“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…”
On August 24, 2008, the historic Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, which had very nearly been destroyed by Katrina, celebrated the completion of a 3 year, $5 million restoration. The towering scaffolding, the chain link fence, the “Hard Hat Area,” was replaced with a lush new landscape of lilies, azaleas, crepe myrtle. The light in the steeple was shining, the bell tolling for the first time in 3 years.
Exactly 1 week later, the City of NO was once again under a mandatory evacuation order. This time it was Hurricane Gustav: Category 4, nearing landfall, aiming for New Orleans. We had enjoyed being whole again for only 1 week, and already there was another storm even worse, we were told. There was a time in my life when I might have shaken my fist at the heavens and cried out “Why? This is not fair!!!” But I was surprised at myself as I walked around the beautiful buildings for the 3rd and final time, at the sense of peace, equanimity, and beatitude that filled my spirit.
How changed I am because of all that I have been through. For although Katrina is no friend of mine, I have learned a lot because of all we went through with her. I have been determined to squeeze out of her every bit of blessing I can get. I didn’t want to go through all that for nothing! Winston Churchill once said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” How right he was, for the best way forward is through. Key word! It has to do with the promise of God, come what may, come hell or high water, I will be with you—through. That is what I want to tell you about: what we went through. How we got through. What we learned going through the storm.
In New Orleans, we have a saying: “Keep an axe in the attic.” Why? Because when the storm comes and the waters begin to rise in your living room, you climb first to the 2nd floor and then to the attic, you will be trapped if you don’t have an axe to hack your way to the rooftop. People have suffered, starved, drowned in their attics. The first funeral I did after the storm was for a man who had been trapped in his attic with no axe, dove back into the water filling his house, but it was too late. No, the time to prepare for crisis is not after it happens.
Remember the lessons of the Titanic, of Pompeii, of New Orleans. Remember that Noah started building the ark long before the first raindrop fell. But I am not just talking about physical readiness, but moreover spiritual readiness. Think about Jesus on his knees at Gethsemane. It was not the first time he ever turned to God in prayer. He had been praying all his life. And so when crisis came, he was ready. Are you? For, no doubt, crisis will come. Because that’s life. I have always wished that it was “a piece of cake,” a “tiptoe through the tulips,” a “bowl of cherries,” and often it is. But sometimes it is not. It is as Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “Life is a series of ambushes.” Or as Jesus said, “Let your lamps be burning.” Or as Paul said, “Let us not sleep as others do, but keep awake.” Or as we say, “Keep an axe in the attic.”
For life is short–another lesson learned. Most of us live as if we have all the time in the world. In New Orleans, the “Big Easy,” we are famous for that. But now we know we don’t have that kind of time. None of us do. “In a New Orleans minute everything can change.” On Sunday, August 28, 2005, at 8:45 am, with Katrina bearing down, I stood in the sanctuary with the 12 people who had showed up for church anyway. None of us should have been there. Uptown was already a ghost town. Even in the Sanctuary, there was that eerie, pea green, yellowish atmosphere that is always the prelude to a hurricane. We stood in a circle, held hands. I urged everyone to look around at that sacred space so dear to us. To stamp that image on their memory. To cherish that moment. I have learned to cherish every moment. For never do we know what the future holds. How could we know that we were standing in the very spot where within 24 hours the steeple would crash through the roof and chandeliers shatter to the floor? We prayed, hugged, said goodbye.
And then the darkness descended. Within 24 hours we were completely cut off from the world. No electricity, no cable, no TV, no landlines, no ATM, no cell phone service. Billy and I had evacuated to Baton Rouge, but I had no idea where my parents were, my brother, my friends, the congregation. Within another 24 hours we would begin to hear about the catastrophic levee failure, the flooding of the city, fires, looting, the 1000’s of refugees stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center.
It was during that terrible time that we all had to come to terms with the strong probability that we had lost everything: homes, possessions, neighborhoods, schools, jobs. 1/3 of our congregation did lose everything, nearly every member of the church staff lost everything, our organist and his mother rescued by helicopter in water up to his armpits. For the 1st time in my life, I got a taste of what it might mean to be homeless–no money, no food, no clothes, no shelter.
It was then that 2 of the most important lessons began to sink in: We learned what we can live without. We can live without a whole lot of things–underline things. You can live without a closet of clothes, a houseful of furniture, 2 cars in the garage, and a condo on the beach. During those days we learned how to be a church without a building, to worship without a bulletin, to sing without an organ, to be in mission without a budget, how to have a home without a house, how to do way more with much less. We learned what we can live without.
And we learned what we cannot live without: the things that are not things. As a pastor, I saw it everyday, the striking difference between those who attached the meaning of life to things--how lost they were, desperate, even suicidal. And those who attached the meaning of life to things that are not things–things unseen, things of the Spirit, the indestructible, unconquerable, eternal things of God—hope, peace, joy, love. They were the ones able to rise above the flood, even to soar. No, we cannot live without the things that are not things.
A few days after the storm, after being completely cut off from all communication, somehow a call came through on my cell phone. I was thrilled! I fumbled for my phone, I said hello!!! I could hardly hear, it was breaking up, but it sounded to me like the person on the other end was saying, “This is Jesus Christ! This is Jesus Christ!” As it turned out, it was my friend Judy Price. “This is Judy Price! This is Judy Price!” She had gotten a message from my Dad who had been unable to reach me; she knew where he was. So it wasn’t Jesus Christ–or maybe it was! I tell you this because this is how God would come to us again and again through this terrible ordeal—through people. People like Judy Price, like you. The people of God. Things that are not things: People are not things. How many times did I hear someone who had lost their homes and possessions say, “But we have one other.” We cannot live without “the shelter of one another.”
This too is one of the most important lessons of all–something we all know, but now I know it like I never knew it before: the church is one another. The church is not a building. During the long evacuation, I set up my office in a corner of a coffee shop in Baton Rouge, on my laptop, finding my congregation which was scattered from shore to shore, one by one, by email, starting a daily electronic newsletter to the “Rayne Diaspora,” arranging for worship on Sunday afternoons in the chapel at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. Two weeks after Katrina, on September 11, on 9/11, remnants of our congregation reunited at that chapel.
That was the day we learned the steeple had fallen. 2 of our members who had passed the check points on a press pass had seen the wreckage. They brought pieces of the broken brick. For 3 more Sundays we worshiped in the chapel. People drove in from all over the region— Houston, Shreveport, Jackson, etc. We took in new members every week! We had no buildings, no bulletins, no budget, no access to funds, just a laptop in a coffee shop and P.O. Box, but we were still Rayne. Up until then, Rayne had always been known as the Church of the Lighted Steeple. Now what? No steeple! I told my congregation, “Now you must be the Church of the Lighted People.” You are the light. The church is one another.
During that time there was a question as to whether N.O. should rebuild, whether it was even worth it. Baghdad on the Bayou, they called us. A toxic cesspool. A city cut adrift. Just pull the plug and let her sink to the deep end of the ocean. During that time I got a call from a District Superintendent asking me, “Are you going back to New Orleans. Will Rayne rebuild?” There was never any question in my mind about that. After all, I believe in Easter! Remember? If Easter teaches us anything, it is that the end is not end.
This too was a lesson we learned. Never are the worst things the last things. Though I must say it did seem utterly impossible. I took no small amount of comfort from that old saying, “We are always surrounded by magnificent opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” But this had to be the most brilliant disguise I’d ever seen! During that time, the words of Anne Lamott gave me hope. “Whenever God is about to do something wonderful, he starts with a hardship. When God is about to do something amazing, he starts with an impossibility.” But it was the words of St. Francis that became our mantra. “First do what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And soon you will find yourself doing that which is impossible.”
First do what is necessary: it was so clear what was necessary. Some churches have to pay 1000’s of dollars to get a consultant to help them write a mission statement. Our mission was in our face, screaming at us everyday. It challenged us to re-conceive our ministry. We reopened in early October and became a staging area for hands-on mission, hallways stacked to the ceilings with flood buckets, cleaning/mucking/gutting building materials, clothes, food, drinking water, Tyvec suits, and goggles. We put in 4 showers, got 40 air mattresses, and for 2 1/2 years housed a steady stream of volunteers who arrived almost nonstop from all over the world. For 2 years, the United Methodist Committee on Relief had 5 storm stations in the New Orleans area, deploying volunteer teams. We will never be able to thank those countless volunteers enough. They were our heroes! Because of them, the words of St. Teresa seemed so clear: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.”
Because of this, never before did the connectional system of the Methodist Church become more real to us. It had always looked good on paper! But now we have seen it in person, on the ground, in the flesh, incarnate! For example, we had a wedding scheduled for September 4, the weekend after Katrina, which of course was out of the question. I didn’t learn what happened until many months later that the couple, Emily and Ryan, had evacuated with 1000’s to a shelter at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Houston. When it became clear there was not going to be a wedding in New Orleans, it was an incredibly huge disappointment. But when the people of the Woodlands Church heard what happened, within 36 hours they cooked up a wedding for Emily and Ryan providing everything: sanctuary, music, minister, cake, dress, tux, flowers, hairdo, makeup, reception, photography, party favors, limousine, hotel room. They reprinted the wedding programs, found out what their love song was, played it for the first dance. Though no one in their right mind would have ever planned it that way, it was the most unforgettable wedding ever. And it helped me to know that not only are we connected, but that we are one– Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham, by the power of the Spirit. Distance, miles, geography, time, are no obstacle. We “bear one another’s burdens,” “If one member suffers, we all suffer. If one member rejoices, we all rejoice.”
To this day rebuilding continues, and churches have been the key factor in the saving of this great city, doing in many cases what government has failed to do. One of my friends who brought her youth group all the way from San Francisco was amazed at the church groups at work all over the city, and she asked: “Will New Orleans be rebuilt by the church?” What a thought! A city built by the church! And though we have a long, long way to go, there are so many things that are better, stronger, cleaner than they were before. Before my very eyes, the promise of God is fulfilled, “Behold, I make all things new!”
New Orleans is an old city, older than our country, 300 years old. But she’s new. My church is an old church, a 133 year old church. But she is new. I’m old, 57 years old, I’ve aged 3 decades in 3 years. But I am new.
Amazing! “When God is about to do something amazing, he always starts with an impossibility.”