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Holy Trinity sets out to help, heal in New Orleans
A huge pile of compost sat in front of me, made up of woodchips and fruit and vegetables that people did not eat. It was warm and humid, and sweat poured over my face as I threw more stuff onto the pile that, by now, is most likely nourishing new, delicious, affordable food for the people of New Orleans.
Along with youth and adults from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Mercer Island, I was working at ‘Our School at Blair Grocery,’ a sustainable urban farm in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Only a few people live there now. Even after seven years, many of the houses are boarded up and abandoned. However, OSBG is bustling with life. It provides jobs and hope for young people who are not welcomed elsewhere. It is one of over 200 places where thousands of youth groups of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) served the community during the 2012 ELCA National Youth Gathering, July 18-22.
The HTLC group is made up of 14 high school youth, five adults and two college students, including myself. It is the third time Holy Trinity has worked with Annunciation Mission — a Christian relief and advocacy group that facilitates these trips.
Our church is dedicated to social justice, wherever our work calls us. Our mission is clear: we welcome everyone.
The majority of the group consisted of Islanders: McKay Casady, Allie Deuel, Hannah Johnson, Suri Johnson, Annie Langston, Kjerstin Scanlan, Alyx Simon, Mark Simon, Meredith Thieme and Kelsey Tootill. Cobb and his sister, Joanna Cobb, are from Burien. Jacki and Whitney Hom are from Kirkland. Brad, Kristin, Finn and Tore Kelln live in West Seattle.
Kathy Fisher, HTLC’s youth minister, and Rev. Deanna Wildermuth, the senior pastor, led the trip. Brad and Kristin Kelln and Mark Simon served as adult leaders.
“It saddens me that there is still such tremendous need in this community related to Katrina,” Wildermuth said. “
Alyx Simon and Hannah Johnson had unique perspectives, as they have been on all three NOLA trips. Both 2012 Mercer Island High School graduates, they were thrilled to help finish the work they’d begun.
“I missed New Orleans,” said Simon, who celebrated her 18th birthday on the trip. “The people down here are fabulous. They’re so nice. And I just wanted to help out again.”
By the end of the week, everyone in the group had learned something about making a positive situation out of one that appears so bleak.
“Going out of your comfort zone to help others can also help you,” Johnson said.
The needs go beyond what is visible.
“Sometimes it’s not money or food or shelter that people need,” Thieme said, “but it’s different things to try to help out. Ask what people want to have done, rather than just assuming that they need money or something simple.”
My parents and I have been active members of Holy Trinity since we moved to the Island in 1997. I was confirmed there in 2006 and have worked with the church in a variety of ways. However, this was my first trip to NOLA. I was not a participant in the Gathering, but a Community Life servant. As one Gathering leader put it, we were there to serve those who’d come to serve. And the way we put others’ needs in front of our own, as one pastor said, was “countercultural.”
For a Gathering of approximately 35,000 youth, adult leaders and volunteers, people like us were invaluable to ensure every person’s safety and comfort. The Community Life team was based in hotels, to provide hospitality to groups and staff the evening Night Life events. Our job often consisted of dealing with stressed people who had been traveling for hours or days, or people who had been working in the hot sun and humidity or pouring rain. We had to stay up late to make sure they were in their rooms at midnight. We had to get up early to see them off. We had to answer every question that came our way. And we had to do all of this with smiles and graceful hearts. The same way we served amid the sweat at Blair Grocery was the way I served amid the large crowds at the nighttime dances.
I knew I would be out of my comfort zone. But I also needed to be there. When a friend posted the volunteer application onto my Facebook wall last year, I applied as quickly as I could and was accepted. “I’m going to New Orleans,” I reminded myself every day during the school year. The Reporter staff graciously allowed me the time off.
I also knew that NOLA wasn’t all about Mardi Gras beads, Bourbon Street or the Saints. It has not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. We didn’t have to look hard to find pain, suffering and devastation, and stories that needed to be heard. That’s why we were there. That is why the ELCA has had two consecutive Gatherings there, for the first time ever.
“It’s serendipitous to be back here in New Orleans,” Fisher said.
“Even after a longer time, needs still need to be met. It might go off the news, but that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t still exist.”
We heard inspiring speeches at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome every night, from a visionary 18-year-old to born-again pastors. A renowned band, Switchfoot, played a few songs on the final night. The most important part in my mind, though, was the time for quiet reflection and community building, when youth could realize how much of a difference they’d made.
“Sometimes the best way to help is just listen,” Deuel, also a 2012 graduate, said, “or just be with the person and not necessarily go and help, but just be a friend.”
One of the opening night speakers emphasized to everyone at the Gathering: “You are welcome here.” The city of New Orleans welcomed the ELCA, and we welcome them, too. Holy Trinity is an equally as welcoming place. So is Luther College, where I am in school right now. We will share this empowering welcome with everyone we meet for the rest of our lives.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a 4.2 million-member church body with 10,000 congregations in 50 states and the Caribbean region.
Once every three years, the ELCA hosts the National Youth Gathering, bringing together approximately 35,000 high school students, adult leaders, volunteers, pastors and speakers. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, on Mercer Island, sent a group of 21 to the event.
Learn more at www.elca.org and www.htlcmi.org or call (206) 232-3270.
Brita Moore has been an intern at the Mercer Island Reporter this summer.