Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Final Thoughts

Quote of the Day: “People are being taxed on the money they were given from the government to rebuild their homes.”


Every Tisha B’Av at camp, a rabbi would tell one of the famous stories about the destruction of Jerusalem. A fox was seen walking through the Holy of Holies, and those who witnessed the scene wept. However, to the astonishment of all, Rabbi Akiba laughed. Why did he laugh? The interpretation given to the campers was that out of the darkness comes the light. Some say that the Messiah is destined to radiate someday through the darkness of Tisha B’Av.

I always thought that I understood that story, but never really did until this week in New Orleans. It was a week of contradictory disappointments. At first, I was disappointed that the scene didn’t look as bad as I had expected. I had the TV images of Katrina imprinted on my brain and, strange as it may seem, still expected to see them there. On each day’s drive, I peered anxiously at the Xs found on many New Orleans homes, gazing with trepidation at the number at the 6 o’clock position to see if corpses had been found in that house. That disappointment was followed by disappointment in myself. Why was I so selfish to think that New Orleans would stay destroyed just for me? Why couldn’t I give credit to those who had already rebuilt parts of the city? This disappointment was followed by the true disappointment of internalizing the full scope of how much is still in shambles and how much remains to be done. New Orleans has been a holy city for me in my life, and it pained me to travel through the 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish and see the continued damage and devastation.

As I prepare to leave, though, I think about the laughter of the city too in the face of this tragedy, a joy that we saw throughout the week. We saw a New Orleans style St. Patrick’s Day parade in all of its glory – beads, cabbages, potatoes, and all. We saw a rabbi ministering with fire and frivolity to a dwindling congregation as if he were preaching to a cast of thousands. We saw the youth of America hammering, painting, and working with energy to the tunes of Biggie and America’s Top 40 as the core experience of their Spring Break. We saw the residents showing their remaining possessions with pride, describing their Katrina heroism with humility, and serving their finest cuisine with love. Our Gann group laughed with one another each day, even after we ached after a hard day’s work and a hard week of processing the aftermath of Katrina. All of this reassured me that New Orleans is still a city where the good times roll.

As I tried to sort out the laughter and pain of the past week, an insight hit me today on this last day of work. My role today was to pull nails out of the ceiling and wall to prepare it for a new coat of primer and paint. Something struck me about the fact that I was taking apart more than rebuilding New Orleans. However, it made perfect sense more than ever before how we need to deconstruct a little before we reconstruct. We have to take the nails out of the wall before covering them over and moving on. This seems to be the metaphor for the city of New Orleans and our country at this moment. There are many painful nails being pulled from America’s wall with the holes still remaining. Where will we find that primer and new coat of paint?

I came to New Orleans post-Katrina, the symbol of a broken American community that was the cause of so much despair. I leave with a tremendous sense of hope, inspired by the thousands that have joined me in the seemingly Sisyphean task of rebuilding a city and, more importantly, the resilience of the thousands of residents who love their home, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and persevere. I saw that hope today in the glimmering eyes of a mother who, with their 2 children, cut the ribbon to a beautiful new home built by the St. Bernard Project. Unfortunately, I won’t be there to see Buster and his wife cut the ribbon to his home, the home that I helped to rebuild by pulling nails from a wall. However, when that day comes, some part of Gann Academy and of me will be in the holes of those walls, whispering softly and sweetly the words that those affected by Katrina have longed to hear: “Welcome home.”


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