explain to the volunteers that they are not owed a visit by the homeowners."  This was a key lesson I held onto, and would be faced with weekly.  

Typical volunteer conversation: "So is the homeowner coming today?"

"We dont know, probably not this week." 

"You mean we are doing all this work for someone and they aren't even here to help or thank us?"

"That's correct.  The homeowners are in their 60's and on a fixed income.  They're living in Houston with a family member.  It's very difficult for them to travel.  It's great when homeowners can stop by, but it doesn't always happen."

"When we worked for Habitat for Humanity the owners had to work alongside us.  I really like the idea of sweat equity because then the homeowners have some skin in the game, and they have more ownership of the project.  Sometimes they would make us lunch and bring it to us."  

"That seems like a good idea on its surface, doesn't it?  Sometimes when we're finished with a house a homeowner will demand to make us lunch as a thank you, and it's really special when that happens.  One of the things we've found though, is that it's kind of tough to ask someone who lost their house, maybe family or friends, all their possessions, and is suffering from untreated PTSD or depression, and living in another city, or in their old neighborhood with their community torn apart by the Katrina diaspora, to come out and work with us.  Especially our older homeowners.  That's what we're here for, don't you think?"  

"Yes, but the homeowners for Habitat came out with us, or at least made us lunch.  It made us feel appreciated."

"That is true, and that's because some organizations only work with people who can put in sweat equity as a requirement.  So if you're too old, or far away, or don't have time because you're working two jobs to cover the bills, or you're just too damned depressed to get off the couch, you can't get help from them.  Also, I gotta ask, don't you think it's weird to ask poor people to provide lunch to your group, which spent thousands of dollars to travel here, and can obviously pay for your own lunch?"

"Well we are providing a valuable service, and rebuilding their house for free.  They should be thankful.  So you guys will work with people who might be sitting inside watching tv in their living room while you're outside in the August heat sweating through your clothes and rebuilding their house?" 

"Yes.  There are all kinds of reasons why people can't help.  Some physical, some emotional, some financial.  Frankly, who cares why a homeowner doesn't come out and swing a hammer?  What we don't want to do is put ourselves in a position where we are deciding who we work for based on what we the privileged think their appropriate response to suffering should be, you know what I mean?  What we want is to help those who need it most.  Period.  And don't you think the homeowners are thankful, even if they are too poor to buy you lunch?"

"But then don't you feel angry or frustrated that there could be someone helping and they're not?  And yes, I mean I know they're thankful..."

"It's natural in the beginning to feel that way.  But here's the deal.  When you think about a service trip theologically, it clears a lot of that up.  Initially sweat equity seems just and fair.  It aligns with our American sense of things.  But imagine service from a love perspective. Requiring participation is putting conditions on your service.  On your love.  True service is selfless.  It does not ask for recognition or appreciation.  Those are earthly and very human vices.  As Christians we should endeavor always to love unconditionally, through our thoughts and our actions.  We don't put conditions on who we serve because Christ does not require it.  Christ requires only genuine, agape love that says 'I will visit you in prison regardless of what you did.  I will feed you because you are hungry, regardless of how and why you're hungry.  I don't care why, I will clothe you because you need clothes.  I will stop for you on the side of the road when no one else will, and I will bring you to an inn, and I will pay for your recovery, because you are a Child of God."

"Yeah, but that's really hard to do consistently, over and over."

"I know it is."

As a volunteer you are not owed anything from those you serve, period.  It's not about you.  At all.  A lot has been written recently about the ill effects of church-based mission and outreach work, and for good reason.  However, Katie never let us forget that dignity and respect and unconditional love was at the heart of our mission, and this was a central message to volunteers.  The only way a mission is healthy and not harmful is when missioners wait to be invited into a relationship by those they serve, and they must not expect it.  If a homeowner did come by, we stopped working and talked with them if they wanted to talk.  We specifically asked our volunteers NOT to ask the homeowners to tell their "Katrina story."  It's a natural instinct for many volunteers, but what they don't realize is that they're infringing on a vulnerable person's grieving process, and while you think you're forging a relationship, you're really just getting high off the disaster adrenalin often found in recovery work.  Many wonderful and lasting relationships were indeed formed between volunteers and homeowners, which is ideal, but the crux of successful relationships in mission is HOW they form, not whether they form or not.