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September 27: Camping Out
Many people on the Gulf Coast who have a home to go home to feel guilty because so many others are living with family and friends, living in cars, in shelters, in motels, in tents, living any where they can. 2,000 of the 431,000 who have applied for FEMA housing assistance in Mississippi alone have been given travel trailers to live in. Some of these trailers are placed on their existing properties. Those who have no property to go back to, or whose property is still inaccessible (as is the case with most of New Orleans' residents) are given the option to move to campgrounds scattered around the area. The park I visited, Little Black Creek Water Park, is located off a back country road, eight miles from the highway and nearest town.
When, after a couple of wrong turns and a couple of back-tracks, I finally reached the park, I found a beautifully forested campground bordering a large lake and a catfish pond. On a typical summer weekend, people come here to fish, take a walk in the woods, socialize by a campfire, and cook dinner over an open flame. Now three-quarters of the 100 or so RV sites are occupied by FEMA travel trailers. Most of the residents are not used to camping. These are city people, people used to walking to the store, taking the bus to their job, and going to sleep with street lights shining in their windows and emergency sirens screaming through the night. In their new reality, the only nightlights are the stars, the fireflies, and the porch lights of other trailers. The only night sounds are the croaking of the frogs and the singing of katydids. Although some residents are delighted with their new temporary homes, others are feeling isolated and afraid —afraid of being alone and afraid of being forgotten.
Re-forming UU Community
I had heard that a UU from New Orleans was living in one of the FEMA trailers at Little Black Creek and I was pleased to find her at home on my first visit to the park. Louise lost her apartment in New Orleans and had been staying at the shelter in Hattiesburg. Our paths had not crossed there but she was thrilled to finally make a connection with another UU. Although she reported that she was doing fairly well under the circumstances, she was distressed because after she cashed her Red Cross check (about $400), someone broke into her trailer and stole it. At my encouragement, she applied for help from the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund and assuming she is approved, should receive a check in the mail soon. But the money is only a part of it; it can be replaced. Replacing her sense of security in her new neighborhood is much harder to do.
However, even that is becoming bit easier as Louise has reached out to others and in doing so has found a second displaced UU, another single woman from New Orleans. And what's even more amazing, their trailers are right across the street from each other. So a small UU community is forming in Little Black Creek. They plan to attend Our Home UU Congregation in Ellisville to reestablish connections with other UUs. Finding each other in a sea of religious fundamentalism has done much to help them find serenity in their temporary homes.
How unusual is it that I found two UUs in one of the many FEMA trailer parks set up around the region? How many others are scattered around the country with no connection to their faith communities? We know that many of our UU brothers and sisters have not yet been located. They have not reached out to a UU congregation in the communities where they find themselves. They have not registered on their district or congregations website. If you hear from any UUs from the Southwest or Mid-South Districts who have not been in touch with their congregations or their district offices, please help to connect them to Unitarian Universalism wherever they are. Invite them to attend church in their new communities. Tell them about the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund. Let them know that their faith community is here to support them, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances. Our faith has been, and is now, about saving lives. And this is our work—all of us—as the struggle for recovery from this enormous tragedy goes on.