April slipped by with nary a post from me. In June, our church had a Sunday dedicated to reports of our trip to New Orleans, which took place in April. I had started this post, but never posted it. Instead, I turned it into my contribution to that Sunday service. Months later, I'm checking out my blog, which I'd like to resurrect and found the original draft of this essay. I decided to finish and post it. Maybe I'll even manage to keep my promise to myself to start posting regularly again.
I'm not sure how to relate what happened in April. First there was the Easter season, with lots of extra music, rehearsals, etc. That was wonderful. As a musician, I love the big religous holidays because there's so much great music written for them.
Then, right after Easter, we went to New Orleans. Easter is a season of contrasts--the rejoicing of Palm Sunday, followed by the sobering week before the crucifixion, followed by more rejoicing as we Christians celebrate the resurrection. New Orleans is a study in contrasts, too. I think that's the main impression I brought back from there.
There's the desolate neighborhoods with brick shells that used to be houses next to empty concrete slabs where the house was completely destroyed. Some lots have grass and nothing else left. No trees, flowers, nothing but the grasses that are the first things to start to grow back. Contrast that with the neigborhoods we drove through after taking the ferry across the Mississippi. They hadn't been touched. They looked like middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods anywhere. They were lush with the greenery that grows rampant in the area. There were no boarded up, empty stores. You could find a grocery store to go to.
Yet, there was a spirit of hope, too. Some neighborhoods had the same destruction, but every so often, you'd see a renovated home with people living there. It takes a lot of courage to go back and live in your house. Think about what it must be like to be the only people on your street with a home. Every time you leave or come back to your house, you drive by reminders of those who may never be able to come back. It wasn't just the homes and stuff they lost. It was family, friends, their community.
We went with members of our church. We spent a day and a half painting the sanctuary and new preschool classrooms of Gethsemane Lutheran. We painted part of the small dormitory. People who come from all over the country to help will be able to stay there. We planted new landscaping, which helped make the church look a bit less desolate.
We sang. Most of the people were choir members. We were part of a Musicale put on at Grace Lutheran to help raise funds to repair their pipe organ. Someone took two of the destroyed wooden organ pipes and made a cross for them. It sits in the narthex and is a testament to their resilience. They have a map of where people have come to help. People from all over the country are represented on that map.
We sang again. Our choir director is also a harpsichordist. She accompanied us on a harpsichord built by the organist of Grace Lutheran. St. Mark's escaped the devastation of Katrina, but its members did not. Yet there they were, diminished in number, but huge in spirit, helping each other recover from what they'd experienced.
We ate. There's a contrast for you. The members of Grace cooked dinner for us. It was amazing, topped off with that irresistible Southern guarantee to cause tooth decay, homemade pralines. On Sunday, our council president directed a bunch of us in a very California-style brunch. Great food, there, too. I keep forgetting to email her and ask for the recipes.
But it wasn't all work. We had time to walk around the French Quarter. Somehow, a small part of me felt a bit guilty playing when there was so much work to be done. Yet, playing is as important as work. Another contrast, but one we often forget in our supercharged Silicon Valley life. It's different in New Orleans. They have a different pace of life. If the kitchen crew isn't ready, you wait for them. If that means church is a half hour late, you just have more time to chat with everyone. And the pastor simply cuts bits of the service so it doesn't run over too long. Pastor Lisa got a bit carried away with the cuts--she almost forgot that all-important ritual--passing the offering plate. If your waitress needs to tell her story, a coworker grabs the heavy tray and lets her talk. Out here, she'd probably get fired for chatting so long with the customers.
It was the French Quarter Festival, an annual street festival they have every year. We spent some time listening to the music. But somehow, we managed to miss the jazz and get the pop stuff. Yet, on the streets, the street musicians sang and played the jazz New Orleans is famous for. You can't walk through that part of town without hearing music.
We went to the famous Cafe du Monde for beignets. Do not go to New Orleans without having some. Diets be damned. They're worth every calorie and it's open 24 hours so you can't say you couldn't find the time. As we walked back to the hotel to get ready to leave, an old guy started playing Amazing Grace on his trumpet. It was gorgeous and I couldn't help but sing along. He started singing a capella after playing one verse on the trumpet. I sang softly as we walked past. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up sign. It was a fitting end to the trip, somehow.
Because the ultimate contrast for me was that we went to help, yet they helped me more. They had every reason to whine about their lives. They had every reason to be angry with God or lose their faith, as many people do when faced with tragedy in their lives. But these people, not just those we met at the various churches, but even people like the waitress I mentioned above, who we met while exploring the rest of New Orleans, had a spirit and faith that humbled me. They put my life, which as many of you know, has been a struggle the past three years, in perspective. And I think their expression of faith helped when, near the end of April, Paul's mom died. They showed me how important it is for people to tell their stories, to share the important things that happen to them. Those stories, full of the richness of spirit they all expressed, are the main thing I bring back in my heart.