By: Deacon Dave Brencic
“Are y’all headed to Nawlins? They sure need the help down there!”
It wasn’t even light yet on that mid-October morning, but those were the first words that greeted us as we got out of our cars in the church parking lot in Memphis. Several senior citizens surrounded our group from Chicago when they saw our bright red T-shirts that read Project Hope.
Yes, we were headed to New Orleans on a mission. Our group consisted of four deacons and seven lay people from throughout the Chicago Archdiocese. We would meet up with four others later, making us 15 strong and willing workers.
In fact, it was a refrain we would hear throughout our trip south. People stopped us in restaurants, in gas stations and on the street and thanked us for coming to help in rebuilding the devastated city.
Our destination was the motherhouse of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. This was the third time a group from Chicago organized by Deacon Sal Lema would travel south to help out the sisters. Previous trips had rebuilt a damaged print shop and done some preliminary work in the motherhouse.
This trip would be more ambitious: rebuild their second-floor commercial kitchen, paint bedrooms, closets, bathrooms, hallways, laundry rooms, an entrance way and community rooms and continue the cleanup.
We finally rolled into New Orleans around midday in a steady rain. The sisters had told us it hadn’t rained in several weeks, but our spirits were certainly not dampened as we unloaded the vans and pickup truck of our supplies and tools.
A tour of the motherhouse and the damage it had sustained made all of us anxious to begin working. Yes, it would be a lot of work, but there was a fire of anticipation that burned within us. In fact, the next morning many of the group wanted to begin working before the 8 a.m. start time.
Once there, we got into a rhythm of dividing up duties and responsibilities. The teamwork came easily. While there were several veterans from previous trips, us newcomers quickly discovered the challenge of working eight to nine hours a day in hot, humid weather. Our T-shirts and bandanas quickly became drenched in sweat and we never strayed far from our water bottles.
Before I left for the trip, I had prayed that the mission would be an eye-opening experience for me. I would be preaching the following weekend at home on Mark’s gospel story about the blind beggar Bartimaeus who is healed by Christ. God answered my prayers and then some.
The whole trip was one eye-opening moment after another.
First and foremost were the generosity, gratitude and kindness shown to us not only by the nuns, but the many people who provided our group with shelter, meals and even welcomed us into their homes for dinner. The aches and pains were all worth it when the sisters would peek in and gush about the beautiful paint job or how the kitchen was shaping up or the fact they finally had water pressure on the fourth floor after weeks of having to walk two flights of stairs for water.
It was eye-opening to walk around the Lakeview neighborhood and see the boarded-up homes, the water marks on the outside walls and to go blocks without seeing people or cars. I was struck by the determination of the residents to rebuild their beloved city, but also their sense of being abandoned by our government.
On our last day in town, Sister Alice Abate, O.Carm., director of the motherhouse, gave us a tour of the 9th Ward, which had sustained terrible damage when the levee breached. It was unbelievable to see the devastation 14 months later and to know that many people’s homes would be lost forever.
It was eye-opening to see strangers come together and work as a team side by side, united by a common goal of building up and restoring one small part of what had been damaged. And there was the humbling sense of truly doing the work of the Lord.
While the work was progressing, Sal on Tuesday had concerns that we wouldn’t finish everything that needed to be done. It was decided to start an hour earlier the rest of the week. All day Wednesday we painted bedrooms, closets, bathrooms and laundry rooms and the kitchen and tiling crews seem to work nonstop. We all dragged ourselves home that night and collapsed. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life and I was the youngster of the group at 48.
Thursday and Friday consisted of painting hallways and some of the bigger community rooms and the work moved quickly. The kitchen began to take shape as cabinets and the work island were installed. The finish line was in sight.
Our last day consisted of putting the finishing touches on all the rooms and hallways and cleaning up. Finally, the job was done.
Our work at the motherhouse ended with a prayer and blessing. Sister Beth Fitzpatrick, O.Carm., president of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, read a beautiful prayer entitled “Rewriting the History of August 29th. A Prayer.” Then all of the deacons took holy water and walked throughout the refinished second floor and blessed all the work that had been accomplished.
Project Hope had done its job, but there’s so much more to do.
“Rewriting the History of August 29th: A Prayer”
Thank you for letting me understand homelessness, living without power, without television, without cool air in the heat.
Thank you for letting me understand hunger, the leisure of dry clean clothes and the relief of a place to sleep.
Thank you for letting me understand the deep and overwhelming sadness when forces beyond our personal control, take the loved, the familiar, the usual.
Thank you for my needfulness and for my newfound empathy for those homeless before the storm and homeless now, and for those hungry anywhere, for those in need everywhere.
Thank you for the opportunity you provided to help my neighbor, to serve food, to patch roofs, to clean yards and to start mending that which was broken.
Thank you for the chance to change ourselves, for a reprieve from the normal, commercial day; for teaching us to make do, to get by, to improvise; for drowning out conceit, complacency, callousness; for silencing the noise, for stopping the clock and for the chance to act our best when the worst occurred.
Thank you for the people who reached in, pulled out the living, cradled the dead, comforted the broken and torn apart, wept for the splintered and uprooted.
Thank you for the people who didn’t wait but came right away, who opened their homes, who emptied their shelves, their closets, who cleaned, fed, healed, held us, who told us our spirit was amazing and who kept on coming.
Thank you for the people who measure their faith by their actions and measure their actions by its consistency with their faith.
Thank you for all the people who have met, who are new friends, new loved ones, new brothers and sisters, new neighbors.
Thank you KATRINA …
… not for the wind, not for the water, but for the appreciation of the things no storm can shatter, no water can wash away, no wind can move.