The news has been filled with videos and pictures from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina that made landfall this week 10 years ago. It changed the course of so many lives. I have many memories of the City of New Orleans following the storm, as I traveled to Louisiana two years in a row to serve. The stories on the news from the Gulf region were too much. I had a desire to do something. There was a church on the north side of Fort Wayne, Saint Joseph United Methodist Church, that was offering a mission trip to NOLA in late December that year.
This church offers a Saturday night worship service, so I decided to attend on a weekend in November. It was there that I first heard about this mission opportunity. The opportunity immediately struck my interest. I decided to sign up even though I didn’t know anyone at all from this church or anyone that was going on the mission trip. That didn’t keep me from going.
It was the day after Christmas. We left early to begin the long drive south. As we arrived in the bayou, the Gulf air was humid and warm, certainly different from northern Indiana in winter. While it was tropical for us, it also provided a perfect climate for black mold to climb the walls in homes all over the region. As we entered into the city, the damage was everywhere. I remember thinking this was a war zone and New Orleans lost the battle. Debris remained in yards. Roofs were still torn off, which included a part of the Superdome. It was unbelievable to see.
We worked for a week with the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Part of our task was to enter into homes, sometimes with the homeowner for the first time since the flood waters receded, and begin to pull out the memories and mementos of life and throw them away. Nothing was salvageable. Everything had to be dragged out of the homes and placed on the street corner to be thrown away. It was difficult to take out photo albums of children and family gatherings. There was an occasional picture of Jesus or a cross that was ruined too. In the midst of it all, there was mold growing on the walls and in the home owner’s possessions.
It was in this context that I met a young woman named Candace. She was from Fort Wayne and her home church was Saint Joseph. As we had gotten to know each other, I learned that she had just returned from serving for three months in Hong Kong with the Global Justice Volunteers in the United Methodist Church. We had much in common, a love for the church, a desire to serve and a love for God. In the evening, we would enjoy the warm Gulf weather and take walks in the bayou. The stars above us were beautiful and bright.
Our work continued as relationships grew. It’s amazing to watch what can happen when people work together in mission. By the end of the week you are essentially family. We met so many people that week who had their lives torn apart. Homes were destroyed along with so many possessions people owned. I can still remember the smell of the homes and seeing the spray painted x’s on the front of homes to show whether bodies were found or not.
That experience will always stay with me. Not only the work we accomplished, the people we met, the sights and smells of a nearly destroyed city, but also the relationships that continue to this day. In fact, one relationship formed in New Orleans changed the course of my life. The young woman I met, Candace, kept in touch as we returned to Fort Wayne. I didn’t know what would come of this newly formed relationship, but I knew I wanted to pursue her in some way. We started dating and a few years later I would propose to Candace in New York City. We got married in 2008 in Fort Wayne.
We did return to New Orleans the next year to serve again, but we haven’t been back since. I certainly want to go sometime in the future. Maybe we’ll take our son with us. We are waiting the arrival of our first baby in December, exactly 10 years since we first met in the Crescent City. I’m looking forward to telling our son about our service in New Orleans and how mom and dad met.
It’s amazing to look back and reflect on what happened in New Orleans and how so many lives were lost and turned upside down. New Orleans is a beautiful city with an amazing culture, cuisine and music. I do love N’Orleans jazz! I saw the city at it’s worst, but I know that such a people will not be held down. The jazz keeps playin’, jambalya and po-boys are still served, the French Quarter is still lively and Katrina will be a distant memory that hangs in the minds of those who call N’Orleans home, as well as those of us whose lives were forever changed by our opportunity to serve.