March 11, 2008
Final Thoughts From Professor Jon Baer
We have returned safely and immeasurably richer from our time in New Orleans, fourteen Wabash students, me, and five men from First Christian Church in Crawfordsville. Our mission trip to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina two-and-a-half years ago was a terrific experience.
It is hard to fathom the enormous devastation that remains in New Orleans. Whole neighborhoods are desolate, with houses either gone altogether or seemingly in the same condition they were when the flood waters receded. In the Lower Ninth Ward, where we worked, perhaps 85-90% of the former residences remain uninhabited. Throughout New Orleans, apartment buildings and lower-income housing complexes are abandoned, and some areas appear to be ghost towns. Schools, commercial establishments, and community centers remain untouched in many locations. The damage, the broken lives, the death and destruction—it’s overwhelming and heartbreaking.
We stepped into this setting hoping to make a small difference in the lives of a few people in need. Through our friends at First Christian, we were able to stay at Westside Mission in New Orleans and work on several of their ongoing projects. The leader of the mission, Brother Vance Moore, is a truly amazing and inspiring man. He is committed to demonstrating God’s love by rebuilding homes in New Orleans, all through volunteer labor and materials paid for by the mission. In two years of operation, Brother Vance has had more than 3,100 volunteers from around the country stay at Westside and work on their projects. It was a privilege for us to work on three homes, significantly moving all of them closer to habitability. It was also a privilege to meet two of the homeowners and to hear what a difference we were making in their lives, as well as to talk to people in the neighborhoods and hear their stories. We didn’t clean up New Orleans, by any means, but we did good work and we helped rebuild hope in the lives of a few of its residents. All of us returned the better for it.
Like so many churches around the country, First Christian Church has made several mission trips to New Orleans. I am grateful to Rev. Keith Strain for being receptive to the idea of this combined Wabash/First Christian trip and for working so hard to make it come to pass. I’m also grateful to the four other First Christian men—Lyle Broughton, Dave Lunsford, Dallas McDonald, and Carter Morrett—who with Keith embraced and befriended us while also guiding our work with their skills.
Finally, I cannot express how proud I am of the students and how thankful I am for their dedication. These guys could have been on a beach somewhere relaxing or at home catching up on sleep. Instead, they were getting up at 6 a.m. each day and working their tails off at difficult and sometimes unpleasant jobs. And they did so with joyful hearts and dogged determination, driven by a powerful commitment to serve God and those in need, as well as to challenge themselves and grow in the process. We came together as one, from different parts of the campus and community, and we were strengthened and blessed as we gave of ourselves to others. Larryjoe Brown ’08, Eric Griffin ’10, David Haggard ’10, Barron Hewetson ’08, Mike Karam ’08, Daniel King ’10, Andrew Kyler ’11, John McGaughey ’11, Jake Moore ’11, Adrian Perez ’11, Wes Prichard ’09, David Swann ’09, Homer Twigg ’08, Tyler Williams ’08: Some Little Giants!
Hope (by: Barron Heweston)
As I look back on my experience this past week, the word hope repeatedly comes to mind. The people of New Orleans live off their profound hope in a brighter future. With approximately fifty percent of the original population, New Orleans is currently an economic failure. One of our elders put it best, “this is government at it finest-failure.” However, this is not a testament to the numerous problems of America, but instead a short narrative of my life-changing experiences in New Orleans.
I was originally asked to write my blog on Tuesday, but I asked if I could save my testimony until the trip home. It is extremely interesting to sit in this van with fifteen of my peers and ponder every situation we encountered. At first, we were a little hesitant and even skeptical when we left Wabash Sunday at 6 AM. Tired and distraught, we all described to each other why we had chosen to spend our spring break doing mission work in New Orleans. The drive was long, but as time passed and drivers switched, it became a true blessing. I was bonding with men I knew from brief encounters in the classroom, and I never thought they would become some of my closest friends. As we got closer, we all grew anxious for what was about to happen, and a little impatient. But we finally arrived around 9:30 PM.
Brother Vance, a tall, and largely stern man was awaiting our arrival. His small congregation and fellow volunteers looked worried when we first met them. They had presupposed stereotypes of typical college students. They didn’t understand what WABASH MEN were all about!
When we walked into our dormitory, which looked very much like a glorified army barracks, we were greeted by two s from North Carolina and West Virginia. They stared at us with eyes of endless questions. However, we, Wabash, were already prepared for their skepticism. We started to interact by petty exchange of conversation and everyone quickly opened up to one another. We had no idea that by the end of the week, we would seem like one bug family. With our crew of fifteen Wabash Men, we also brought the ‘five wise men.’ These savvy young gentlemen are the definition of dedicated compassion. Lyle, Dave, Dallas, Carter and Rev. Keith are five of the most amazing men I have ever met. They quickly became our friends, brothers, teachers and most importantly our role models. With that being said, lets not undermined the man who helped put all of this together, Bro-Pro (Dr. Baer). The true role model for all of his students, Dr. Baer, was brave enough to take on the true mission. He took fifteen uncultured boys during their spring break to New Orleans. Only the grace of God could help him… He was able to keep all of us under control and he kept us motivated reminding us of our goal, the betterment of the lives of the individuals unfortunately hurt by Katrina. The way he was able to keep his composure and still motivate us to work so hard was truly remarkable. I think all of the guys would agree when I say, “I want to be just like Dr. Baer,” there is not better man for us all to look up to.
I will now take a moment to describe the image that will never leave my memory. As we crossed the river on the first day, I was not prepared for what I was about to see. We were taken to the lower 9th ward of New Orleans, less than a mile from where the levy broke. I quickly realized how truly blessed I am. Almost three years after the disaster, it is still a deserted town. There was literally blocks upon blocks where all of the homes were washed away or waiting to be bulldozed. I have never in my life seen anything like that before. It has been three whole years after disaster! What has the American governement been doing? Why are we so selfish? I found myself getting angry at the world. I just didn’t understand why there were crowds of people standing in deserted parking lots waiting for anyone to offer them any sort of work for dirt payment. I can’t stress enough –three years! Homeless people were riding bikes everywhere with their only possessions being the clothes on their backs and the bikes they had salvaged. One of the most memorable images is from one of the first worksites. Ray Foxworth and his wife had part of a house on top of their house. Another house had floated up into their backyard. There was not much more in the neighborhood besides the five percent of homes that were being worked on. This may help to illustrate the severity of New Orlean’s condition and why HOPE is the only thing these people truly have. This narrative is entitled HOPE because I found HOPE is all they have. These people have no clothing, no houses, no televisions…nothing, but HOPE, because of people like us.
Brother Vance left us with a message one night about the ‘real’ people of New Orleans. He said without us and volunteers like us, these people have nothing… Yet, through our efforts they are blessed with a gift that most cannot give. It really took a hold of me that night and I finally understood how important we were to these people. Too often we take what is given without appreciation, but I assure you that nothing happens unless someone is willing to put forth the work. These people that we were fortunate enough to meet were giving us love and thanks, while expecting nothing at all in return. The people were nothing but appreciative of everything we were able to offer.
Our group worked on a total of three houses. We mostly stripped roofs and gutted houses. We roofed two houses and even did some electrical work. Everyone of us worked harder than we probably ever thought we could. We left three families in a better place than they were before and that is amazing!
It is important to note that stereotypes are just that, stereotypes; these people were not what the left-wing media has led us to believe. These people were sincere and more appreciative than most. It is sad that New Orleans has been perceived as a ‘sin city’ with nothing but feckless individuals. The perception of these people has been highly distorted. Let me declare that such a view is utterly wrong. These people are like you and me, but less fortunate due to a natural disaster. Anyone that believes we should let them suffer or fend for themselves by demolishing and forgetting about New Orleans is an idiot. A twelve-block radius of a town should not define it! These people did not ask for their lives to be destroyed so we need to understand that they need our help. I had no idea New Orleans was this bad in terms of utter devastation?
That being said, this trip was more than a spiritual boost, it put things into perspective for me. Life truly is a blessing and we should appreciate it. Life is a BLESSING, not our OWN life, but life in general is a blessing. Just as Thomas Aquinas so heavily advocates, we, as individuals with a rightful conscious, have a duty to respect and help one another, especially in times of need. I want to conclude this narrative with a story that illustrates the true accomplishments of this trip.
We were all together working on Dee’s house, some of us roofing, some of us carrying debris, and some moving random items from trucks to the house. A group of three homeless men on bikes rode up to a small group of us and asked if we were volunteers. We answered “yes” and they asked us if we were with a church and we said “yes.” The next question they asked was, “can we pray with you please?” They wanted nothing but to tell their story and to pray with us. We had given them the HOPE they needed. We, Wabash Men, had truly assisted those guys in the only way we knew how, by being ourselves. That was the most moving experience of the entire trip. We turned to God and were able to provide something these homeless people truly needed – HOPE.
-Barron B Hewetson
March 09, 2008
Thoughts From John McGaughey
Well, it’s been two days here in New Orleans, and I am loving every second of it. Although the devastation of the city is cause for despair, and in fact is more horrible than I could have imagined, the fellowship of these great Christian men and women is something to behold, and their power to come together and rebuild what was broken is astounding.
Today I was off to the Lower Ninth Ward, having spent the previous day working on a fence for the mission itself. Getting to cross the Mississippi River by ferry, seeing the skyline of New Orleans, and helping restore a man’s destroyed home, I felt truly blessed as God lead me in this fantastic opportunity. Karam, Griffin, Adrian and I were delegated to redo Mr. Ray’s house on Delery Street, and did we ever have a blast destroying rotting wood after a hellish week of midterms. Of course, I bashed my thumb four times with a hammer, but apart from my clumsiness we were able to cover a lot of ground, and I firmly believe that we can restore two or three roofs before we head back to Indiana.
Following work, we got to eat at Rocky and Carlo’s, where the food was unprohibitedly expensive, but large as can be. That’s one thing I have noticed about the Crescent City; it serves its meals in big portions. And the sauce is hot, as Mike Karam will let you know.
But, really, the greatest thing was to see a little girl playing ball in her front yard. Although the destruction all around us is horrible, and New Orleans suburbia has been reduced to a cluster of ghost towns, it was beautiful to see at least one family living a normal life once more.
March 07, 2008
Thoughts From Mike Kiram
The thought has crossed my mind more than once in the past five days that I very well could be on a beach right now—such ideas have a tendency of popping up during moments of particularly strenuous or disgusting exertions. Earlier in the week, one of my fraternity brothers stopped me as we were replacing rotten roof boards to point out a little girl across the street who was playing with a Wall-Mart playground ball in front of her newly rebuilt home. He said, “That, right there, is why I’m here.” We stopped working for a couple minutes to watch her play from our rooftop perch across the street—the surprising thing being her utterly carefree demeanor in the midst of the lower 9th Ward devastation that surrounded her. Her world was safe, and it was evident by the fact that she was at peace enough to play in her yard. It was a profound moment that was made more poignant by the striking symbolism that the scene offered—a young girl, in the dawn of spring, in front of her new home. It captured the essence of what we’re trying to provide with our efforts here in New Orleans: new beginnings. Hope.
This instance is one of dozens that have provided reminders to all of us of why it is that we’ve chosen to spend our spring break in this wreck rather than at pristine ocean resorts or in exotic European cities. It’s one of dozens of instances that have explained to us why it is that we’ve chosen to walk thirty feet in the air on rotted out rooftops instead of on white sand beaches; why we’ve chosen to swallow sawdust and shingle soot and mold every day of spring break instead of daiquiris and margaritas. It doesn’t take a reflection and a blog, however, to know which was the better choice. Because, for all the grueling, ten hour work days, for all the face fulls of two-and-a-half year old, wet garbage, for all the anxiety of clinging to sloping rooftops while trying to pound in nails and pull up shingles and rip out rotten rafters with only a hope and a prayer that we won’t fall thirty feet onto the concrete below, not one of the fifteen Wabash men here would say that they’ve given more to this experience than what this experience has given to them. If I live another hundred years I’ll never forget watching that little girl playing with her ball. I’ll never forget the way that every car slows down on the street to honk and wave and say thank you to us as we try to piece together some stranger’s broken home. And I’ll never forget how I felt when we first drove into the East Bank of New Orleans and witnessed the destruction that still lingers almost 40 months after the levies broke. I say sincerely that the greatest sentiment I have with regards to this whole experience is that of gratitude.
Thoughts From Homer Twigg
Today was spent attempting to roof a house without shingles. All the logistics went south. Nothing was on time. We were at a loss for tools. People were beginning to wear under the long tenure of the beating sun. What should be beautiful, peaceful weather was easily made more harsh and unfriendly by standing on a roof.
With this said, standing on the roof today and laying shingles was a new perspective on the city—like the gospel of John as a radical perspective on a familiar topic of the Gospel. I’ve been here before. It’s the same New Orleans I’ve seen on Bourbon Street, or mulling around the market, or taking a taxi cab tour through all of the damage. Some people will tell you that the city is still in shambles, and it still is. But the difference is that whereas two years ago, and maybe even six months ago New Orleans was a disjointed city of lost people searching for their home that floated away. Nobody knew who was who, and people were moving into devastated houses that they didn’t own before the storm.
Today on the roof, I realized that was in the past. The next phase in the rebuilding of New Orleans is not structural but societal. Today I saw lawns being mowed, people riding bikes, flowers being planted, and little old women standing outside just talking to one another. The neighborhood was coming back. You can’t get the materials for that at Home Depot, and no federal loan can bring it back. Neighborhoods are mystical bonds of people who are actually interested in one another. I don’t know my neighbors at home. A lot of people don’t. But on top of the roof, I got to see the larger picture…a community coming back together. It was in this brief moment of clarity that I began to see that I came back to New Orleans perhaps not for rebuilding, or Jesus, but because the community of people living together to improve living conditions has a byproduct of communal joy that is unique and transcendent throughout the whole city. That’s why people come back to New Orleans, resident and volunteer alike…because the people here with big hearts make rebuilding look easy.
Thoughts from Dave Lunsford (He Traveled With Our Group Too)
This is my second trip to New Orleans and I was excited to see the changes that had taken place since one year ago. As we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, my only thought was disappointment. Very little had changed. There were still large piles of debris, buildings still boarded up and abandoned. This was not going to be the mission trip that I had hoped.
But then something dramatically changed….not in the buildings, nor the houses, nor the desolation that is so widespread, but the change I saw in myself being around the students. Whatever task was asked of them, they exceeded. Not just in the amount of time, but in their enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and teamwork. They watched out for each other, helped each other, helped others in the community….always with respect for others before themselves.
There were five of us from First Christian Church with the students and as we drove to New Orleans, we were concerned. How would the five of us….40 or more years older than these students work with them? Our concerns were unfounded! From the very first morning together, this has been a joyous experience. Twelve hour workdays ripping roofs off, clearing up the debris, and putting on new roofs on two houses. Everyone focusing on working together to help others less fortunate. Whatever was thrown at the group, they adapted and succeeded. They never backed down from any challenge.
A number of the students wear sweatshirts that say “Wabash Always Fights.” I would prefer the saying to be “Wabash Never Quits.” They never quit….they never backed down….they never said ‘No.’
It has been a honor for me to be not with these Wabash students….but with these Wabash Men!
First Christian Church
A Few Thoughts From Rev. Keith (He Traveled With Us)
Earlier Larryjoe wrote about sitting on a rooftop in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and seeing all the places where houses used to be that people called home. Now, two and a half years after the flooding, a sea of desolation remains. In an area once densely populated with close-set “shot gun” houses, there are many empty lots where damaged homes have been demolished. Those remaining are all damaged. A few – a very few are rebuilt and occupied, a slight percentage more are being worked on.
But it chills your spirit to see what once was home to so many, be a ghost town.
So here we are – intrepid heroes that we are – ready to be the presence of God, and rebuild hope in New Orleans.
Only the shingles did not show up, leaving twenty eager workers, with nothing to do.
Then I spotted Dr. Jon Baer who has picking up trash from a very large curbside pile. Such piles are everywhere. Debris from wrecked houses. Debris from the flooding. These mounds of trash are a fixture in this part of town.
But there was Jon picking it up one piece at a time and putting in the dumpster.
“Whatta ya doing Jon?” I asked him.
“Katrina has had this corner long enough,” he said, and turned back to the trash.
We cannot do everything. But we can all do one thing.
Rev. Keith D. Strain
Pastor, First Christian Church