Unitarian Universalists Rebuilding New Orleans
The three Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations in New Orleans, like the city itself, were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. However that devastation became an inspiration, not an obstacle, to the members of all three churches. Their resilience and determination have been in evidence every day of the last five years as they rebuild not only their churches, but the city of New Orleans itself.
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REV. PETER MORALES: When I think of the three UU congregations in New Orleans, two sets of pictures come to mind. One is Katrina's devastation, the lost homes and businesses, a UU church building that couldn't be saved, and two others that needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. And then I think of the people, tenacious, resilient, compassionate, justice loving people, who are not only rebuilding their churches, they're helping to rebuild New Orleans.
SPEAKER 1: There were homes everywhere you see empty spaces. Straight ahead, between these two houses is the levee wall, that is the 17th Street Canal that broke. The metal reinforcement, behind the concrete and into the ground, only went down 17 feet. The canal is 18 feet deep, and that's why a major part of the city of New Orleans flooded, is because of this levee break.
REV. JIM VANDERWEELE: Well, we had 8 feet of water in this area. And my home was just three blocks away from here, so it had it 8 feet of water as well. 20 members of our congregation lost their homes. The church itself was a disaster.
GLEN KAHRMAN: New Orleans was 80% under water. So this church had an average of about 3.5 feet of water. And here in the sanctuary where we sit now, the pews were floating.
BONNIE SCHMIDT: Well first off, the roof came partially off. And it's a metal roof. And some water came and messed up the dry wall and so forth.
JYAPHIA CHRISTOS-ROGERS: Even as devastated as we were, we were like, the comfortably devastated. There were people horrifically devastated, who were left to die in the flood and I think that we carried their spirits with this too. And that was a motivator for not just rebuilding our own place, but recognizing that everybody in this community was devastated, and that we have a real calling to minister to those who were the most for horrifically devastated.
LIZ TROTTER: We're pretty fortunate. Look, we do have a building. We a church for a building. We have a lot of support. But there's a lot of people in this city that don't. Really don't have the resources, don't have the help. So we feel we really need to reach out. And the stronger we get, the more we can help others.
REV. MELANIE MOREL-ENSMINGER: Post Katrina the justice needs have just skyrocketed. People losing their homes, people's land being taken from them, workers being brought in in an underhanded fashion, so that they could be underpaid or not paid.
KERON BLAIR: The Unitarians in the area have been especially active in fighting for worker justice. We engage all three congregations, and both UU ministers in New Orleans are active members of our committee.
REV. JIM VANDERWEELE: Sometimes it takes seeing the worst to bring out the best. And I think that's where we are We have seen the worst, an unimaginable worst really, and that has lead us to say, what can we do.
BONNIE SCHMIDT: By pulling together and cooperating, it allows us a much richer experience, a much richer opportunity to be of service for the community. I think you may have seen the Center for Ethical Living. Those things could not have happened without three churches pulling together.
CYNTHIA RAMIREZ: Quo Vadis, the director, came up with this brilliant curriculum that universities are now using it. They're coming in here, and they're getting credit for that curriculum of community service. And it's like, wow.
QUO VADIS BREAUX: There are people still coming to be a part of this rebuilding and recovery. And they are coming with as much dedication now, as they came with during the height of the crisis. I remain inspired by that kind of dedication and energy.
CYNTHIA RAMIREZ: When we take collections, once a month we take it for whatever program we want to, and the one that I'm close with is the Porch, which was a community center that was developed by artists.
ED BUCKNER: This is the Mardi Gras Indian Queen for our little tribe of Fortune.
SPEAKER 2: Isn't that just gorgeous handiwork?
ED BUCKNER: Yeah, this was something the kids made at summer camp.
CYNTHIA RAMIREZ: It's really a unique culture, should be proud of that. And also gives them as sense of voice. Their story is just as important as everybody else's.
CORY ASHBY: Statistics go on, 40% percent illiteracy rate. And so there's a lot of young people who are being pushed out of school. Winding up in jails that are resource deprived. And coming back to New Orleans that's no more resource rich. Those are students. And we also work with the group of neighborhood youth. Youth from the Lower 9th Ward. Who, for the most part, are in other schools, but come by in the afternoon and on the weekends as part of our after school program. And so they get paid $50 a week to run out market, to grow, to learn. The sheet rock on the ceiling of the classroom was donated by and installed by Unitarian Universalist volunteers from The Center for Ethical Living. And so that relationship, from the very beginning of the school, when it was a gutted building, provided the whole substantial amount of volunteer labor and support.
JYAPHIA CHRISTOS-ROGERS: But it's the mutual support for all the work that has to be done, that makes these three churches very wonderful communities to be a part of.
[SINGING] Know that when I call your name. Know that when I call your name. Know that when I call your name.
REV. MELANIE MOREL-ENSMINGER: We have long-term post Katrina partners who've been with us, walking with us on this incredibly long journey. But it is also true, that there's people who don't remember what happened, in terms of how the relief money was divided. So there's people who are surprised that we don't have electricity in our sanctuary. There's people who want to know, well what have we been doing if we're not rebuilt. And so they don't understand that First Church alone had over $1 million worth of damage and yet there was only $1 million worth of relief money from the UUA to be divided among all UU churches who had damage.
REV. JIM VANDERWEELE: All three churches were damaged. All three churches were left far sort of what we need we needed.
REV. MELANIE MOREL-ENSMINGER: I just think it's important for me to say that we don't think there's any point in rebuilding this building, unless we're doing ministry in the city. That is why we're here. It's why we've always been here. And it's why we'll be here, God willing, another 178 years into the future. So we work on this building not for us, but so that we can be what we need to be in the city. And that's the important thing to the people of this church.