Monday, October 10, 2005

Kyrie After Katrina

by Rev. Larry Beane

[An article published by Lutheran Church Charities. For pictures, click here.]

Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us.

Mercy is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture and in the liturgy. When we gather for Divine Service, the first thing we sing after being absolved of our sins is the Kyrie: "Lord have mercy."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, opportunities for giving and receiving mercy abound. People from many walks of life have joined hands and hearts to give aid and comfort to victims, to help in rescue and relief operations, and to show compassion to people who have lost so much. In the case of a small group of us Lutherans in the New Orleans area, the Lord created an unlikely team to go about His works of mercy.

New Orleans businessman Ramsey Skipper serves on the Board of Elders at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Metairie, LA. His home in the once-beautiful Lakeview area of New Orleans was destroyed by waters that engulfed the entire first floor of nearly every home in that neighborhood. After the hurricane, he had moved his wife and two small children to Houston. Upon returning almost two weeks later, Ramsey was determined to enter his home to try to retrieve some of his family's possessions - especially things dear to his small children.

At an impromptu staging area on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near the levee break that left 80% of the city under flood waters, Ramsey found a boat that many others had been using to get back to their homes. With the help of a French freelance photographer named Laurent Guerin, Ramsey piloted the boat to his home. He was able to break into a window and retrieve some items from the second story. Upon returning, some firefighters asked Ramsey and Laurent for their assistance in the recovery of both the living and the dead. Laurent, a self-described atheist, put his cameras down, and devoted himself to helping the effort. In spite of their differences in politics and religion, Ramsey and Laurent quickly became good friends, and were soon joined by Ramsey's pastor, Rev. Brad Drew, of Mt. Olive.

Ramsey realized that many people were desperate for help in retrieving irreplaceable family photos, crucial insurance papers, and stranded pets. The three men began an operation on their own, navigating the toxic waters, shuttling people to their homes, breaking into houses with axes and crowbars, and helping people move around their dark and dangerous homes.

Once inside, people were horrified and traumatized by what they saw: hazardous filth, mold, furniture ruined and overturned, dead animals, and the pervasive stench of rot. These were people not only in need of transportation, but of Christian compassion and mercy.

The team grew as others began to help. Rev. David Lofthus, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA, and myself, Rev. Larry Beane, associate pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA returned to the New Orleans area after evacuating our own families. We were looking for ways to lend a hand in the relief efforts. We soon found much to do in our ravaged city. We were later joined by Rev. Charles Keogh of Faith Lutheran Church in Olympia, WA who had made the long journey to help.

Also joining our group was Michael Lohr, a Hollywood, CA photo studio owner who had come to New Orleans to assist in pet rescues. He and several veterinarians and helpers hooked up with our team, which had been dubbed tongue-in-cheek as LEMA: the "Lutheran Emergency Management Agency."

Lutheran Church Charities heard about the operations, and immediately asked how they could help. We were all deeply moved by LCC's compassion and Tim Hetzner's efficiency in getting us what we needed. In response to a request for more boats and manpower, LCC rapidly sent us three flatbed boats, outboard motors, dozens of waterproof hip-waders, and many volunteers to help our growing team.

While the group continued running "missions" into the black rivers that used to be city streets, James Bennet, a reporter from the New York Times, asked if he could be put on a boat to write a story for the newspaper. Ramsey answered politely, but firmly: "No." The men were there to help people get into their homes, not to provide transportation to reporters. However, upon observing James' kindness and compassion toward the victims over the course of several hours, Ramsey relented, and allowed him to accompany himself and Laurent on a few sorties. They were joined by Lynsey Adario, a New York Times photographer more used to capturing scenes of devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq than in America. James' lyrical article about the unlikely alliance between the Lutheran layman, his pastor, and the atheist photographer ran on the front page of the Sept. 13 Times. The article included some of Lynsey's haunting images.

[Note: The London Times also interviewed some of us and ran an article as well.]

There were plenty of opportunities to show Christian compassion and mercy to people who were utterly distraught over the devastation of their homes, the destruction of their precious heirlooms, and the loss of their pets. People also gravitated to the pastors on the team who had plenty of opportunities to give pastoral care to the suffering and distressed.

At just the right time, the Lord provided our team with people with specific skills. Gregory Brown, a waiter at the well-known Barreca's restaurant, volunteered to serve as cook for the large group. Barreca's also provided the team with several meals free of charge. Henry Berger, one of my parishioners with expertise in Information Technology, helped us in getting our wireless computer up and running. Volunteers from all over the United States, many of whom were dispatched to us by the LCC, helped with the tedious work of cleaning and disinfecting our equipment. Rev. Brad Drew opened his parsonage to anyone who needed a place to stay. Mount Olive's gymnasium became a warehouse of supplies for people in need.

Our long days of work were followed by lively evenings discussing the Gospel - especially with our ever-inquisitive guests. Some of our most interesting conversations were with our atheist friend Laurent, a veteran of the French special forces - whose integrity, sense of humor, and resourcefulness we all grew to respect and admire. It was a profoundly moving moment when Laurent told us that had he met us sooner, he might not have been hostile to Christianity. Within a few days, he donned one of LCC's distinctive "Christ is Our Hope" T-shirts. Several non-Lutherans grilled us about what Lutheran Christians believe, teach, and confess. All three of us local pastors were able to conduct services at our churches that Sunday - and were blessed with visitors anxious to hear the Gospel.

As the waters receded, "LEMA" had a challenge. Boats would no longer be of use, and yet people were still flocking to us for help. One lady showed up looking for us, having heard what we were doing. She cried out: "Where are the Lutherans!" To the people in need of help, the name "Lutheran" had become synonymous with good works and acts of mercy. To meet the changing situation, we again appealed to LCC, this time for four four-wheel-drive all-terrain-vehicles, and a slew of equipment to run them. Although Federal Express was not even delivering packages in the New Orleans area at this time, LCC found a way to equip us in less than 24 hours. The very next day after our e-mailed request, everything was delivered to us by Rev. Dr. Paul Anderson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge. LCC had also sent a semi truck full of food, water, clothing, toys, blankets, baby supplies, toiletries, etc., a wireless laptop to facilitate communications, as well as a 24-foot RV, driven by Allen Busse, to serve as a command center and housing for volunteers.

With our mission moving from sea to land, so to speak, we began pulling small trailers with the ATVs, driving through knee-deep water and over every imaginable obstacle in order to continue our work. We continued rescuing dogs, cats, birds, and even turtles and snakes - reuniting distraught children with their beloved pets. Sometimes we found ourselves on our hands and knees washing the toxic muck from people's feet. The gratitude of the people was overwhelming.

The pastors typically wore black shirts and clerical collars on these operations - a uniform which proved every bit as comforting to the faithful and useful for access as the camouflage worn by the National Guard troops who waved us into these restricted areas.

Every "mission" was unique, and we were filled with a driving desire to help every person who sought our aid. We were all greatly moved by the people we were helping: their grief, their sense of loss, their courage, their joy, their desire, and their gratitude. In the midst of the great destruction, there were small victories: the retrievals of pets who survived for more than two weeks with no food or water, the recovery of business and insurance papers, pictures of babies and ancestors, crucifixes, and irreplaceable heirlooms. There were also many people who were unable to recover anything - refugees with only the clothes on their backs. Thanks to the generosity of so many, we were able to provide food, clothing, water, and toiletries to those who lost all the material goods they own.

As the waters receded further, ATVs were no longer needed to get into homes. As folks came streaming back into New Orleans' devastated neighborhoods (including areas outside of New Orleans that were also subjected to storm surges and levee breaks), they needed help. Our churches became outposts of relief as LCC continues to send supplies that people so desperately need.

And if that were not enough, LCC continues to support Lutheran schools as they endeavor to reopen. LCC's unbelievable kindness and ability to cut through red tape helped make it possible for our school, Salem Lutheran in Gretna, to not only re-open, but to open our doors to a record number of students - nearly 300! We are able to bring the Gospel to many children whose homes have been destroyed, including many who have never been able to attend a Christian school before.

Thanks to our Lord's mercy - brought to us through the godly work of LCC - we have ourselves been blessed. Flowing from the Lord's mercy to us, we are humbled to be allowed to be instruments of His divine mercy to others "even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). The Church's ministry of mercy will be needed in our region for a long time to come. Lutheran Church Charities has played a crucial role in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and will continue to bring the Lord's blessing to us, our churches, and our schools for many years to come.

Thank you, LCC, and thanks be to our merciful Lord Jesus Christ!

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