The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Transforming New Orleans

Rumor was the building in which we were staying had once been a brothel. Truth be told, the building of Peace Lutheran Church, Slidell, La. (founded in 1979), was a no-alcohol, teen disco that had gotten a bad reputation. Apparently, Jesus took one look at the building and said, "Go and sin no more."

And so it was. A building transformed.

After it was spared by Hurricane Katrina, Peace opened those once infamous doors for different kinds of sleepovers and a flood of volunteers from across the U.S. Since 2005, Peace has housed 7,000 volunteers. In July, it housed an intergenerational mission team that our congregation, Grace Lutheran in Green Bay, Wis., sent to help with rebuilding efforts.

Thanks to Lutheran Disaster Response, Peace has added a small laundry building and a larger structure with a commercial kitchen, dining area, showers and state-of-the-art worship space. Some in our group stayed in two boxcar housing units with air conditioners that roared like freight trains and felt like the November fog in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Four nearby RVs were jerry-rigged as auxiliary showers. Our hardworking hosts at Peace fed and took good care of us.

On our first day, we tried to tour all the ELCA churches affected by the hurricane, journaling and praying at each stop. Grace Lutheran Church, New Orleans, presented a bit of a puzzle: it appeared to be an entirely new beautiful brick building.

There was one problem with that theory. The windows had cloudy, white stains — minerals left behind from water drainage. The inside of the building had been destroyed and renovated. Leon Philpot, the synodically authorized minister of Grace, said the windows were among many remaining renovation needs that members consider less pressing than reaching out in love to their neighbors. So the windows stand — a symbol that the effects of some tragedies aren't easily erased, repaired, transformed.

That was true for almost every city block. Some houses were beautifully restored. Others were moldy wrecks that were occupied, boarded-up or a little of both. Some homes had been washed or hauled away.

Almost a year before Katrina, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted a simulation showing that a category 5 hurricane would decimate New Orleans. Presumably every level of government received this memo. But nothing was done. (Kind of like the first Noah story?)

Every level of government failed to protect its people. The hodgepodge restoration of homes indicates a continued lack of coordinated governmental concern for citizens. Some families could afford insurance; some couldn't. Some insurance didn't cover enough or didn't cover anything. Some were unlucky victims of dishonest contractors or of drywall from China laced with sulfur. Some were lucky enough to benefit from a nonprofit or church restoration effort. Today the city is slowly being transformed, though mostly for the rich and lucky, a metaphor for novelist Ayn Rand's America.

Most work seems to be done by skilled and not-so-skilled volunteers, by teenagers with hearts transformed by Jesus. They are eager to serve and sweat for a week, learning how to paint, fire a nail gun or install a window. Teenagers transforming houses, transforming a whole city. Let's hope they transform the rest of the world as well. 


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February issue


Embracing diversity