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'Day of Service' puts bishops to work in Mississippi, New Orleans

'We have to get our hands dirty' to serve the world, says Rhode Island Bishop Wolf

[Episcopal News Service, New Orleans] More images of the Day of Service are available here

Most of the members of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops, their spouses and their invited guests put down their pens and microphones and picked up work tools September 22 to lend a hand in Gulf Coast recovery efforts.

During the Day of Service, the bishops and their guests worked on nine projects in New Orleans, while another busload headed for various sites in Mississippi. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori went with the Mississippi crews and her husband, Richard Schori, worked with a house-building crew in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood. Some 35 bishops and their spouses went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, before arriving at their work sites, they took a bus tour of the depopulated Gulf coastline.

Also on September 22, the Dryades YMCA in Central City hosted about 40 bishops and spouses for a meeting with community activists and a lunch of traditional New Orleans-style foods such as fried catfish and chicken, red beans and rice, and bread pudding. The day also included a tour of historic neighborhoods, to deepen understanding of the way the city was before Hurricane Katrina, its current condition and future possibilities, said Nell Bolton, social justice minister for Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans.

The Day of Service, organized with the help of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, faced some uncertainty earlier during the House of Bishops meeting as weather forecasters and the meeting's planning committee began to monitor a weather system in the Caribbean. However, the storm weakened into a tropical depression before it hit land about 10 miles northeast of Pensacola, Florida, around 10 p.m. local time on September 21. The next day dawned sunny with a few clouds and the work day proceeded as planned.

While the work done on September 22 contributed to the efforts of New Orleanians and Mississippians to rebuild their lives and their communities after the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005, the day had other purposes as well.

Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith, pausing from his work with Schori and others, said the past two days of meetings had brought the bishops "a lot of information to digest" and the work day was giving them "some breathing space to sort that through."

At a news conference the day before, Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray said he hoped that the Day of Service would be helpful in "interpreting the discussions within the context of mission." Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins said he hope the work day would show that "people of good will and faith stand for the dignity of humanity … [and] even in the midst of our disagreements we stand strongly for all of God's people."

After helping to measure and cut a piece of sheetrock at a home in the Gentilly neighborhood, Diocese of Olympia Bishop Suffragan Bavi Edna "Nedi" Rivera looked up at the people working together in the gutted house and said "there's nothing that's going to build community more than this."

Scenes like the one Rivera painted took place all over New Orleans and Mississippi during the Day of Service.

Mississippi: Camp Coast Care and Hallelujah Housing on the Gulf Coast
Some of the bishops joined crews reconstructing houses as part of Camp Coast Care, operated by Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi (LESM) and funded by Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD).

ERD's investment is one of a number of three- to five-year long-term recovery programs that focus on rebuilding homes and small businesses, providing case management services, creating a framework for medical and volunteer services, and offering psychosocial counseling for people affected by Katrina. More information about those efforts is available here.

Unlike New Orleans, where most structures sustained massive flood damage from failed levees after Katrina passed, Mississippi received the blunt force of the hurricane's almost 175 miles-per-hour winds and storm surges that peaked at 42 feet, with surges of 26 feet even six miles inland. Up to 90 thousand square miles of the state -- an area the size of Britain -- was declared a disaster area, and 238 Mississippians lost their lives.
 
Almost 90 percent of all structures within half a mile of the Gulf of Mexico were destroyed. Many, including some Episcopal churches, were "slabbed," literally cut down to the concrete foundation. Of the 11 churches of the Diocese of Mississippi's Coast Convocation, which in 2005 accounted for 20 percent of the members and 15 percent of diocesan income, six were physically destroyed: Christ Church, Bay St. Louis; Trinity Church, Pass Christian; St. Patrick's Church, Long Beach; St. Peter's by the Sea, Gulfport; St. Mark's Church, Gulfport; and Church of the Redeemer, Biloxi. Others have been financially crippled by the economic backwash from Katrina. More than one in six Mississippians have applied for federal assistance.

But coastal congregations have taken up the task of community recovery and on September 22, the bishops and their spouses joined in that effort. At one home in Gulfport, they installed sheetrock; at another, there was electrical work to be done. Jefferts Schori and other bishops and spouses installed sheetrock in one of the Camp Coast Care houses.
 
Others participated in the Hallelujah Housing Initiative, helping to finish an affordable home to replace one of the 65,000 destroyed in the storm. The joint partnership between the Diocese of Mississippi, ERD, the Delta/Hope Community Credit Union and the Unity Homes Project will build up to 400 affordable homes for people who live at 60 to 80 percent of Average Median Income (AMI), and plans to help at least 100 single mothers buy their own homes.

New Orleans: Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative in the Uptown neighborhood
"God bless your family in your new home. We love you." That is one of the many prayers and Bible verses that cover the walls of the framed-up house on Sixth Street, one of the devastated streets behind Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. The words were written by the people who have worked on the tenth house that Jericho Road has built.

Jericho Road, begun by the Diocese of Louisiana and funded in part by ERD, aims to develop new or newly renovated homes in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood as it brokers larger low-income housing collaborations with funding partners and residents.

"This is what the gospel is about," Newark's Beckwith said, pointing to the bishops and their spouses, some Louisiana State University honor students and crew managers from CrossRoads Missions at work on the home.

At another home down the road, Diocese of Rhode Island Bishop Geralyn Wolf showed her hands to a reporter. "If you look at the hands of most of us, we don't have any calluses," she said. "It's probably good for us … to have our hands look like most of the world's -- dirty, callused, fingernails that are a bit chipped -- so we get a sense of how most of the world makes its living by the sweat of their brow … When Christians do the work of mission, everybody benefits, but we have to get our hands dirty to do it."

New Orleans: House Gutting and Rebuilding Program in the Gentilly neighborhood
Miss Johnson, 71, stood on the steps of her Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer parked in the driveway of her home. Tears leaked out of her eyes as she described being rescued from Katrina's aftermath. A foot and a half of water flooded into her neighborhood after a break in the London Avenue Canal and left her home uninhabitable. She spent more than a year with family in Baton Rouge and started asking for help to reclaim her home.

"The Episcopal Church, I tell you, if it wasn't for people like ... them, I don't know what I would have done," she said. "They came to me and said I didn't have to worry about not having no money or nothing."

Holly Heine, Jericho Road's director of operations and communications, said the Gutting and Rebuilding Program puts poor, elderly and frail homeowners such as Miss Johnson in touch with certified trades people who will work in their homes, and then coordinates volunteer teams to hang sheetrock, install flooring and trim and paint their homes.

Having the bishops and their guests working on homes such as Miss Johnson's means a lot to the homeowners and the program workers, Heine said.

"To know there are people from around the country and around the world who want to come and help is very motivating," she said.

New Orleans: 'The New Civil Rights Movement'
Among people at the Dryades YMCA-sponsored meeting and tour in Central City was Gus Newport, program director of the Vanguard Public Foundation, a San Francisco-based foundation which strives to eradicate racism in all its manifestations and promote civil rights, economic justice, gender equality and community empowerment.

Newport, who will facilitate debriefing bishops on September 23 about recovery efforts, called the struggle to rebuild "the new Civil Rights movement."

"We have to make our stand here in New Orleans," he said, referring to the need for affordable housing and community involvement. "If we don't, it will set a precedent for all of urban America."

Bolton, the social justice minister for Trinity Episcopal Church, told the group that Katrina revealed much about New Orleans.

"When the levees broke, layers of poverty and injustice and neglect were exposed," she said. "Now, we are striving for a just and inclusive society in this city and churches like the Episcopal Church are striving to have their ministries informed by partners in the community, we want to be listening partners to deepen our commitment to civil rights, inclusivity, justice and equity. This is an opportunity to join us in the growth process."

Affordable housing is a key issue, agreed Louisiana State Representative Cheryl A. Gray, whose district includes the Central City and Garden district areas.

"While a lot of the focus has been on the Ninth Ward, Lakeview, and New Orleans East, what's happening is that other areas are a little bit forgotten. A lot of people still are not in their homes, a lot of churches haven't been able to reopen. There are issues about insurance costs, about support for pastors in churches that are struggling with rebuilding," she told the gathering.

"If we get health care up and running, people still have no place to live, so it comes back to affordable housing. Someone told me the other day they're commuting every day from Baton Rouge; people want to be back. We have to find a way to do that."

The group also visited the site of the levee breach in the lower Ninth Ward, and Plessy Park, site of the desegregation effort leading to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson court case in which the United States Supreme Court established the "separate but equal" distinction among blacks and whites, which remained in force for more than 50 years.

The tour guide was Reinard Sanders, a parishioner at the historically African American St. Luke's Episcopal Church in New Orleans and a volunteer with the Algebra Project, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to address the relationship between good schools and thriving communities. The tour also included stops related to New Orleans' rich musical history, including the home of Fats Domino who was evacuated during the hurricane. It concluded with a stop at a block party at All Souls' Church in Central City.

New Orleans: The Church of All Souls and Community Center in the lower Ninth Ward
"The Episcopal Church was here just as soon as they could after the storm," and they have stayed, said Pam Dashiell, a community organizer in the Holy Cross neighborhood adjacent to the lower Ninth Ward.

Jenkins, sitting next to Dashiell in a Mobile Respite Unit motor home in the parking lot of an old Walgreen's drugstore, said the Episcopal Church was not present in the lower Ninth because it's a good strategy. "We're here because the neighbors wanted us to come here," he said.

Jenkins said people like Dashiell were teaching him and the rest of the diocese "better ways of doing things," such as asking the neighborhood residents what they need and want. The diocese is determined, he said, to not be like some people who had "experience, money and white skin" who came to New Orleans after Katrina determined to tell New Orleanians how they ought to rebuilt their lives and their city.

"They're gone," Jenkins said; but the Episcopal Church is here and, without people like Dashiell, "the church would be self-absorbed and, in my opinion, boring."

Dashiell and Jenkins were two of many people gathered at the drugstore to celebrate its future as the home of the Church of All Souls and Community Center, a church planted by the diocese after people began moving back into the Katrina-devastated lower Ninth. Many of the Day of Service workers came to the drugstore to celebrate after their work was finished.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams visited the site on September 20 and later said he was "very deeply moved" by his experience.

Noting that bishops and other people from 12 countries were in New Orleans for the House of Bishops meeting, the Rev. Canon James M. Rosenthal, director of communications for the Anglican Communion, told the crowd that "we've all got problems, but now we have one more thing to put on our prayer lists."

New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents the area, said that Williams' "footprint is on our hearts."

Willard told the crowd that the builders of All Souls were creating a place for the people of the lower Ninth to see the light shining in the darkness as well as "setting an edifice to the glory of God."

Holding Jenkins' hand high in the air, Willard said she thanked God that "spiritual leadership rises up" in times of crisis.

Jenkins had said earlier that while he has talked candidly about suffering from post-traumatic stress after Katrina and having had a very dark night of the soul, things have changed now.

"I'm having fun being a bishop at last," he said.

-- The Rev. Jan Nunley, executive editor of Episcopal Life Media; the Rev. Pat McCaughan, correspondent for Episcopal News Service, and the Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service, contributed to this story.

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