By: Jocelyn A. Sideco
November 15, 2011
So I went…to an extremely broken place and reality, because my friend had friends he wanted to help.
New Orleans’ entire infrastructure was compromised by hurricane and flood damage and our nation struggled to respond adequately with resources and more importantly, a plan for recovery.
Enter God. Enter Mercy. James Keenan, SJ, defines mercy as the “willingness to enter into the chaos of others.” I found myself in the chaos of soggy homes, inadequate insurance coverage, limited resources, frightened and overwhelmed leaders, a growing desire for security and stability, and a hunger for what “used to be.”
I had no intention to stay in New Orleans much less begin a Christian Community. But things just seemed to make sense. People from all over the world were coming to help people in New Orleans because they knew them or knew their story somehow. I thought, if only everyone knew someone and made disaster, war, and poverty a personal issue. Then, perhaps, we would take the time to help out.
After the flood poured into the city and filled 80% of our homes, businesses, churches, and streets with an average of 5 feet of water and receded about 3 weeks later, we were left with many rising truths that continue to guide my ministry and influence how I accompany others:
It quickly became apparent that the path to recovery was overwhelming. Individuals and communities found themselves paralyzed by tragedy and unable to move away from shock and despair. As I helped locals make some everyday decisions, I further realized that my role was to accompany them as they recreated their own lives. I couldn’t make the decisions for them, but I could create a space where they experienced God’s presence, God’s peace, and God’s joy ever so profoundly.
Addressing the urgent need involved a constant re-evaluating and re-assessing of our new reality. Soon we began to breathe between crises and to enter into a new rhythm of God’s heartbeat that was sustaining and proved to offer lasting possibilities not immediate fixes. The urgency of rebuilding an American city older than the United States gave us an opportunity to re-imagine the local values, customs, and traditions. The urgency of “getting into my house” caused a fury of independent wrath that nearly hurt more people than it was worth. Unfortunately, without the proper planning, many homes were rebuilt so quickly that people are still worried about their ability to withstand another major storm.
That’s when I realized that my own desire to help in this most broken corner of the world needed to be ever so grounded in God and God’s dream for our world. Prioritizing communal prayer every morning allowed the Spirit to breathe into our days and offer us the wisdom of discerning where God was leading us that particular day.
Contemplation of God’s created world did not come after all the work we did; it needed to come before so that our investment of time, energy, and resources were aligned to God’s will, not ours.
Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (Resources for Reconciliation) by Christine D. Pohl and Christopher L. Heuertz has helped me put my experience into perspective. Creating friendships with people around us also meant we were becoming known neighbors to one another. A known neighbor has our best interest in mind. I think of Paulette who watched our home each and every day from the comfort of her stoop across the street. Our neighborhood watch keeps us all behaving better.
One of the most troubling realities during the aftermath of Katrina was a lack of care for, and even recognition of, our neighbor. Human Rights lawyer, Bill Quigley asks, “Who got left behind?” Katrina taught us to ask about our neighbors and how we might address their needs. In fact, when we are most honest, their needs become my needs. So I think of Shirley and her need to get to work without further hurting her back, or Johnson who got a bunch of new bricks but cannot transport them on his bike, or Imani who would like to practice her Spanish but no one at home could. I think of my neighbors often and wonder how they are doing.
That’s probably why our ministry is so attractive to folks engaged in short-term service or immersion experiences. Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely a place for folks learning how the world works and their place in it. But, at its worst, these trips just scratch the surface of discomfort by remaining at a distance from persistent and institutional injustice. We began Contemplatives in Action (CIA), an urban ministry and retreat experience, because we wanted to create an institution (fluid as it was) that answered a longer-term need. CIA agents were able to continue a relationship that other volunteers started or vice versa. If they can only be in New Orleans for one week out of the year, then we have become a community that they can trust throughout the rest of the year. In turn, our friends become known to one another and that’s how we build relationship and build the kin-dom.
Pohl and Christopher L. Heuertz name a current challenge: “to help cause-driven volunteers find their way into meaningful, life-giving relationships.” My suggestion: become a Contemplative in Action, root your service in real friendships and opportunities to be known to one another, and just step out of yourself and meet someone new.
Our ministry in New Orleans attracted many “cause-driven” volunteers. We were able to put names to faces, commitment to causes. One of my favorite projects is Team Enduring Hope. Initially started by a volunteer who just kept coming down to help out, Team Enduring Hope gave her a way to focus her athletic self at the service of a major cause that truly has changed her life. She trains, competes in, and raises money for an annual 70.3 Ironman. The first year, she did it herself. The second year, she convinced 20 more people to commit their time and resources in the same way. Now, these participants of Team Enduring Hope bring the ethic of endurance, prayer and hope—important values of New Orleans recovery and rebuilding—to all those they come in contact with.
When we decided to stay in New Orleans, Contemplatives in Action rented a house and became a part of the bigger story of recovery. Our witness was contagious. In sharing our resources for the benefit of our ministry, we shared ourselves with all the people affected by New Orleans, locals and volunteers from all over the world. We found life together just as the first few Christian communities were invited to: “All believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:44-45).
We identified with our new-found neighbors and friends, sharing the same needs and the same joys. This phenomenon no longer became just the story of Katrina survivors; it became our story as well. It was no longer about them, but it became about all of us. When taking new volunteers around the city of New Orleans, I began using “we” instead of them. I would get these confused looks and questions that asked, “But, you weren’t here when this happened though, right?”
I began to realize that this internalization of this corner of the world’s reality began to change me… and not just my ministry.
We are called — every part of us and all people. We are all called to be witnesses to and active co-creators in God’s dream for the entire world.
I pray in thanksgiving for all my friends and all those who I have yet to befriend, that they will continue to influence my ability to root myself in God’s truth and servanthood.
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