Emmitsburg Council of Churches

New Orleans & the Body of Christ

Father John J. Lombardi

Heat. Humidity. Harriedness. And then: arrival,after a long-ish journey to a foreign land they knew not--New Orleans-land of Jazz, the French Quarter and Hurricane Katrina's devastating wrath; they made it, finally. Then they all got hit: hurry up and wait, which is, you may know, part of all pilgrimages. You do this all the time in journeying. This time: wait for an hour of processing of five mini-caravans rented for transportation in New Orleans. The five drivers were then met by the bus driver, who, contravening the pent up frustrations and beaurocracy, loudly and cheerfully gave a big New Orleans smile, "Welcome to New Orleans!"--, expressed as if sent from God to convert and comfort the weary Trinitarian troops His simple saying and radiant countenance transformed their nervousness into opportunity, hope, welcome -instantly. They were now embarking on our pilgrimage after months of planning, soon to experience throughout a lot of salvation out of suffering.

They came from the Grotto and Washington DC to fix up houses-"gut them," as they say, to give some hope and a little spiritual solidarity to a hurting part of the Mystical Body in America

As a propitious omen, on the plane ride down they met a lady traveling with her husband and two children. Wearing a roman collar makes one "constructively conspicuous," and opens doors-especially of suffering hearts. You never know what is below the surface. As the pilgrims, children and adults talked, joked and even played some games, barriers broke, and the mother she asked the priest, sheepishly-"Could you pray for my Mom?" "Sure--what is her name?" She then said her Mom survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but later tried to take her own life. Thankfully a pilgrim brought some Miraculous Medals along and so gave them to this family and one for her mom: the Mystical Body mystically connecting at 30,000 feet. Gratefully the daughter received it and amidst this previous playful family silence reigned as they clenched their Medals. Sacramentals are sometimes conduits to Salvation out of suffering. The family gave a grateful reply which was a constant refrain: "Thank you for helping out." Healing. That's what everyone needs-and New Orleans-post-Katrina ten months later still, came a surprising hope out of helplessness. Christ the Lord was healing His people.

This Sunday we celebrate The Body of Christ-Corpus Christi. This traditional, beautiful Solemnity celebrates Christ's Love for us especially thru the Blessed Sacrament of Mass and Holy Communion. It can also celebrate Jesus in others--in His Mystical Body, hidden in "disguises", especially in the poor, sick, dying and the despairing. Jesus says: "In the world you will have many troubles, but fear not, I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). Here, now, are some reflections of a Pilgrimage-Service Trip to New Orleans and overcoming the world…

The pilgrims' (seeming) goal: to gut houses with Helping Hands branch of Associated Catholic Charities of New Orleans. Their deeper goal-Pilgrimage to God in Holiness thru service, prayer and spirituality. Their chant-aspiration-motto: It's all part of the pilgrimage. Even traveling to New Orleans was part of the Pilgrimage. God revealed to them that family in need of healing. The Journey itself is part of the arrival.

The group consisted of: 25 souls of youth (ten teens), some seniors, a priest-Chaplin, a navy man and D.C. Capital Hill fundraiser, an autistic son and his mom, two Portuguese Americans, a youth director, all zealous and ready for action-whatever it took, wherever work and God's call would bring them-from gutting houses, evangelizing on New Orleans streets, making countless phone calls for Catholic Charities to making hundreds of sandwiches, to throwing a frisbee during work-breaks to conversing with strangers-their unspoken desire: keep the hope rolling in the land of elegance and catastrophe

No boring Pilgrimage was this: plenty of work to do (intense but inspiring), a surprise visit to the hospital, on the job construction training, swimming and laughing, ice cream socials, sharing sessions of pilgrimage impressions, museum touring (considering Creole Catholics), and above all worship of God and finding Him in the saddest and most camouflaged of places. There were many, many epiphanies, and as several folks said: "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else." They gave their precious time to serve, pray and work-for God's Kingdom on Earth.

Just what is "gutting a house"? For seven days in all they worked on two houses, one middle class suburban home and another in the infamous Ninth Ward of poverty and calamity. This consisted of tearing down dry walls, removing rotting wooden beams and worn floor tiles, eliminating electric cables and light fixtures, generally stripping down a house to its skeletal frame, and also flossing thru furniture, pulling out nails (lots of them), lugging barrels of dust and silt to dump piles, removing insulation, cleaning out yards (beautifying them for the hopeful return of the owners)-a kind of "beautiful destruction process". On Sunday they decided to work a half day and then tour the other half day with Jerry, an engineer-architect local who donated tons of his time to the Helping Hands Mission, who gave an expert journey thru New Orleans-an inspiring epiphany in himself with constant encouragement and smiles. Then they saw the true chaos of Katrina. The Russian writer Dostoyevsky, often quoted by Dorothy Day, once wrote: "Compared to love in dreams love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing."

Capturing the thoughts of many, one person said she was inspired by the "beautiful noise" of all the intense deconstruction-working-gutting process-banging hammers, clashing saws, brushing brooms, tearing walls down, thrashing and clashing of household objects, calls for help, booming thuds of falling timbers, scraping crowbars-all in a kinda "symphony of chatter" which would normally annoy souls, in this charitable context became a kinda eternity collapsing into a temporal epiphany, an ironic salve to souls if heard aright because of the very nature of destruction of reconstruction-a "terrible beauty" conversion process-no life without regenerating the old life which was ragged and needed repair. Perhaps they were repentantly working off sins thru dusty manual labor for people they would never see, or simply experienced a catharsis of physicalist labor, or enjoyed connecting to a team of a Mystical Body.

They worked, generally, in half hour shifts-because the work was so physical and the heat so drenching and draining-and required lots of water throughout. They sought relief from the melting, masticating sun in rare, spaces and slices of shade which were prized possession spots-and ate simple sandwiches-cheese, or ham or peanut butter and jelly which became like seeming feasts for craving, cragged bodies and souls. They stopped work at Noon each day for the Angelus (which celebrates the Incarnation of Jesus), lunch, and then worked another two hours until quitting around Three p.m. and prayed a decade of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Then clean-up time came and rush to a liberating shower or a swim.

. One time while working a pilgrim was haltingly, contemplatively trying to figure out how to take out a wooden beam and was un successful several times. He stopped, looked, listened to the beautiful chatter about, tried again and nearly gave up, and then a young, small guy came up seemingly outta nowhere, stood for one second, reviewed the situation with one glance, moved up to the suspect wooden beam and with a big mall coolly and kinetically knocked it out for the astonished worker, and then walked away selflessly. Unplanned lessons of life came like this voluminously: they all helped each other gut, scrape, dig, toil for the trinity, often looking into a ton of work by oneself and then someone else coming up to help out and the job mystically disappearing as the many helping hands complemented one another. What one couldn't do naturally or physically was done by all. The Mystical body became just as much body and sheer force of physical labor and numbers as it was spiritual and mystical. Salvation out of suffering by team work. Unplanned lessons like this abounded

Ward 9 was the site of their second house gutting-the hardest hit area where ten feet of water stood for two weeks in most homes. One day they were all working-masks on faces, some in hard has, a huge pile of trash in the front yard, a beehive of activity at the shoebox like 1920's house, and then came an elderly lady (this was very unusual as most places in New Orleans were desolate, ghost-town like places). She walked gingerly to the front stoop-step and asked a pilgrim: "Do you want to see my identification?" She was Rosetta, the homeowner, and the pilgrim was immediately humbled by her question, as, here the workers were, strangers working on her house and she asks to enter as if a visitor. She greeted the pilgrims and wanted to enter her home and retrieve, out of all her belongings some prized china-flatware. They all stopped work and dug thru a huge pile of personal belongings sequestered in a back room. That was what her life was reduced to: a pile of boxes . Gingerly they found it and she then beamed some smiles. John asked her what she wanted us to tell you, our reader, and others. She said" "It's okay. God provides, He's in charge. Trust. Thank you!" Salvation out of suffering. The pilgrim workers thought the same thought-here is a "messenger-message", and then took a picture on the front step with her- happier for having met the actual face of New Orleans in real personage. She graciously took her china and went off, waving cheerfully and the pilgrims then continued banging walls, cleaning house, reconstructing her home and a little piece of the Kingdom.

As their job continued thru the days they became enlightened, thankful and blessed by spontaneously-arising leadership amongst them-unexpected organizers with seeming gnostic knowledge of nails and wooden things, while others rose to the occasion doing normal "grunt-like" labor, some keeping the mystical chain going by distributing cherished water and towels for relief, and others doing lighter work-all adding unity amidst the diversity and creating a working team out of a seeming chaos of heat and challenge and catastrophe Thing is: they did it cheerfully in fun fashion without "lording it upon others". Meanwhile, other pilgrims at different places were busy preparing sandwiches, evangelizing on the streets, praying, cleaning and preparing "staging sites" for work troupes arrival-whatever the task, large or seemingly small, they were reminded: "It's part of the pilgrimage." Thing is: some pilgrims experienced an essential spiritual lesson: previous troubles in life, broken relationships, job challenges and "back-home problems" and preoccupations became subsumed by two components of their Mystical Mission: team and task The team humor, intense dedication, varied talents and personalities all complemented and comforted one another. Their working force (and sometimes a farce!) became a family of shared vision which alleviated and sublimated individual problems creating a unity of harmony, fun and uplifting faith which can only come, seemingly, on such pilgrimages. And the task-of helping a devastated city and homeowners-- wiped away any self-infatuation and seeming back-home problems to focus on the mission of restoring hope and help. Time, therefore, flew by. Salvation out of suffering-not least to the pilgrims, too.

After work hours were joyful times for rest, touring, Mass and holy hours and meals prepared by a wonderful permanent deacon-Ernie. At one dinner, so enthralled was one pilgrim, inspired by Deacon Ernie's selfless love, he gave him a cheer: "Give me an 'E'. E!. Give mean 'R': 'R!'…What does that spell-Ernie!" We all clapped, howled and hooted. So many of the pilgrims spoke of his wonderful talent, and the disguised delight of their stomachs and hard-work days: his cooking and delicious food. "It's all part of the pilgrimage."

One night a bunch of pilgrims went to make a holy hour (Eucharistic adoration-prayer) in nearby Immaculate Conception Church. After some time there the church was closed and a couple left with time remaining to complete the holy hour. They then knelt on the front steps outside the church doors and then a street lady and her daughter came by-looking worn and needy. They were invited to pray and so they somewhat nervously went up and knelt there and were given them a miraculous medal. Then: suddenly they all heard a noise-didn't know what it was. Slowly, ominously the huge bronze doors of the church began closing-"Oz like". The mom got nervous and pulled her beautiful child away (she didn't want to go) and fled the scene. Aahh, the pilgrims felt-how inopportune for these non-Catholics to be scarred off by this seeming "Catholic security ritual"!. A dozen minutes later they reappeared and after some careful cajoling they trusted and knelt again to pray to the Eucharistic Jesus and then were given some more spiritual gifts-"Perfect love casts out fear" (I Jn.). They all then left into the night. "It's all part of the pilgrimage." Salvation out of suffering.

One night the pilgrims held a spiritual sharing session to process all the rich experiences of the pilgrimage so far.

One guy immediately said that, amidst the manly fun of deconstructing houses his favorite part was meeting a lady by a house who thank him and all for the work they were doing, and then asked if she could hug him in gratefulness. The young guy was full of silt and dirt and wearing a breathing mask, probably looking like an alien. Although he was appreciative he respectfully declined and she then cited some Bible verse, and became convinced-no barrier to charity and thankfulness and they embraced. All part of the pilgrimage.

Another guy chirped up and said he was surprised by joy. He was astonished and inspired by the complete dedication of the pilgrim-mom who brought her autistic son who needed constant attention, 24/7, even hand-holding and some loving pulling pursuing.. The guy was amazed at the mom's tenacious love and dedication. This pilgrim himself then had the opportunity to take care of the autism pilgrim and said holding his hand was a supreme moment of grace and solidarity for him. He also said he met a homeless guy, helped him and saw the face of Jesus in him.

Many recounted the constant refrain of folks in New Orleans: "Thank you for coming down and helping us out!-said, of course, in that delicious southern accent. Another pilgrim said she normally was shy and sheepish amongst strangers but amidst this pilgrim group felt at home, amongst friends, and didn't even have to put on make up! One guy said that, amidst the gutting house he entered a kinda zone of meditation whereby all else was forgotten but restoration and reconstruction. Another pilgrim said the incessant prayers helped that come about. One young lad said he stepped on a nail and spoke a "choice word" and then thought, catching himself, "It's part of the pilgrimage." Salvation out of suffering.

Of course there were other treats, challenges and surprises, like: barely catching planes (twice), running thru airports (a dashing teen), lost, forgotten and found items (a cell phone) , walking tours of devastated areas complete with the astounding: an upturned truck under a crushed house and nearby, a mystery: an electric wire shot through a block of tree-wood, and cable-chain hanging from tree which three youth decided to accept the challenge of climb in athletic competition; a street jazz band playing each nite outside our hotel (for free); a Mass at St Louis Cathedral (the priest set off the alarm f the Church in the sanctuary!)…And then, the "topper": one pilgrim had a terrible toothache, needed a root canal and didn't sleep one night. The next day she definitely needed some medicine but couldn't' get it as a traveler in a foreign town. Thankfully a nurse at the hospital decided to see her and eventually the lady got the medicine. But she still needed some form of an operation as the plane ride and pressure would re-open the wound. Obviously we didn't know any doctors, much less be able tog et an operation. While waiting in the hospital another lady noticed a scapular on one of the pilgrims and began a conversation which led to the lady recommending a dentists name nearby. The pilgrims made the call and the dentist was able to schedule n appointment the next day. Dentist name? Dr DuBois (Jean Dubois founded the Grotto and Mt St Mary's)! The pilgrims went and the lady got the operation done and she said afterward that she felt like nothing ever happened. Thing is: Dr DuBois didn't charge a thing for his immediate inspiring services. All part of the pilgrimage.

One day they went Street Evangelizing and some were impressed and "epiphanized"-by the mom and her autistic child as they ventured the streets, talking to people, gently bringing Christ into conversations and also given some sacramentals out. During another saunter one pilgrim met a homeless fellow and learned his story of despair and darkness-and then treated him to lunch

Lessons in Brief:

As a homeless guy said to the group (before playing a tune on his guitar) "Seek ye firs the Kingdom of God and everything will added unto you" (Mt. 6:33)…Be thankful for what you have-your home, food and family…Go and help someone. So many persons are in despair, even when they appear fair of happy…Live a life of charity…Always remember as the group learned: He is the Healer thru your Helping hands.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi