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. 

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