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.