It is that time again, dear reader, when I begin to travel homeward. Of all my justice-related travels, this has been my shortest one so far — at only four days, I feel in some ways like I’ve just settled in and started to warm up to my subject matter; and in other ways, I’m ready to go home, hunker down to finish my degree, and find a church where I can put all this learning to good use!
This trip was also different from the others I’ve gone on because it wasn’t just a social justice immersion trip — it was also a training to teach people how to lead these sorts of trips themselves. There is no kind of learning as effective as the hands-on type, and so to learn how to lead immersion trips, we went on one ourselves. My companions for the past four days have been ministers, directors of religious education, and intrepid youth advisors, most of whom are currently in the process of planning a trip for their own church.
I was on the trip because I was hired by the Center for Public Ministry in Minneapolis to research different organizations that lead immersion trips, and to compile that information into a useful comparison of common “best practices,” resources, goals, outcomes, etc. This trip is the beginning of a project that will fill my time for months to come.
So as a way of exploring these ideas, we actually went out and did them. I already told you about our first day in the Lower 9th Ward. After that, we spent some time helping out at UNITY, an organization that helps the homeless population in New Orleans; one aspect of their work is assisting with the transition from homelessness to living in a house by providing some basic living necessities like dishes, bed linens, pillows, etc. We visited their warehouse and spent the day sorting and organizing all of the donations that have come in since the holidays.
In the picture above, you can see what the inside of the linen storage room looked like — untidy piles almost to the ceiling! Once we were done, everything was neatly folded and sorted so that future volunteers can easily find what they are looking for. It took six of us about five hours to get it all cleared up, but it made a huge difference for UNITY’s staff.
After that, we went back into the Lower 9th Ward (and past the street where I met Ronald Lewis!) to look out over Bayou Bienvenue. Only 50 years ago, it was a thriving and healthy swamp, full of life and green growing things, fed by fresh water, home to birds, fish, and alligators. Technically, those animals still live there. But this is what that green wilderness looks like today:
So our travels are not only about the people; we are also here to learn about the effects that people are having on the environment and the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet. Social justice and transformational change also include learning about our human responsibility toward the environment and the rest of the interdependent web of which we are but a part.
We also stopped at Saint Augustine Catholic Church in the neighborhood that invented jazz; it was a tall square building with white walls, surrounded by well-repaired homes. It is a historically significant church to the African American community that surrounds it — before emancipation, the free blacks pooled their money and bought pews for the slaves to sit in. But we stopped at a little alcove on the side of the building: a massive cross, rusted and on its side, manacles and chains hanging from it. This is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a remembrance of all those who were trapped in bondage and whose graves remain unmarked.
Immersion trips can get heavy. That’s something they all seem to have in common, no matter where you go. The people change, and the places change, but the work remains the same — open your eyes, open your heart until it cracks, and then learn to let the light shine in. In many ways, four days is plenty.
Finally, today we visited the Freret Neighborhood Center and went around putting fliers in people’s doors, letting them know about a neighborhood cleanup event that is coming up soon. It’s easy to feel like handing out little pieces of paper isn’t really all that helpful in the grand scheme of things, but what we did today could make the difference between twenty people cleaning a street and two hundred people cleaning the whole neighborhood. When a neighborhood binds together, they create a powerful force for security, trust, communication, and dream-building.