My friend at Project Homecoming, Alex Pappas, had asked me a week before if I was interested in being on a "panel" to talk about being a volunteer after Katrina. Since talking is one of my favorite things to do I said, "Sure."
As details emerged, it started looking like a fairly sophisticated deal. They wanted a bio, for one thing. On the road, I started getting emails with details like a diagram of the room, instructions on where and when to pick up my "credentials" and when to meet for a briefing before the "press conference." They told me who would be on the panel with me but the names and titles meant nothing. I was the only one with no title. I was the "volunteer."
I had packed one set of church clothes and rest was working clothes. That morning when I got ready I looked at my clothes and listened for God to speak. What "costume" should I wear for this panel? Should I dress like a professional or a worker bee? and God said to dress like a volunteer. So I did. And when I hit the Sheraton valet parking and got out of the car I was surrounded by professionals in suits, ties and heels. And I still felt comfortable in my PDA work shirt and bluejeans. I had come to represent the countless volunteers who had rebuilt the Gulf Coast. And they didn't wear high heels or ties while they did it. I was who I was. At one point I realized I hadn't even combed my hair that morning-- but then, I never do. Actually, I don't even own a comb.
The entire hotel had been dedicated to all things Katrina. There were huge signs all over: "K10" More important, my valet stub had been marked for all day with a special rate.
I was early and sat in the lobby for a while enjoying a cup of coffee and watching all the Type A folks running around worrying about stuff. A Muslim woman walked up to me in my Presbyterian shirt and spoke with a soft Louisiana accent, "I'd like to thank you for all the Presbyterians have done here on the coast after Katrina." It was one of those really cool moments when strangers connect with each other as more than strangers. It would not be the last time I would see this woman. I had just met Jane Aslam.
At the appointed time I went into the room they assigned. I sat in the back waiting and took a photo.
I noticed everybody at the tables would get a free pen and pad of paper and water and all those cool goodies. I was pumped. I love it when I get freebies. Then I realized I wouldn't be at the tables. I would be at the front. I didn't need to write anything down because I was going to be the person talking. They would be writing down what I said. I had a short ego rush then almost immediately felt humble. I hoped I had some good words inside me that would be worth listening to. Words that needed to be said. I decided to pray for another one of those times God would just hop out when I opened my mouth.
The rest of the panel eventually assembled. The guy in charge told us that while a gob of press had been invited the reality was that there would probably be very low attendance. I already suspected this. Faith is never a very sexy topic. And the weather was gorgeous. The press would all be outside walking around. We ended up with about ten people from the church press, Lutherans, Presbyterians and the like.
Jane Aslam, my new Muslim friend from the hotel lobby, was on the panel and there were few confusing minutes with two Janes until they began calling her "Sister Jane" and that helped.
We started with each of us speaking of what we learned spiritually from Katrina. Sister Jane went first--she spoke movingly of the storm and recovery. I was third, being in the middle. As I spoke, I noticed the ten press in attendance started walking up to the front to take pictures while I talked. I let my ego bathe in that light for a while. By the end of the hour I noticed these same people were checking messages on their phones and my pride fell back into the dark where it belonged.
Still, I think some had listened to me. One guy told me what I said was the best theology he had heard all week. Another said he intended to preach on what I had said.
And now that I was in the "in" crowd. I hitched a ride with them to the next event, the dedication of a memorial at the 17th Street canal levee and a ground breaking ceremony--where I would meet up with Colleen and her partner, Kelsey. They had flown in from Oregon.
The memorial had another set of the outdoor educational posters. This levee broke because the pilings were too shallow.
They had a prayer and lay flowers against the levee.
Then we formed a second line and paraded a couple of blocks to break ground for a new development of houses to be built for disabled veterans. I think it will be fifteen houses.
Then we went to lunch at a Vegan restaurant and drove around town. Colleen took me to get my car. She knows the city like the back of her hand since she's lived here four times: twice as a PDA young adult volunteer and twice as an AmeriCorps volunteer. We stopped at some of our old haunts like the grocery store by the camp and the smoothie place. New Orleans for us wasn't all shopping in the French Quarter and eating gumbo, sometimes it was cereal and Zapp's potato chips.
Tomorrow: We finally get to work on a house.