Reflection: NOLA

6 Jan

5 years ago, the Protestant Campus Ministry of Syracuse University led a student group to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help with the relief efforts. We spent a week over the winter break gutting houses, forming lasting relationships with the families and the communities where we worked. It truly warms my spirit to know that in a few months I’ll be back to help build affordable housing there. Full circle.

I’ve been doing some winter cleaning and came across my reflection of a particular experience 5 years ago:

I made my way to the back of Lani and Deborah’s house. Past vacant rooms, with mold covered walls. In one day we had cleared out most of the house, and the bleak and dreary atmosphere we had encountered the day before, when we first opened the front door, was replaced with a vacant and haunting emptiness.

Lani and Deborah’s room still needed to be cleared of their belongings- their room was in complete disarray. Clothes littered the carpet caked in mud, books and papers were water damaged and strewn across the floor, a dresser was on its side, the drawers half open and its contents spread throughout the room as though someone in a rage had run in and torn the place apart with complete disregard.

The windows were cracked open so that fresh air could flow into the room. We had pulled the mold curtains out so that light permeated through the water stained windows, revealing shadows on the walls where paintings had been hung- a reminder of what this room, this house used to be.

The closet had caved in on itself- the weight of the waterlogged clothes had pulled down on the shelves above. so in no particular fashion, I began to sort through the damp clothes and boxes that cluttered the floor, putting aside anything that seemed salvageable.

A box was stuck to one of the broken shelves. I peeled it off the wood carefully. It was heavy, waterlogged. The box fell apart in my hands as I tried to open it. Inside were card and letters saved over the years. I brought it out to the living room and put it in front of the fireplace so that Deborah could look through it.

She looked at the box and let out a sigh. Tears began to form in her eyes as she said, full of gratitude, “You’ve found my life.” She peeled away each card, one by one, and opened them. Most of the writing had been washed away, but she stared at the blankness as if the words were still there. Tears were flowing freely from her eyes now, I gave her a hug and went back to work, giving her some time to herself with her memories.

A few minutes later I took the closet’s rotten shelves outside. Looking over Deborah’s shoulder as I passed I could see that the card she had in her hands was still legible. It was signed “Love, Lani.”

I’m not sure what flashed through my mind, but in an instant thought became action. I pulled off my mask, turned to Deborah and put my hand on her shoulder. “You know in Hawaiian ‘lani’ means heavenly.” She looked up at me and something beautiful happened. Through the tears, she smiled, a smile more radiant than the sun, and she laughed a deep true laughter that pierced through the gloom and filled the emptiness. In an instant sorrow had become joy and darkness, light.

In New Orleans, there was a lot of pain and suffering. But despite the physical destruction, within the hearts of people like Deborah and Lani, there is strength and there is hope- there is life. This trip was truly a reawakening, a rediscovery of what it means to be human.


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