Saturday, March 3, 2012

Judy Rice's Homily 2/26/12

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”.

I wonder how God’s words to Noah in today’s Old Testament reading must seem to the people of New Orleans as they sit in church this morning. I can only imagine what frightening memories these words must bring back as they recall the events of 6 ½ years ago when the waters poured into over 80% of the city and residents were left clinging to rooftops, waiting for rescue that came too late, for death and destruction that came too soon. The waters came not only from Hurricane Katrina but also from Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River Gulf outlet, and from the various canals that run through the city. The waters came not from God or a natural disaster but from poor decisions made by people on the local, state, and federal levels who put their own welfare above those of their city.

It would be easy for the people of New Orleans to remain angry and bitter – that the pumps did not work, that the levees were not built correctly, that there was no evacuation plan in place. It would be easy for them to distrust others – the insurance adjustors and contractors who swindled them, the police who did not protect them, the perpetrators of the endless litany of murder victims shot each week. It would be easy for them not to return when their friends and neighbors have relocated elsewhere and vacant lots remain where homes and neighborhoods once stood, where there is no work, and it might seem no hope.

But today’s lesson is not primarily about water and floods. It is about the covenant God made with His people, that God made a promise that the earth and its creatures would not be destroyed. In fact the word covenant (which means solemn agreement or promise) is mentioned seven times in the verses we hear in Genesis today. It is about having faith and trust that God is compassionate, that God is about love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant. It is about acknowledging that “you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long”.

And nowhere is this trust and faith evidenced more than in New Orleans. I think of the homeowners we met such as Bev, Gloria and Joe, Betty and John, Mildred, Lola and April, who opened up their homes and hearts to the countless different volunteer groups who came to help. I think of the people of St. Andrew’s who offer their hospitality and their parish hall to church groups from around the country who come to volunteer. I think of the people of St. George’s who after their primarily older congregation never returned have built a new congregation bursting with young families. I think of the people of St. Anna’s who have provided an afterschool program for children of the neighborhood to be exposed to the arts and have given them a new reason for hope. I think of the disciples at the Mission who partake in not only food and shelter but daily Bible study and prayer to provide an alternative to a life of alcohol, drugs, and homelessness. I think of the students and young adults who come to New Orleans to study and volunteer and don’t leave once their time is up, who stay to make the city a better place for everyone. I think of the people of St. Michael’s who for the fourth year in a row have opened up your wallets and your hearts to send a group down on your behalf, to offer love, and faith, and hope.

The day that we arrived it began to pour and we had to run for the house, lugging our suitcases and sleeping bags through the rain. We sat out on the back porch as the rain subsided and someone spied a rainbow in the sky, a good sign for the start of our trip. The last day we were there it also rained. I didn’t see a rainbow but I’m sure there was one, a sign of God’s everlasting covenant. Amen.

Barb Phinney's Homily 2/26/12

Good morning.

I want to tell you a New Orleans story of one man’s experience of the collision of 2 egregious events - the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the War on Terror. It is a gut wrenching story and in the end, an example of the redemptive power of hope and faith in your God. When I read the psalms for this week, it was right there - Zeitoun’s story, pure and simple. To You O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you, let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian Muslim, emigrated to the US in the late 70‘s after working at sea. A practical and skilled artisan, he settled in New Orleans and along the way, married an American lady, Cathy, who earlier in her life had converted to Islam. Together they worked hard to get their painting and contractor company established. Indeed, The Zeitoun Company was well regarded and known as the go to company for painting in the wealthy garden district.. They had woven themselves into the fabric of their community oriented city - with friends on every block in many neighborhoods - Neighborhoods that now, after my 3 trips, I begin to know and recognize . Committed to excellence in their work , their Muslim faith and their lives - so blessed with 4 beautiful children, you could say that they were the shining example of the successful American immigrant experience.

As the spectre of Katrina bore down on them, they knew the routine of hurricane readiness. As she had done many times before, Kathy evacuated with the children, He stayed. So many responsibilites - this time 9 sites with painting equipment to be tied down, and skeptical as usual, of the potential danger . We all know that Katrina itself did not cause the real disaster. It was, as before, manageable damage but as the horror began to unfold and the waters came, Zeitoun resorted to checking on his properties in his yard sale canoe,, but increasingly, that changed to helping and rescuing people from their homes,feeding stranded dogs, paddling & delivering them to temporary hospital sites and checking in with a make shift National Guard Stations in the area for help and assistnace, that in hindsight would be a problem. To give you a sense of how deep the water was, in the same neighborhood, that we drove through on our way to the grocery store, car antennas were scraping the bottom of his canoe..

As New Orleans descended into chaos, Cathy lost her daily cell phone contact as Abdulrahman vanished without a trace, no contact - leaving this family traumatized, crazed and in the dark for almost a month.

By delivering the stranded victims to those make shift Nat Guard stations, Zeitoun made himself visible to the hurridly deputized mercenaries brought in from security companies around the country and yes, Blackwater was one of them. Through some unfortunate circumstances, he fit the profile of a terrorist, authorized under the FEMA merged into The Homeland Security Act. What unfolds over the next month is a story that makes one ashamed to be an American. Zeitoun was roughed up and removed from his own home at gun point, and delivered to an impromptu military base built inside the downtown Gray Hound Bus Station, if you can believe it - assembled 2 days after the storm. They took his driver’s license, allowed no phone calls , branded him a member of Al Kaida and the Taliban. All suspected terrorists were thrown into open air wire cages on the pavement of the bus depot’s parking lot. At gunpoint with guard dogs, these and 1500 Louisiana State prisoners endured three days, of standing and sleeping on bare pavement with no blankets, being roughed up and the only food was MRE’s of ham and pork ribs - no substitutions for Zeitoun.

It gets worse - much worse.
Zeitoun was transferred to a LA state prison outside of the city. Because of the suspected terrorist classification, authorities were afforded the unchecked power to detain indefinitely, dening all the constitutional rights afforded to a regular prisoner. -no contact, no charges, no bail,no trial., Zeitoun prayed, even though he knew that praying 5 times a day would raise further suspicion. In the name of God, the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful: You alone we ask for help; Guide us to the straight way; the way or those whom you have blessed, not of those who are astray. From our own psalms : Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.

Even the story of how he is finally - after a month of secret captivity - released and eventually exonerated is amazing but I don’t have 2 hours to tell the story that is so rich. I have touched on 1/10th of what happened. He lost 20 lbs and his hair turned white. Read the book!

Zeitoun was tested beyond limits and came out at the other end. A dark time passed over his land, but now there is something like light. Zeitoun booms “every person who was forgotten by God or country is now louder, more defiant and more determined.. His answer is to restore and build. “ What is building and rebuilding in LA but an act of faith! He knows that God is watching over the work and he tells his crews, “ it must be done with soul”. Progress is being made, which is the joy that we mission people see but he envisions a city not just as it was, but better, far better. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

No good deed goes unpunished. The Zeitoun Foundation was created in 2009 , to aid in the rebuilding of and on going health of the city of New Orleans and to help insure the human rights of all Americans. To date, over $250K from the sale of the Dave Eggers book as been donated to 17 non profits.

And finally, in the middle of the trip, Marilyn, Judy and I took a late afternoon constitutional - to unwind from a long day of painting and moving ladders. It was our southern architectural eye candy walk admiring everything beautiful, blooming, tattered historic, funky about our neighborhood. We stopped to admire a house being painted - glad that I wasn’t the one doing it - when I spotted the advertising sign stuck into the grass. I shouted with delight - “Guys, the sign says Zeitoun Painting & Contracting,” standing there pointing to the sign. That sign was validation that the story was - really - real. I gotta get a picture of that for the blog. Some people have read Zeitoun - it’s a national bestseller.”

For a second, I looked at the men on the ladders, secretly hoping that one of them was Zeitoun. Oh, don’t be silly. As I turned around, the door opened, to some commercial van parked across the street - the one with the ladders on top - the one I hadn’t noticed - the door opened with it’s owner walking straight to me.... “Mr. Zeitoun, “ as I reached to shake his hand, “I read your book.”



Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sheila Monks' Homily 2/26/12

I was just amazed when I looked at the readings for this morning. Here we are talking about New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the first reading is Noah and the Flood. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course. There is always a special synchronicity at work with God, always a special message for us to hear---but still, I was amazed.

Let's for a moment imagine the plight of Noah. A terrible storm, bringing endless rain, has obliterated everything of the world he once knew. He is adrift in a strange, rickety structure. He has that sick, lonely feeling of someone who has lost everything. He feels helpless and hopeless. At last, after endless days lost at sea, as it were, he "sent forth a dove out of the ark, and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly picked olive leaf, so Noah knew the waters had subsided from the earth".

The comparison here between Noah and New Orleans and the people there is almost unbelievable: a great storm bears down upon them and everything they have known is washed away. They are left, if they have anything at all, with strange, fragile storm-wrecked buildings that have almost nothing in common with the cozy homes they once knew. They have the sick, lonely feeling of people who have lost everything. They feel helpless and hopeless.

This year, as you know, some of us worked at the New Orleans Mission for the Homeless. We noticed that on one wall was painted a quote from Isaiah: "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint". And then we went to church on Sunday and what was one of the readings that morning? The same quote from Isaiah. And we sang "On Eagle's Wings".

Now think of the dove. That great symbol of the Holy Spirit at work, its sturdy wings able to lift its body over the fearful waters. For untold centuries it has been the symbol of hope, as it searches and searches for a place to land, and finding an olive tree at last, brings back in its mouth hope and redemption for Noah and his frightened little band. Noah's trust in the Lord has been rewarded.

And what about the people of New Orleans? I like to think that perhaps the symbol of hope for them is another winged creature, not the dove but the eagle. If you want to see helpless and hopeless, come to the Mission for the Homeless. But on its wall is painted a picture of an eagle. And think about the hymn we sang: "You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in his shadow for life, Say to the Lord, my refuge, My rock in whom I trust! And he will lift you up on eagle's wings, Bear you on the breath of dawn, Make you to shine like the sun, And hold you in the palm of his hand".

I like to think of them this way, flying like powerful eagles far above the furious waters, heading straight up to heaven.

I would like to end with a beautiful prayer which I found in a book called "Redeemer's Grace", something we read for the St. Michael's Book Group:

"Oh God, I offer the prayers of my heart
For those who are suffering. I don't know their names.
You know their names, and their sufferings are real to you.
Let them become real to me. Let me know how to be with them.
If they must suffer, may they know they are not alone.
May they be clothed with love, fed with love, warmed and protected by love.
May they be held in your hands and blessed in your love.
May the dead find their places in memory, may the wounded be healed,
May the mourners be comforted. May the morning come when all may arise with joy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


The PNOLA group really felt great about all the work we were able to complete at Lola and April's house. The family room floor is installed and the trim board applied. We also demolished a water soaked closet and finished an amazing amount of painting and plastering in other rooms in the house. Things are looking very promising for the family to be able to return home. April was very grateful and, while shy, really came around by the end of our week. She presented us all with a Mardi Gras cup and beads to bring home to Boston with us. We wished her well and hope to visit her in her finished home with all her family on another trip to NOLA.

All of us were struck by the fact that the neighborhood we were working in was still so affected by Katrina. Some houses on the street were looking cared for, but others were clearly unoccupied and many had been torn down. Amazingly this neighborhood is only 3 blocks from the beautiful Garden District and prosperous St Charles Street. This is truly a divided city with most of the neighborhoods looking neglected and forgotten. We all felt blessed to have been able to help Lola and April. Thank you all for helping us bring St. Michael's loving community to New Orleans.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Prayers for New Orleans

I am so struck with the spirit of the people of New Orleans - their kindness, hospitality, and welcoming of us. Everyone thanks us for coming (and you all for sending us) and for not forgetting them after so many years. At the New Orleans Mission all the guests said "thank you m'am" and "God bless y'all". Mildred gave us all hugs for painting the ironwork around her house. John and Betty stood wistfully at the door (she in her wheelchair) waving goodbye after we cleaned up their yard. Amanda opened up her home for us to use her bathroom while we were working in the Bayou Rebirth gardens and then came to say goodbye. Mother Susan of St. Andrew's, Rev. Jim at St. George's, and Father Bill at St. Anna's all welcomed and thanked us.

I am also struck by people's openness for us to pray for them - the countless murder victims, their families, and their prepatators. Dave from the Mission's babies who were kidnapped. Corey at the Mission who is lost and confused. Amanda who worries about 8 year old girls who know already what rape is. Bev who lost not only her son but her beloved dog. Joe and Gloria who are still working on their house. Please keep them and all the people of this glorious city in your prayers.

The Rain Garden

Thursday Today many of us went to work for Bayou Rebirth. We weeded, organized their tool shed, and prepared to create a rain garden. A rain garden is a rain water catchnment area which can be built in a back yard to prevent rain water from going into storm drains and becoming polluted when it hits the streets. The garden is actually a shallow hole in the ground filled with permeable soil such as crushed rock or sand and planted with attractive plants, usually native, such as iris and marsh grasses. Storm water flows into the garden and although it eventually sinks, is held there for a while, preventing erosion and pollution. If enough rain gardens could be built in New Orleans back yards, flooding could be vastly improved. It would also be a huge energy saving, as 40% of the energy used during a rain storm is for pumping the water out of the city!
It was hard, physical work, followed by cleaning up the huge brush pile left from pruning a large tree. We're tired tonight, but true to form, Barb and Marilyn have cooked a huge dinner and we are expecting Bev Jimenez and Joe and Gloria Robert, whose homes we worked on in other years. --Sheila

BTW, Barb

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My thoughts and prayers are with you!

It so great to follow you all as you continue this wonderful tradition of service. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Where are you staying this year?

I hope this posts correctly - the blog seems to want to recognize me as a contributor not a responder. (I guess I should be honored.)

Keep well, keep posting, and send pictures!

my love to you all,

Anne Aylward Spofford