Solidarity, Not Charity
One year ago, I, along with 43 others from the Unitarian Society of New Haven (USNH), travelled to Kiln, Mississippi, to help with the post-Katrina re-building effort.
This was a new experience for me. My first social justice effort outside of the comfortable driving radius of my home, my first time ever in Mississippi, my first foray into the world of home construction. Little did I realize that my trip would radically change my thinking about commitment and service.
We arrived in Mississippi on a typically humid and warm Saturday. Our accommodations were basic—my 14-year-old daughter's summer camp seemed luxurious by comparison. The next day, a Sunday, was not a work day, so we spent it in New Orleans, visiting the Unitarian Church which had been badly damaged by Katrina, and visiting the lower ninth ward as well. The lower ninth took the biggest hit from the failure of the levees. A poor community to start with, the area was literally wiped out. The message that I heard repeatedly while visiting the area was "Solidarity, Not Charity." As I grappled with insomnia that evening, I kept thinking about those words. Although they resonated, I found myself feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The citizens of the Gulf Coast were saying that they didn't want charity. How was what I was doing NOT charity? I was giving a week of my time, scraping mold from ceilings, cutting and installing prickly insulation—wasn't that charity? Although I certainly WANTED to have solidarity with the people of the South, was I engaged in giving lip service to what sounded good but what in fact wasn't really true?
These questions remained unanswered for quite a while. Our week in Kiln came and went quickly. During that week, many different tasks were handled by members of our group.We landscaped, worked at the local Humane Society, partnered with local residents on cleanup efforts. However, the biggest chunk of time and effort was spent re-building Rick Galle's house. When we arrived, Rick's house was literally four walls and a roof; by the time we left, it was fully sheetrocked, electric and plumbing were in place, and what had been a weed field of knee-high overgrowth looked more like a yard. As significant as the physical changes were, the less tangible ones had seeped into our souls, and they were profound. We found in Rick a soulmate, a man who was as at ease with our children as he was with addressing a group of Unitarian Universalists and speaking from the heart. Our bonds with the people of Kiln had been sealed. Was this solidarity? I still wasn't certain.
In the year since our return to Connecticut, much has happened. Last spring, we learned that a piece of federal legislation important to the return of affordable housing along the Gulf Coast had passed the U.S. House—its fate was now in the hands of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, chaired by our very own Senator Chris Dodd. With Rick as our eyes and ears on the ground, we concluded that this legislation, if passed, was indeed in the best interests of the citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi. We went to work to try to make that happen, signing petitions, sending a delegation to Sen. Dodd's Connecticut office, calling lobbyists in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, Republican opposition has been effective in keeping this bill from reaching the Senate floor, but as recently as last month, several of us were back in Sen. Dodd's office, together with leadership from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, where we were again urging movement on this piece of legislation.
We didn't limit our efforts to the political realm. Just before Christmas, members of our group raised $1,000 which we earmarked for Christmas presents for children in southern Mississippi. Once again we turned to our friend, Rick, to help us to get this money to those most in need. As with every one of our ideas, Rick embraced this latest request with absolute gusto. After much research, he put us in contact with a woman named Joy in Waveland, Mississippi, who works for the city and organizes an annual Christmas party for foster children. As fate would have it, Joy had just learned that a major sponsor had backed out of supporting this event, and she had no idea how she would provide presents for more than 70 foster children. Our $1000, sent in the form of gift cards to a major store chain, made the difference, and Rick sent back pictures of a very happy holiday party.
Earlier this year, the children in our religious education program decided that they would like to gather books for a library in the south which lost much of its collection during Katrina. Rick researched the situation and identified the D'Iberville Public Library as a worthy recipient of our efforts. 296 pounds of books, many in boxes containing handwritten messages from our children, are currently en route to D'Iberville, Mississippi right now.
In Mississippi alone, Hurricane Katrina destroyed around 70,000 homes. As of October 2007, fewer than 10% had been re-built. Tens of thousands of people remain in diaspora around the United States, while another 30,000 Gulf Coast residents still live in tiny, formaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers. Mental illness, lack of medical care, and unemployment remain rampant. "Solidarity, Not Charity": I have begun to understand. These problems are my problems too. This is work I am called to, work that benefits me, as well as those in the Gulf Coast region.
On April 23, 2008, Rick Galle boarded a bus in Biloxi, bound for New Haven. Thirty-five hours later, he emerged at Union Station and was greeted by twelve members of the Unitarian Society of New Haven. In his words, he came to "make sure that we knew that we had made a difference."
After several days of visits, potluck dinners, and the embrace of friends who felt like family Rick's visit culminated with his participation in our Sunday service. In lieu of a sermon, Rick addressed the congregation, speaking from his heart. He said, "Visiting the New Haven area was a surreal experience that I will never forget. The congregation of USNH, as well as their friends, welcomed me with open arms and went above and beyond to make me feel welcome. I was fed my favorite foods, and brought to some very beautiful and historic sites.
"What I will remember most though from this trip, though, is learning more about the lives of people that have become what I consider to be the best of friends. I learned that David Niles builds paddles for kayaks ; that Deborah Thurston—who did so much to bring beauty to my yard—has a yard that is beautiful and reflects the goodness in her heart. I found out that Sally Connolly is an avid bird watcher; that David Stagg—who tinkers with electronics—is quite brilliant; and that Erin Shanley was awarded a scholarship because of an essay she wrote concerning her Hurricane Katrina relief trip. These good people opened their hearts and their homes to me. My life has been blessed to meet such honorable people."
Solidarity, not charity. I get it. We, members of the Unitarian Society of New Haven, get it. Rebuilding the Gulf Coast is our work too. We join hands across the country, with Rick and our brothers and sisters, to bring the change we want to see.