New Orleans Service Trip
by Emily Parker
On this small lot in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, organic vegetables grow in rows. Honey bees housed in hives on the lot buzz by, and a bench constructed between cinder blocks doubles as a flower planter. Inside a modest greenhouse, a hodgepodge of reclaimed bathtubs support an aquaculture, growing fish and fertilizing plants symbiotically.
David Young, the man behind this and many other community gardens in the Lower Ninth Ward, is taking me and seventeen other Juniata College students on a tour. Spending our spring break in New Orleans for a week of interfaith service and learning, we have just finished our first day of work with Capstone, David’s organization.
This site, David explains, was Capstone’s first property: Capstone grew out of this garden. This site, David also explains, was very close to where the first levee broke during Hurricane Katrina. The house was completely obliterated. Five people died.
Sunlight streams into the greenhouse. We stand on hallowed ground.
The Juniata College Unitarian Universalist Union, Hillel, and Christian Fellowship collaborated to create this interfaith service and learning trip. By shoveling manure and painting bee boxes, exploring cemeteries and eating Beignet, visiting religious services and holding daily reflections, we sought to foster interfaith community, learn about New Orleans culture, and give back to the New Orleans community.
Throughout the week’s activities, I noticed how contrasts seem to coexist in New Orleans. In the French Quarter, mystics offer Tarot readings on the block surrounding the Cathedral. Royal Street teems with street musicians and art-filled alleyways, while, only one block over, Bourbon Street reeks with the legacy of queasy partiers. The Backstreet Museum displays elaborate hand-beaded Mardi Gras suits, products of an interwoven Native American and African American tradition. In a city known for its food and vivacity, the Lower Ninth Ward is a food desert whose business owners and residents will tell you, ‘Katrina never left.’
One night, everyone in our group took a turn sharing an interesting fact from our faith background. One fundamentalist Baptist student shared her church’s dating customs: unmarried men and women do not touch, not even to hold hands. She explained how her faith in God’s plan for her and her future partner felt comforting, not restrictive. I explained OWL (Our Whole Lives), a Unitarian Universalist (UU) educational program about healthy relationships and sexuality. I shared how I thought OWL’s approach to sex education—presenting youth with complete information and allowing them to draw their own conclusions—led to better decisions. While the group found both of our faiths’ approaches to relationships and sexuality extreme, they listened and appreciated our perspectives.
For spring break, it was renewing to clear space in my cluttered mind, making room for spiritual growth. I got my head out of my textbooks and learned by listening. Listening to the people and places around me. Listening to their contrasts, to their harmonies, to the stories they told.
Flowers grow in the cracks of stonewash on 18th-century tombs. Gardens grow where homes once stood.
Emily Parker is the enthusiastic president of the Unitarian Universalist Union at Juniata College, where she studies Religion and Spanish. At Juniata College, you may spot her sitting on the roof of Eco House, reviewing essays in the Writing Center, or bothering Rev. Dave in Interfaith House.