In Big Easy, a slow revival

In my 20-year reporting career, I’ve covered wildfires, floods and tornadoes. In 1995, I heard the explosion at the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City and raced that direction. Never, though, had I seen the kind of devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

I first viewed the disaster scene from the air as I joined a church relief group assessing damages days after Katrina struck. I didn’t make it into New Orleans city limits until a few months later, and even then, I was overwhelmed by what I saw.

In one column, I described the scene this way:

The view on the ground revealed miles and miles of debris — miniature mountains of tree limbs, mattresses, broken chairs, smashed toy robots and mildewed stuffed animals piled high outside thousands of homes.

Equally striking were the bright red X’s painted on each front door, showing the date inspected by search teams and the number of bodies, if any, found inside.

Since 2005, I have returned to New Orleans a handful of times, most recently to work on a five-year anniversary package for The Christian Chronicle. Each time I go back, I am struck by the progress — remarkable progress, in many ways — the Crescent City has made. Still, and you already know this if you caught any of the media coverage this weekend, the Big Easy has not made it all the way back.

Given my personal connection to New Orleans (and really, you can’t experience the spirit of the people there without feeling a personal connection), I was interested in reading the coverage of the “faith angle” as that city reached another milestone anniversary of Aug. 29, 2005. In advance of President Barack Obama’s visit to mark the anniversary Sunday, a bit of controversy emerged over an abortion-rights president speaking at a Catholic university (see reports by Fox and Time), but nothing rising to the level of a full-scale Notre Dame furor.

More interesting to me are the stories of how the city’s faithful have weathered the storm. Unfortunately, the main Associated Press story on Sunday’s anniversary gave short shrift to religion, except for this small section:

Members of First Grace United Methodist Church in mid-city New Orleans celebrated the city’s renewal. Church membership, once down to 50 people, now stands at 180, Pastor Shawn Moses Anglim said.

“After every flood, there is going to be a rainbow,” he said.

Church member Martha Ward, a 69-year-old anthropologist at the University of New Orleans, told the congregation that Katrina and the ensuing evacuation are the reason she married her longtime boyfriend.

“This church is a miracle. It’s the face of New Orleans,” she said, referring to the multicultural congregation that attends the church.

There’s one big number missing from that first paragraph. Where did church membership start? Were there 500 members before Katrina? 300? That’s important information. Moreover, the description of the church as “a miracle” certainly seems to lend itself to more elaborate exploration.

Later in the story, there’s this:

Since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, the Lower 9th Ward has seen thousands of volunteers help gut homes, clean up yards and rebuild homes and businesses. It also has become the focal point in an effort since Katrina to make the city more eco-friendly. Groups like Global Green USA, the Sierra Club and movie star Brad Pitt have helped make the Lower 9th Ward into a greener neighborhood. A new eco-friendly village is sprouting near the Industrial Canal floodwall that broke and there are several groups making the Lower 9th Ward the focus of environmental plans. Recently, a plan was announced to build a community center, using U.S. Department of Energy funds, in the neighborhood where people can also learn about climate change.

OK, we’ve got thousands of volunteers gutting homes, cleaning up yards and rebuilding homes and businesses. But why? Could their faith have anything to do with it? I know from my own reporting that people of faith played a tremendous role in New Orleans’ recovery (which is not to imply that every volunteer was motivated by a belief in God). But unlike Global Green USA and the Sierra Club, churches and faith-based organizations merit no specific mention in the AP roundup. That’s a shame.

I did come across a couple of Katrina-related stories that I would encourage GetReligion readers to check out. I’ll save the best for last.

First, The Times Picayune, New Orleans’ Pulitzer Prize-winning hometown newspaper, featured a compelling piece on some of the city’s cultural touchstones swept away by Katrina:

Whatever the reason, New Orleanians seem to have an almost sacred attachment to clubs, bars, po-boy shops, churches, schools and playgrounds.

“Tradition is a cultural heirloom that people in this community will pass from one generation to the next,” said Xavier University sociologist Silas Lee. “And they can be very aggressive about protecting some aspects of tradition.”

I chuckled at the sacred attachment to churches (who woulda thunk it?), but the piece contains a revealing look at what happened to some of New Orleans’ historic Catholic churches as a result of the storm:

Some New Orleans institutions survived Katrina just fine, only to become collateral damage in the aftershocks that followed.

Take St. Henry’s Catholic Church, padlocked by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2008 as part of a vast reorganization after Katrina. Defiant parishioners, already coping with the painful loss of homes and family members, drew a line in the sand.

“It was sad because so many people had such deep roots there,” said Alden Hagardorn, a leader of the resistance movement, which staged a lengthy sit-in to keep the 153-year-old church open. “So many of our older parishioners who had been baptized at St. Henry wanted to be buried there.

“A lot of us felt offended and some drifted away from their faith. After the shock and anger wore off, there were feelings of embarrassment that the church hierarchy had turned its back on them.”

Finally, The New York Times paints a marvelous portrait of the long, slow return of New Orleans’ black churches. It’s a 1,000-word feature that seems to use every word to disclose important, insightful detail:

NEW ORLEANS — Five minutes past 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday this month, which is to say five minutes past the time the worship service was supposed to start, Shantell Henley pushed open the front door of her pastor’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. She entered the living room to find a gospel song playing on the stereo, two ceiling fans stirring the sticky air and 25 folding chairs for the congregants waiting empty.

“Am I late?” she asked the pastor, the Rev. Charles W. Duplessis.

“No,” he replied, smiling. “We’re Baptists.”

His joke, though, could not dispel the truth. The problem at Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church had nothing to do with any Baptist indifference to punctuality and everything to do with Hurricane Katrina, even as its fifth anniversary on Aug. 29 approached.

This was my favorite paragraph:

As every level of government has failed to restore more than a fraction of former residents to habitable homes, the black churches have tried desperately to return through a combination of sacrifice, insurance and charity. And anyone with an even cursory understanding of African-American life knows that without vibrant churches, the Lower Ninth can never truly rise again.

Ordinarily, I’d ask for a source to back up such a sweeping claim. In this case, I think I’ll just shake my head and agree.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    “A lot of us felt offended and some drifted away from their faith. After the shock and anger wore off, there were feelings of embarrassment that the church hierarchy had turned its back on them.”

    This is a classic example about how a false impression can be created by excerpts. At least that happened to me. After reading what you posted, I wondered if the people who left had become unbelievers or joined a different church. When I read the entire story, I came away with a much more hopeful and positive conclusion:

    Emotions have cooled somewhat since new Archbishop Gregory Aymond agreed in February to fulfill a St. Henry parishioner’s dying wish to be buried there. Four subsequent funerals have taken place there.

    And in July, St. Henry welcomed a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 for its first post-Katrina Mass, in honor of its namesake’s feast day. Parishioners continue to meet on the steps every Sunday morning to pray the rosary.

    While the St. Henry faithful have not achieved their ultimate goal, Hagardorn said the church community is buoyed by the improved line of communication.

    “We don’t feel they will say you can reopen as a parish,” he said. “But no one is saying you’re closed, get lost, don’t call us any more. There is a middle ground and we’re working toward something. We just haven’t defined what that something is.”

    Hagardorn said Aymond “has given us hope that we are all working in good faith. … We no longer have the fear that we will drive by one day and see that our church has become a parking lot.”

    So I think you should have included that part of the story.

  • Kate

    My husband is the sexton at Good Shepherd Parish, the new parish created from the amalgamation of three uptown parish churches, including St. Henry’s. Since he’s the guy with the keys to all the buildings, he’s been at the front lines for all the progress that’s been made over the last year. It’s always interesting to see what the press makes of that situation.

    The Katrina connection, of course, is that the population shifted after the hurricane. Catholic churches and priests on the north shore have been swamped as more people have resettled there. So it was necessary to shift resources around. Additionally, a lot of uptown parishes were greying and waning even before the storm as younger generations moved away or fell away from the Church.

    Did you see any of the coverage of the “Katrina funeral”? I thought that was fantastic and VERY new orleans.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jerry, I appreciate your concern, but the reason we provide links is so you can read the entire stories, as you did. That post was running long already without me copying and pasting every relevant word from the story.

  • Passing By

    Whatever should have been pasted into the post, the whole story on St. Henry’s was pretty good. It’s too easy to frame these things as the little people against the big bad hierarchy, and the story di0dn’t do that. While a bit more detail might have been helpful (not to mention a quote from the archdiocese), they avoided the cliche and told a good story.

    Of course, it helps to know that the diocese of Austin, Texas went into mourning when Bp. Aymond was moved to New Orleans. He is reported to be a good man.
    :-)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I interviewed Aymond in Austin during my time with AP in Texas. Didn’t make the connection until your comment, Passing By.

    Kate, is there any specific media coverage of the “Katrina funeral” that you’d recommend? If so, I’d love if you would provide a link.

    In my Google search of Katrina religion coverage, I missed a good story by Times-Picayune Godbeat pro Bruce Nolan from Saturday. Check it out.

  • northcoast

    I haven’t followed Pres. Obama’s visit to New Orleans, but he must have had at least a drive by Musicians Village, planned and built in the upper 9th ward by Habitat for Humanity, “A nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing organization.” Habitat builds from the ground up, and (critics take notice) builds on foundations strong enough and high enough to survive flooding. They have also built homes in other neighborhoods in the New Orleans area.

    The Episcopal Church has supported the Jerico Road Housing Initiative to build new homes and another program to restore flood-ruined homes. I know that other denominations have similar programs but have no details.

    Incidentally, according to its web site, First Grace UMC was formed in 2007 by the merger of a historically white congregation and a historically black congregation. Maybe there is a story there.

  • Cato

    The media said:

    Since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, the Lower 9th Ward has seen thousands of volunteers help gut homes, clean up yards and rebuild homes and businesses. It also has become the focal point in an effort since Katrina to make the city more eco-friendly. Groups like Global Green USA, the Sierra Club and movie star Brad Pitt have helped make the Lower 9th Ward into a greener neighborhood. A new eco-friendly village is sprouting near the Industrial Canal floodwall that broke and there are several groups making the Lower 9th Ward the focus of environmental plans. Recently, a plan was announced to build a community center, using U.S. Department of Energy funds, in the neighborhood where people can also learn about climate change.

    And then you said:

    OK, we’ve got thousands of volunteers gutting homes, cleaning up yards and rebuilding homes and businesses. But why? Could their faith have anything to do with it? I know from my own reporting that people of faith played a tremendous role in New Orleans’ recovery (which is not to imply that every volunteer was motivated by a belief in God). But unlike Global Green USA and the Sierra Club, churches and faith-based organizations merit no specific mention in the AP roundup. That’s a shame.

    And I say, “Amen, brother.” Environmentalism is, quite literally, the religion of the press (as it is of most of the elites in the West). It is the narrative prism through which the media view virtually everything nowadays. Actual religion, in the sense you usually mean it here, is anathema to most in the media.


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