The march of the Last Responders

The march of the Last Responders

By Steve Beard

They weren’t taking any chances. For Super Bowl Sunday, the historic St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans called the Vatican to seek permission to replace the Papal flag over the front entrance of the sanctuary with the flag of the New Orleans Saints.

Attendance rivaled Easter Sunday, and the entire congregation was bedecked in black and gold. After his sermon, Monsignor Crosby Kern prayed for the Saints, pulled off his vestments to reveal the quarterback Drew Brees’ jersey, and led a “Who Dat” cheer as he shook hands with parishioners.

With tongue in cheek, it was suggested during the service that the faithful should remember St. Joan of Arc—her large statue only blocks away from the cathedral—as she rode a colt to victory as a saint.

In sports narratives, it’s hard to beat the Saints-Colts storyline. With all due respect to the faithful Indianapolis Colts fans, this was never going to be a fair fight. The underdog and scrappy Saints became America’s team. The experts picked the Colts, but the heart and soul of the nation picked the Saints. How could a fan not want to see the Lombardi Trophy go to a city that was almost swallowed up in a watery grave?

According to the Nielsen ratings, Super Bowl XLIV was viewed by the largest audience in TV history for a single broadcast. The case can certainly be made that the numbers reflected a deep seated interest in the recovery of New Orleans.

I’m not an impartial observer. I wore my “Believe Dat!” shirt and my fleur-de-lis Saints hat during the Super Bowl with pride. Years ago, I fell in love with New Orleans. I loved the Creole and Cajun cultures, the architecture, the jazz, the art, and the food. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, muffuletta sandwiches, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, shrimp po’boys, boudin sausage, chickory coffee, and beignets—what’s not to love?

The history of the city is etched with the scars of floods, fires, hurricanes, and battles. Its streets have been trod by preachers and pirates, steamboat captains and stowaways, the devious and the pious, the Jazz Man and the Jesuit, as well as a whole host of lovers, rogues, and warriors. I love the eclectic history.

But after Katrina, I fell in love with the Saints. Their decision to stay in the city and help rebuild the devastated area prompted my respect and admiration.
Yeah, yeah, it’s only sports. I hear you. But weren’t we witnessing a team trying to give CPR to a city?

40 billion gallons
In early January, I was back in New Orleans. During the shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel, we drove slowly past the Superdome. Instantly, the devastating images of 30,000 bedraggled men, women, and children trying to take refuge in the partially-destroyed edifice came streaming through my mind. The aerial shots of the desperate and dispossessed looking for an escape from the torrents of water seemed to play all over again in slow motion as we drove by.

The elderly, the sick, and the poor were trapped like contestants on a particularly cruel episode of Survivor, surrounded by 40 billion angry gallons of putrid water.

Four-and-a-half years have gone by since Katrina threw her tragic tantrum. It’s hard to imagine this place under water—but not impossible. If you venture out of the French Quarter, you can see the aftermath. Of course, much of the devastation has been erased, hundreds of unsalvageable homes bulldozed. You will also not see the thousands of truckloads of debris that have been removed, nor will you witness the 200,000 cars that were strewn about as if King Kong began throwing them around the Lower Ninth Ward.

What can be seen may be as subtle as eye-level waterlines on the sides of buildings where the tide had reached, or it can be as unsubtle as the spray painted markings of the First Responders—the rescue workers who entered each and every home looking for survivors hiding in the attics. Their series of X’s and O’s and initials have been called the iconography of the tragedy. When was someone last inside? Were there any human remains?

In some neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see a freshly painted, rebuilt home with a new roof sprung up between dilapidated hovels that look as though they are waiting for a wrecking ball. As a homeowner, you may have no idea if your neighbors will ever return. Nevertheless, you start over, rebuild your home, reestablish your residence, and take a gamble on the future of the city’s saints.

Watching the horror
Leonard Carter was in Texas watching the horror at the Superdome unfold on CNN. Retired after 21 years in the military and retired a second time from the New Orleans School District, Carter was chomping at the bit to return to his home and begin the process of cleaning up the mess.

He managed to return before New Orleans was officially opened back up to the public and drove through the desolate and eerily silent streets—something like a war zone after both sides had run out of bullets.

As my guide one afternoon, Carter regaled me with stories of recovery and restoration in the neighborhoods of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a project manager for the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry.

The faith-based relief agencies — ranging from the Southern Baptists to the United Methodists to the Roman Catholics to the non-denominational — have been the lifeblood of the mission to restore that which Katrina destroyed.
The United Methodists have kept a trained eye on those who fell through the cracks. “We have always looked out for the least, the last, and the lost,” he says.

Carter has seen it all. He has also heard the heart-breaking tales of those who were scammed by phony contractors. Deceptive vultures preyed on the weak and vulnerable. Yet one block over, Christian charity and compassion motivated the building of a new roof. It is a workplace of contrasts—open hands and dark hearts lurk in the same neighborhood.

As if that were not enough, bewildered citizens wrestled with the profound tragedy of an elderly woman dying in her FEMA trailer during a tornado—days away from moving into her rebuilt home. For those pouring their hearts into rebuilding, how do you begin to grapple with the perplexity of that situation? After all the hard work, sweat, and toil, an experience like that tears at faith in Providence and serves as a graphic dagger through the heart.

Nevertheless, the men and women rebuilding New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region wiped the tears from their eyes and stayed on course, keeping the faith.

United Methodist action
As of January 31, more than 72,000 volunteers have shown up to work with the Louisiana United Methodists. They have appeared from every Annual Conference within the United States and from 33 countries. Over the last four years, many churches within our denomination have repeatedly sent work teams. For example, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, has sent 55 teams on the 14-hour drive to the Gulf Coast. Seventy percent of the volunteers are repeat visitors.

Thus far, United Methodists—through three million volunteer labor hours and contributions to UMCOR—have contributed 95 million dollars worth of economic development to the region.

There are currently 67 full-time employees working with the United Methodist Church focused on the rebuilding effort.

In New Orleans, 39 United Methodist churches were flood damaged. The Louisiana Annual Conference collected a special offering to pay the pensions and pastors’ salaries of those whose congregations were dispersed and sanctuaries damaged. Local congregations began using the recovery effort as a ministry. They have even sent their own staff to other disasters in different parts of the United States.

Remarkably, United Methodists in Louisiana recently raised $164,000 for Haitian relief.

We can fix this
Nothing makes 71-year-old Leonard Carter happier than being able to look at a home and say, “We can fix this.” He has between 20 and 50 houses being salvaged at any one time. The whiteboards in his office survey the progress of each home. The United Methodist relief ministry juggles work teams, finances, and the hopes and dreams of eager displaced residents.

“I look forward to going to work every day,” says Carter. The office hours at the center begin at 9 a.m., but Leonard is often already on the job at 6:30.
While I was in New Orleans during the first week of January, there were 70 college students associated with various Wesley Foundations throughout Arkansas working on the rebuilding project.

They keep coming—four-and-a-half years after Katrina!

Desperately needed, the volunteers are all put to work. High school students to retirees to trained construction workers—plumbers, carpenters, masons—all show up to help.

Many of the big-time relief organizations are downsizing their operations. With faith and stamina, United Methodists will be among the Last Responders for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

On and off field saints
The Saints’ NFL franchise was awarded to New Orleans on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1966. John Mecom, the original owner, called Archbishop Philip Hannan to ask if he or his Catholic parishioners would have any objection to the franchise naming the team the Saints.

The archbishop gave his blessing, but wisely told Mecom, “Most of our saints were martyrs.”

A few years later, Hannan actually wrote a Prayer for the Saints which included the humorous plea, “Grant to our fans perseverance in their devotion and unlimited lung power, tempered with a sense of charity to all, including the referees.”

At the Saints and Sinners booster club banquet in 1968, Hannan ended his prayer with these words: “May the ‘Saints Come Marching In’ be a victory march for all, now and in eternity.’”

New Orleans knows that saints come from all walks of life. Some are found in black and gold on the gridiron, while others emerge simply as hammer-toting believers in hipwaders filing out of a church van looking for a city to salvage.

For the soul of the city, New Orleans needed both. For the soul of the nation, we need New Orleans.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.