Last week I served on a mission trip to New Orleans. I had been to “NOLA” once previously on a business trip more than 10 years ago. Today the Crescent City delineates time quite simply: “before” and “after” Katrina.
The hurricane that hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005 left a vivid mark on the city’s inhabitants. Like a permanent battle scar, New Orleans residents point to water marks high on school and restaurant walls and recall the day that the levees broke. Our group was mesmerized as Alf Nelson, a native New Orleanian and pastor at Crescent City Community Church, toured us through his world.
Our mission team from Grace Fellowship Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, painted playgrounds and built fences during long days that began at 6 AM and ended with lights out in a bunk room at 10 PM. Sometimes we were still cleaning showers at 11 PM. Then we’d fall into bed exhausted and start over the next morning. We enjoyed the gestures of appreciation we received from the students, coaches, principals and teachers at the elementary schools where women and children on the team worked. The men built a seven foot high wooden fence and gate to keep tools and other precious items safe. We learned that thievery is a way of life for some in NOLA and keeping thieves out is a way of life for others.
The most memorable part of our week was our morning spent with Pastor Troy Gause, an African-American bi-vocational preacher (he is also a school bus driver) from Crescent City Community Church. Troy took us out on “street ministry.” There we confronted the problems of homelessness and addiction that Troy and Alf had described to us. We learned that New Orleans ranks second in the country for homelessness. Its warm weather and constant “vibe” draw people to the rapidly growing city.
Both pastors are highly trained and skilled at reading people and knowing when someone is ready to enter rehab and when someone is simply looking for a place to spend the night. The ministers look for people who are sincere about entering rehab so as to avoid a set-up for failure.
After our training with Troy Friday morning, we picked up 50 McDonald’s cheeseburgers “to go” and headed downtown to the riverfront. Seeking the warm March sunshine all along the banks of the Mississippi on that sunny day were people, tired and dirty, without homes. I met a couple, Scotty, Kim and their yellow lab mix, Ginger, who told me that they were living in their car. Scotty was looking for work. They enjoyed the burgers and socks we gave them and they eagerly gulped our bottles of water. My ten year old son presented them with silly bandz. His nine year old friend gave them hand-made scarves. We learned that socks are the gold standard for a homeless person who walks miles in a day.
We were able to connect several people with Pastor Troy who ministers to them right there on the riverfront. His “church without walls” meets each Saturday morning at 9 AM in the gazebo and he encouraged people all along our route to come and join him there. If you’ve been to New Orleans you’ve no doubt walked right past it or heard musicians playing there.
I’m back home in Tennessee now as I write this. It’s raining hard outside and I hear the drops splattering on the roof. My Jack Russell Terrier is dozing in a chair nearby. I can smell our pot roast dinner cooking in the crock pot. Soon my husband will call or text and I’ll pick up our son from school.
And I wonder, where are Scotty, Kim and their dog Ginger now?