Umm. Everyday in New Orleans is indescribable, but this one might beat them all. No attempt to capture the drama, emotion, triumph and tragedy of this day will do it justice. But we'll try. We guarantee, though, that you won't get it. Sorry.
Neal was taking a much-needed break, so we headed out to join a new supervisor, Adam, at Saint Raymond church. Adam assigned us to a volunteer coordinator, Eileen, who took us to a house that had been addressed by other crews, but that had been left unfinished. The plan for the day was for us to go in and finish three such jobs at three different houses. When we arrived at the first house, we found a debris removal crew there, so we waited in the van for that crew to complete its task. Eileen came up to the van to tell us what was in store for us. We got out and milled around a bit, standing across the street from the corner where the pile was being reduced.
As she described the unfinished business at the house, she mentioned that there was a neighbor that we might encounter, Mama D, who – according to Eileen -- had given the last crew a bit of trouble. Just as she was describing this possibility, Mama D herself walked out and seemed to get into a bit of a tangle with the debris removal crew. Eileen then decided to see if she could get into the house, as we didn't have any keys to it. To get to a particular side door, she walked on the sidewalk alongside the house. Unfortunately, that sidewalk was marked with cones placed by the debris removal workers, and their policy is to stop work if anyone walks into the marked zone. They stopped. Mama D wasn't happy.
Mama D started yelling at Eileen for halting the work. As Eileen noticed that the Catholic Charities sign that had been posted on the porch was missing, she turned to the furious Mama D and asked, "Did you take our sign?" Things didn't improve from there. Mama D let loose; she was upset about the impending closure of the oldest Catholic church in the U.S. (it is located in her neighborhood), she was upset about the timing of Catholic Charities' first offers of assistance as compared to their actual arrival with work crews, and she was upset with the treatment that she believed she had received from the Catholic Charities workers.
Eileen eventually extracted herself from the conversation, though Mama D was still talking. The tension on the street was thick and electric. Shawny offered to try to bridge the gap between the two parties. She walked up to Mama D, introduced herself and our group, and acknowledged that it seemed like Mama D had been through a lot in the last few months. Meanwhile, the students were watching from a distance, wondering if Mama D was about to let loose on Shawny. Instead of witnessing an explosive outburst, we were all surprised to see Mama D stand up and give Shawny a huge hug. Mama D's explanation was simple: "You just changed everything in two sentences. No one over there has ever said that to me." Some students joined Shawny and Mama D, and then some other neighbors came around to talk. Things were going pretty well.
It appeared that from there, things could move forward, and we could complete the job at the house next door to Mama D's without further incident. We continued to wait at a distance, though, as the crew was still removing debris. They finished, and took their cones from the sidewalk. As they were doing so, Adam (our new supervisor) showed up. In the ultimate act of unfortunate timing, he walked up with a Catholic Charities sign and started to tie it to the porch. Suddenly (and accidentally), the truce was broken.
Mama D challenged the need for a sign. Adam sincerely did not understand what her complaint was. Tempers flared. Strong words were exchanged. Everyone felt "right." And wronged. Shawny tried to intervene. This time, she made no progress. Police were called.
And if the racial tensions of this historic city were not already obvious enough, we watched in amazement as each party in the argument approached the police, but only the officers who shared their same skin tone.
We went together toward our van, and tried to figure out what the right next move would be. We wanted to show empathy for the struggles that Mama D had endured. We wanted to support our colleagues at Catholic Charities. But most of all, we wanted to work.
To make an odd situation even odder, at that same time, we noticed a truck that was circling the blocks nearby. Eventually, it stopped by us. We couldn't imagine what the next surreal experience was going to be. And then we recognized the driver of the truck. It was the property manager from across the street from yesterday's house (the one for whom we moved an entire debris pile, so that he and his tenants would not have to endure another long wait for it to be removed). He told us that he had been looking for us all morning, because he wanted to thank us for keeping our word. He talked about how little follow-through there is in present-day New Orleans, and he said that it was very important for him to find us and thank us. He had driven block by block all day, assuming that we were out there working somewhere. He was right. And we were glad to see him, especially at that exact moment.
We marveled for a moment or two over the beauty and strangeness of that interaction, but we were quickly brought back into the reality of the moment on the street. Adam came up to our van to discuss our next project, and in the process he dropped a few major insults about Mama D into his conversation. In haste, almost all of us reacted, asking him not to speak that way. In the stress of that moment, our challenge was unwelcome. Adam took our reaction to be rude, and walked away from the van. Shawny followed him, telling him that we just wanted to get to work. He suggested that we take a few days off.
We had been fired from a volunteer job.
The entire van percolated with a range of responses: anger, sadness, sympathy, disgust, and many other things. We sat together and talked about each person in the conflict, trying to step into that person's shoes and understand why that person might have reacted in the way that he or she did. We gained some insight into our own contributions to the escalation of the problem. And we talked about the depth and magnitude of the racial and ideological issues that permeate New Orleans, the South, the U.S., and perhaps the world. We wondered what it would take to make a real difference. And we evaluated our own perceptions, behaviors, and decisions.
From there, we called our friend Joan Diaz, our main contact with Catholic Charities. She offered her services as a mediator, and we scheduled a sidewalk rendezvous with her and another Catholic Charities worker who had been present at the end of the "Mama D Incident" to try to reach common ground so that we could get back to work. We agreed that we would apologize for our contributions to the conflict, and that we would express our appreciation for all that Catholic Charities has done for us this week. Joan and Amy (the other staffer) arrived, and we worked things out, thanks to Joan's masterful mediation. Our dismissal was reversed, and we were thrilled to get back to work.
Finally, as noon approached, we headed toward our first actual work site of the day. Of course, because we had been standing on the street for three or so hours at that point, we were antsy, hungry, and we needed to go to the bathroom! We got to the workplace (far out in East New Orleans) as fast as we could, and then we sent Justin and Elijah back into town for a secret curative antidote to our oh-so-chaotic day: Popeye's Chicken! It turned out to be the perfect medicine to help us overcome our morning. It became even more special when we learned that it was actually a gift from the Jan Term NOLA veterans who had not come along on this trip. Before we left, they had taken up a collection, and they gave Shawny extra money to spend for a special treat or in case of emergency. After the morning that we had, it was clear that this was the day to break out those funds.
Over lunch we finally began to feel the weight of the morning lift off of our shoulders and minds, and we sensed that the cloud of uncertainty about what was "right" that had fogged us in all morning was dissipating as well. We could get back to work with clearer heads, though we knew that the important conversation that we had been witnessing/having all day would (and should) never end.
We finished the house quickly enough, as it was similar to the last two jobs that we had done. There was more fiberglass insulation to deal with than in our other houses, and a few of us learned for the first time that fiberglass is, in fact, GLASS.
When we got back to where we are staying, we were greeted by Deacon Ernie and enormous vats of gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. We ate and ate and ate. After dinner, people gathered in small groups and talked about the day. "The day," of course, only meant "the morning." Along with these conversations, several people spontaneously decided to take up whittling, as some scrap 2x2s had been thrown away and they served as fun materials for woodworking projects. As chaotic and disorienting as the morning had been, the evening was equally serene and unified. It was so pleasant and – for most – such a bonding experience that people stayed up later than usual talking, laughing, and deepening friendships.
Maybe nights like this one are just what is needed to eliminate mornings like the one we had today....