We Will Be Who We Are (and who knew Christ could look like this?)
Elizabeth A. Goodine
Katrina has been enfolded into the history of St. Paul Lutheran Church. The disaster changed the congregation, yet in the time that has passed it has become increasingly clear that old history lives even as new history is created. As a congregation, we have not left our "pre-K" history behind. Instead, Katrina has been woven into the fabric of our historical and theological memory. What follows is a patchwork of personal thought and memory about a Christian congregation struggling to be what it has always been—the body of Christ in its own community.
I looked out the window and stared. There he was. My husband, Dave, Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church. A man of God, as they say. A guy who talked to dogs and once kept our kitten alive by feeding it every hour with a medicine dropper. There he was—walking across the street through the church yard, brandishing a gun, a big gun, a shotgun. Wait a minute, more than one. A shotgun on one shoulder and a smaller rifle on the other. A man of God, a Church, a shotgun, a rifle. Something was wrong with this picture. Something had gone drastically wrong with the world.
That was Tuesday. It could have been a day like any other but it wasn't. This was Tuesday, August 30, one day post Katrina in New Orleans. It was early and the thermometer outside already showed ninety. Sweat drizzled down my stomach. I flapped my green paisley muumuu up and down a few times to get some air moving, the muumuu I bought sixteen years ago after returning from our mission work in Africa—eight dollars at Sears. I didn't feel right about spending a lot of money on myself. Americans take too much for granted, have more money than they need. That's what I thought. Too bad my piety didn't last. Still, I liked that muumuu, I wore it around and embarrassed my kids—"Get a new one, Mom." But why? I didn't want a new muumuu. I didn't want a new life. I just wanted my old one back.
That's pretty much what we were all thinking in those days following the storm. That's pretty much what we all think even now, almost three years later. What ever happened to that old life? But lives, personal and corporate, are fleeting. The past never seems to come back even as it somehow lives on in the present. It's been like that for St. Paul, a Lutheran Congregation in New Orleans that's been around since 1840. Having lost half of the membership to effects of the storm, the congregation is not, and will never again be, quite the same. And yet vestiges of the old live on in the new.
Lutherans are kind of an odd lot among Christians—they're not quite Roman Catholics but they don't quite want to be called Protestants either. Like all Christians they believe that their task is to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, that is, to be the very body of Christ in the world. Still, for Lutherans, that task is sometimes complicated by the Church body's grounding in the Reformation period and its subsequent suspicion of the mixing of religion and government. Sometimes it's not so easy to keep the two separate. In the days leading up to Katrina, there was the very real question of whether or not the Church, since it is located in an area that has never flooded, had the responsibility to remain open in case the building should be needed for shelter. We reasoned that realistically, the government would need to provide for those who couldn't leave. Yet some of us knew that the place had a tradition of staying open during hurricanes. We knew that in 1965 several members had ridden out Hurricane Betsy and then had opened the building as a disbursement center for relief supplies. Shouldn't we be willing to do the same in 2005?
And so some of us stayed. But we had not envisioned what being the body of Christ in the crazed world of late August and early September in New Orleans would mean. Who knew that as the wind and rain pounded, Miss Emma, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, would make a valiant effort to get someone, anyone, to take her dog, Penny, outside "to do her business?" Penny, like Miss Emma, is well up in years. Paralysis had long ago taken the use of her legs and so she had to be dragged about on a sheet. That was bad enough for Penny, but Miss Emma did not want to humiliate her further by forcing her to soil the sheet. Does being the body of Christ in the world involve taking paralyzed dogs out to do their "business" when whole awnings, huge pillars and shingles are flying through the air like Frisbees? Maybe not—but one good Samaritan finally did venture with Penny to a bathroom where Miss Emma could be assured that her dignity would be maintained.
Even at the height of the storm, not one of us in our little community could envision what the following week would bring. We did not know that we would be called on to feed hundreds of survivors as they were rescued and dumped at the edge of our neighborhood and told to walk the three miles more to the Superdome or the Convention Center. We didn't know either that our neighborhood would become a "war zone" and that the Church would reside at its center, arming and protecting itself and other community businesses and homes from looters and armed thugs.
Food was plentiful thanks to the generosity of neighbors who had dropped the contents of their refrigerators and freezers at the Church before hastily leaving town in those desperate hours following the levee failures. Still, we had the issue of how to cook all that food and the necessity of doing so before it spoiled. We used open grills in the parking lot and, until the gas was shut off, we also used the Church kitchen, which by the second day was floating in four inches of water, compliments not of the flooding but of our failed roof. Since the water supply was short, we rationed the bottles for drinking and then raided neighborhood swimming pools for water with which to flush toilets and carry out other mundane tasks. Throughout the week, fires blazed around the neighborhood, presumably the result of tankers that had exploded on the river. Smoke hung in the already intensely hot and humid air. From the first night the sound of gunfire rang out, and as each day passed the neighborhood network buzzed with reports that gangs were at this or that location.
About 10:00 on Saturday morning, a car pulled up and out piled a white guy, a black guy, and Miss Dahlia, an elderly African-American woman. Miss Dahlia* appeared to be in her mid-seventies and used a walker, apparently the victim of a stroke. The black man claimed to be her son and asked my friend, Tom, if we would take her in—he claimed they couldn't care for her and wanted her to be safe. As the man talked, Miss Dahlia cried and babbled. "They got tunnels under my place," she wailed; "they running guns and drugs, black boys and white boys, don't matter, they all got guns—told me I'd be out of there or dead by Friday . . ." In her arms, Miss Dahlia carried two things, her purse and a shiny wooden box—the ashes of her son. As Tom and I helped her get settled in one of our school rooms, our anxiety rose higher and higher, since the two men paid her hardly any attention at all. Instead, while we attended to her, they scanned the whole complex, the hallway, the rooms we went past. They were casing the joint and using this woman as a means of entry. After dumping her, they got out quickly as she shouted after them, "Don't you go get yourself killed like your brother." Looking at the box of ashes on her lap, it was enough to make the toughest person break into tears. From all appearances, she had already lost one son and now was being dumped by the other. How long before he too would be dead? And what about us? Would they come back? Or would they have the decency not to hit a place that held the mother of one of them? Who could know?
And who could know that living out the gospel in the world could look like this? We certainly hadn't but what we did know was that in 1965 as well as in numerous hurricanes before that, members of our community had stayed in the Church and carried out what they had assumed to be their duty. Staying was this group's way of being Christ in the world. And so it was until the evening of day six when First Sergeant Moore and his convoy of ten SUV's from Border Patrol and Homeland Security pulled up in front of the Church, set up a periphery of soldiers, and explained that they had come to "get us out." In the First Sergeant's words, the situation was critical and we needed to leave immediately. "Can we have until morning?" Dave asked. "Wouldn't recommend it," was the quiet reply. "There are gangs very close—we can't guarantee your protection and you can't protect yourselves." And so, in a convoy of army vehicles, civilian vehicles, and a bus loaded with elderly neighbors and families who did not own vehicles, we—members of a Church that has always struggled to maintain a proper separation between religion and government—were led by the military out of our neighborhood, down an eerily quiet and deserted Bourbon Street, and finally out of the city—and away from home.
St. Paul Lutheran Church would never be the same. The storm left its marks. And yet the storm is only one factor in the collective identity of this Church. It has taken me more than two years to begin to appreciate the significance of post-Katrina worship at St. Paul. I should say that there are actually two St. Paul Lutheran Churches in New Orleans—the one I've been referring to in the Faubourg Marigny, and another just a few miles away in Tremé. Since the building belonging to the congregation in Tremé had been completely flooded out, some of those members began to worship at St. Paul in the Marigny. No big deal, except that traditionally the Marigny Church is the white Church and Tremé is the black—a white Church and a black Church both, ironically, bearing the name of the apostle who, seeking to remove barriers, had declared that "there is no Jew, there is no Greek, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The apostle Paul must have known, even in the first century, that there would be a long road to travel. Over two thousand years later we still have not reached his ideal.
While it would have been a financially sound move, these two congregations finally elected not to merge after the storm. But acute suffering knows no boundaries and in the weeks after Katrina, black and white members from the two St. Paul's came together—they sat together, they sang together, and they prayed together. They hugged each other and cried on one another's shoulders. Black and white, they were all survivors together and with one voice they sang, Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am weak, I am tired, I am worn . . .
This gathering could not have happened in 1965 in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy. At that time, there was strong disagreement within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod about how the gospel should be carried out. Should the Church as a corporate body be involved in civil rights issues or not? Some believed that the Church had a duty to speak out and to work actively against racism, while others held that individual believers who felt compelled by conscience should get involved but the Church as a corporate entity should not. In August 1963, at the Southern District Convention in Pensacola, Florida, a historic vote finally determined that the black Synodical Conference would officially merge with the white Southern District of the LCMS. That historic event set the Southern District on the path toward racial integration. More broadly, it set the direction for a new understanding of the Church in the world: the Church should recognize the separation of religion and government as an important ideal, and yet the responsibility to be the body of Christ in the world, especially in the face of oppression, sometimes demands that the Church be involved in secular affairs.
So, seeds had been planted and within the decade some began to take root. As of 1969, St. Paul still had no black members but it did have a few black children attending its school. By 2005, the school served more black families than white, and the congregation was approximately 90% white and 10% black. The effects of the historic vote that integrated the Southern District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod were being felt in local congregations. During the 1960s, Jack Stewart, a long time member of St. Paul, was principal of McDonogh 19, one of two New Orleans' schools chosen as sites for the first court-ordered racial integration of public schools in the Deep South. The process of integration had not been easy for him, either at school or at Church. Many people resisted. At St. Paul, he specifically remembers one voters' meeting where the question was raised whether a black child could attend confirmation classes. As the group was about to vote on the question, Jack insisted that they could not because the question itself was invalid. He argued that instruction in God's word, like baptism, could not be held subject to human rule. More than forty years later, he still looked amazed as he told the story; amazed because his rationale had actually been accepted by even the most rancorous segregationist in the group. The seeds of integration had been planted and were starting to grow.
It was against this historical backdrop that members of the two St. Pauls came together and worshipped in those early months post-Katrina. For those of us in the congregation, our return to New Orleans came to embody the apostle Paul's vision for a Church without barriers—we were indeed home. I could feel it, though I could not understand it.
Precious Lord, take our hands, lead us on, let us stand, we are weak, we are tired, we are worn . . .
I'm starting to realize as I write this that it all sounds kind of pious, maybe even holy. I guess it was and yet it wasn't. The atmosphere in the months and years following the storm has had its sacred moments—and certainly its profane ones. Have you ever tried to live in a dump? Seriously, a dump—trash piled on trash in a city that smells like rotten meat. And not just literal trash either. I'm talking about trashed-out hearts—the kind of garbage that doesn't go away, the kind that never gets collected. In New Orleans we gutted our homes and at St. Paul we gutted our beloved sanctuary, but we couldn't allow ourselves to gut our hearts. That simply couldn't happen. So instead we began to pile new memories on top of the good and the bad ones already in there.
Take Oktoberfest, for instance. Oktoberfest is an iconic event at St. Paul. Rooted in the congregation's German heritage, it's a day to celebrate our history; to appreciate our past, celebrate our present, and look forward to our future. It's simply one of those happenings that can be counted on. Eighty-two year old Charles will be there wearing his lederhosen, teen-agers will be selling tickets at the door, E.J. will be playing jazz on the piano and someone (usually more than one) will show up and join in with a horn. Wes will be handing out beer and soda while others dish up sauerkraut, red cabbage and bratwurst. When people are finally stuffed they will head to the dessert table where they'll find Billy's bread pudding with whiskey sauce and plenty of it.
Oktoberfest 2005 was to have been St. Paul's best ever, since it would mark the culmination of a month long "Celebration of the Arts" during which special activities and services were slated to mark the 165th anniversary of the congregation. But then came Katrina and "Celebration of the Arts" was washed away before it could even become memory. St. Paul's parking lot and lower-level school rooms should have been filled with artists and craft booths, but in the wake of the disaster they instead housed emergency workers and their makeshift operations.
Still, in 2005 canceling Oktoberfest was not an option. If ever a people were in need of a celebration, this was it. In the Spring of 2006, pundits around the country criticized the city of New Orleans for its "irresponsibility" in going ahead with Mardi Gras. But those critics failed to recognize that Mardi Gras both is a party and is more than a party. Mardi Gras runs in the blood of New Orleans, and for those of us who have been grafted into the community Mardi Gras quickly takes hold of us and brings us into its own skin. Mardi Gras functions as both the sign and the experience of belonging to a place. It is a concrete reassurance that no matter how far away one may get from it, physically or emotionally, that place is still home, the place where you are you, and where people know you and still love you as you are.
For members of St. Paul, Oktoberfest functions in a manner akin to Mardi Gras. As a popular Bourbon Street tee-shirt puts it, however crassly, "Jesus loves you—everybody else thinks you're an asshole." The Church as the body of Christ is a place to find that you are loved, the place to learn that God, made present in the congregation, does love you, even if everybody else thinks you're an asshole. So how could Oktoberfest 2005 not go on? It did, but differently than in the past. Charles was in Chicago, and his lederhosen lay buried somewhere in the muck of his flooded home in New Orleans East. Our teenagers and their families were gone. E.J. and his marvelous piano fingers had left the state. Billy's bread pudding could not be replicated.
That year there were no ticket sales. Instead, a few of us walked the neighborhood and the French Quarter and invited everyone we saw, enticing them with promises of free food and beer. When the big day arrived an eclectic ("quirky," as we say in New Orleans) bunch of people, numbering around two hundred, showed up in the Church parking lot. There were New Orleanians and people from out of state, white people and black people, gay people and straight people, heavily tattooed people and people with virgin skin. Neighbors donated grills and along with St. Paul members they cooked up pounds and pounds of bratwurst. Beer flowed freely, and sometime during the afternoon four guys donning kilts and sporting multiple piercings showed up from who knows where with drums and cymbals. They entertained the crowd for a few hours and then marched off down the street to a deep drum-roll.
Watching the kilts sway as the drummers marched off, one Red Cross employee exclaimed, "I love this place. I'm moving here." Though their kilts were not lederhosen, these musicians had somehow been just right. I don't know why. Maybe they represented an evolution of Charles' lederhosen; an expansion of St. Paul's growing heritage, an unseen future made possible through events spanning centuries and generations—events that included the arrival in New Orleans of German immigrants; the eventual merger, however fraught with tension, of the black Southern Conference with the white Southern District; and finally, the destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Bruised, still bleeding, this body of Christ lives on. It will be, both historically and theologically, what it has always been. In that there is hope, always hope. Precious Lord, take our hands, lead us on, let us stand. We are weak, we are tired, we are worn—and, we are yours.