Wabash Blogs Immersion 2008: Katrina

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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