Salvation in a Baggie
A reflection by the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, of the Community Church UU
There was little to be saved at Community Church. However, at one of our first meetings the conversation quickly turned to some of the precious items we remembered from our church. One of our members asked, "What about those books on Parson Clapp?"
My heart sank. I had already seen my office (photo right), and shared with our members that I had taken these books from our library and stored them in the bottom drawer of my desk. With six and a half feet of water throughout our church, and a total of three and a half weeks before the water drained, there seemed little chance for salvation for our Rev. Theodore Clapp's Autobiographical Sketches and Recollections, no matter where they were located in our church.
Then I received a phone call, just several days later. A group of CCUU explorers had gone to our church and, after digging through a ton of debris, they found these volumes in the back of my bottom desk drawer, carefully protected by two Baggies.
Plastic saved these precious books—so precious to us because they contained Clapp's story of the early history of the Unitarian faith in New Orleans. After a very brief discussion, we chose to spend up to $1000 for the complete restoration of these historic volumes. They are still in the book shop, in the final stages of becoming fully reconditioned.
In Clapp's volume, we discovered that New Orleans has long been filled with stories of our city, and Clapp had a knack for telling his stories. In the mid-1800's someone said, "It was a common saying that strangers who came to New Orleans to transact business never left without going to the American Theater, the French Opera and Parson Clapp's church."
Parson Clapp fostered the move of his church from Presbyterian to Unitarian. His congregation, known as "The Stranger's Church" was a leader in the dissemination of Unitarian views in the South. We still celebrate that this church was one of only two in the South that dared to remain Unitarian during the course of the Civil War.
We believe that at that time our faith had much to share with this city, and it still has much to share today.
In his text, Clapp said the people in New Orleans are accustomed to survival and rebuilding. There have been other storms; there have been other reconstruction projects. There have also been times when those in our fair city have suffered from the ravages of Yellow Fever and Malaria. His text reminds us that he stayed in New Orleans through the outbreaks of disease, although many chose to leave. He survived, but he wrestled with the death of his son from Yellow Fever.
His text also shares the swings of human emotion in this city. New Orleanians know how to party. To this day, after more than a hundred years, our Mardi Gras rates high on the list of the great parties in the world. As he explains, we may be so delighted with holidays (and now with our music festivals) because we have rebounded from the impact of physical, emotional, and climatological attacks.
Today, we are once again bouncing back.
Why are we rebuilding? What makes us think we have a reason to rebuild? Why not give up, especially when we hear some around this country say we should "forget about New Orleans?"
Well, for one thing, our congregants are here, and these UUs have dedicated themselves to the reconstruction of our church. In addition, our city is rebuilding (although this is a painfully slow process) and we believe our members have a unique opportunity to bear witness to the tenets of our faith here in New Orleans. We have witnessed the struggles in Southern social and religious history and we know we can help with the reshaping of ideas, attitudes, and policies.
There was little to be saved, except for us. Most in our church have survived, and many are here.
After the storm, after we labored by phone and email to reach our members and friends, we were told, "I did not know where my family was, or my neighbors, but I knew how to reach the people in our church. You cannot know how important it was, being able to reach out to them."
So on we go, struggling now with our survival, remembering a line from a favorite hymn, "Lord I want to be in that number (as some in our group adds, 'with Pastor Clapp') when the saints go marching in."