Over the month of October, I participated in an incredible project here in New Orleans called a Unity Build.
Picture this: eleven local congregations (of various denominations) coming together over a 13-day period to build a house in New Orleans for a single mother with 2 children.
During my second day of work at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, the Pastor asked me to attend a meeting in lieu of him. At this point in my YAV year, I had worked a total of 3 hours at this church and had not yet been to a Sunday worship service there. But of course, I could not deny my new boss a favor, and I headed to this meeting with little-to-no prior knowledge on the community I was representing, only a small amount of information on the topic of the meeting, and not much insight on how to properly park in New Orleans.
The meeting was a Habitat for Humanity meeting (I knew that much before walking through the door) and was filled with unfamiliar faces and uncomfortably close seats. I am sure those around me would have described my expression as “lost” as I struggled to grab a seat at the crowded table. In fact, I did feel lost. However, the meeting began and the pieces started coming together. I sat there silently as key words stuck out to me: “Unity Build,” “Habitat for Humanity,” “Eleven Congregations,” and “Express Build”. In other words, I soon pieced together: Lakeview Presbyterian Church was participating in a “Unity Build” through “Habitat for Humanity” with “Eleven Congregations” and the house would be built in 13 days over the course of the month of October. Each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the month of October and a single Sunday, volunteers would come together to build a house. That adds up to 3 day a week over 4 weeks which makes 12 days, plus the bonus Sunday which makes 13 days. Wow, incredible! This would be Lakeview’s first time participating in this annual event and October was just weeks away. As I left the meeting, I thought of the words “Unity Build” repeatedly in my head. “13 days!” I didn’t know whether to feel more excited or overwhelmed.
On Thursday, October 5th, members of the eleven congregations came out for Day 1 of the build. The ministers and pastors of each church stood together with the future home owner, Nicole, and lifted the first wall for her new home. Prayers were said, blessing were lifted, and tears were shed on that first day. I stood and watched this beautiful project unfold. I coordinated my schedule with the Lakeview pastor to insure I could be present at this build more over the weeks to come. The build happened each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of October. Two of those day I spent countless hours on the roof, under the hot New Orleans sun. Now let me just tell you, it is NOT cold in New Orleans in October. “Fall” is not a thing down here. And don’t let the locals fool you when they pull out a jacket for 70-degree weather. Other days I spend painting the exterior and interior of the house. Inside was just as hot and sweaty as the roof. There was no airflow inside the house, and many volunteers were packed into small spaces. But the mood was positive and joy was spread throughout the group.
And it was beautiful. It was beautiful how smoothly these congregations worked together. New friendships blossoming, connections made, and stories told. An AmeriCorps group was assigned to the site and guided use with constructional instructions. At lunch, we took an hour to sit in the shade, grab a sandwich, and relax. Then, it was back to work for the hottest portion of the day, where we kept each other hydrated and laughing through the sweat. Hurricane Nate gave us a scare, so the one work Sunday we had planned was canceled (we now only had 12 days to finish the build!). We worked through Friday the 13th with positive attitudes. We were one unit. We were one unit, working together. We came from different backgrounds. While each had different skills (in fact none of my skills fell under the construction branch), we had a common goal and we had faith. We came from different definitions of “home” and here we were, working together to build a new definition of “home” for Nicole and her family. And it was beautiful.
There is something special about building a home in New Orleans. Katrina destroyed countless homes 12 years ago and there is still destruction across the city. Homes remain uninhabited, empty lots are found where homes once stood, markings on buildings are still visible in well-established neighborhoods. Many are homeless. Many are renters who pay way too much for too small of space. Many need a home. And in just 12 days, a home was built. And I witnessed it. A home was built with love. A home was built with unity. A home was built for Nicole and her two children.
I was honored to be a part of this Unity Build. I was humbled to get to work beside Nicole, as the Habitat for Humanity program requires that Nicole be a part of the building process. I was excited to represent Lakeview Presbyterian Church, a new home community I have found here in New Orleans. I was glad to work alongside 2 of my new housemates during this Unity Build. I was glad to make new friends and connections through this Unity Build. And I was in awe of this project, of the house, and all its glory, of the support from the community and of all the love that was shed on the house.
At that first meeting that I went to on my second day as a YAV, I learn about the Unity Build. And while being a part of that Unity Build, I learned what united meant.
United: joined together for a common purpose or by common feelings
Eleven congregations, Habitat for Humanity, and Nicole were joined together for a common purpose and with common feelings. Feelings of hope and determination to build a home. United they were, through the Unity Build.
I am united in New Orleans. I am united with Nicole. I am united with eleven different congregations. As we are all united in Christ.
The month leading up to my departure for New Orleans consisted of me poorly answering my home community’s questions. “Wait, what are you doing?” “Why are you spending a year in New Orleans?” Those questions were poorly answered because I, myself, was pondering over them and did not have clear answers. Nonetheless, my community’s responses to my vague answers were filled with praise and awe. They left me with remarks such as, “You are amazing!”, “You are going to make such a difference in those individuals lives,” “New Orleans will be so blessed to have you!”
While I was humbled by those comments, I couldn’t help but turn those endearing comments into pressure. Pressure to make an impact in the New Orleans community. Pressure to serve the Lord as an admirable Christian. Pressure to be amazing every waking hour of my YAV year. Pressure to bring Christ to someone else’s eyes. These pressures became a burden of expectations and falsely claimed responsibility as I arrived in New Orleans.
I have now spent 3 whole weeks in this city. I am three weeks in and it’s safe to say I have made little to no impact on the city of New Orleans.
My work placement jobs have begun. I spend my mornings at Lakeview Presbyterian Church getting to know the amazing congregation and learning about their various mission projects. I spend 3 afternoons a week at Mid-City Ministries with an after-school tutoring program. I am three weeks in, and those pressures I arrived with, those pressures I built up for myself, those expectations and sense of responsibly I set for myself, are now gone. But why? I just stated that “I had made little to no impact on this city,” so how could the pressure to make an impact be relieved?
I was relieved of my self-made burden of pressures during a visit to the local Walmart.
My housemate Eliza and I went to Walmart to pick up 6 items. We decided between the two of us we could easily carry the 6 items and therefore we did not need a basket. We neglected to consider though the gallon of cold milk that was on our grocery list, and fate had it that I was the one with a free hand when it came time to pick up that cold gallon of milk. While the milk was not very heavy, as one can imagine the weight of a gallon of milk, it was indeed extremely cold and uncomfortable to carry. One might say, it was a cold, heavy burden that I alone had to carry. As we proceeded to the checkout line, I continued to pass the milk between my hands to avoid one hand becoming too chilled. Upon arriving at the checkout line, I noticed the long line that awaited us. It was in fact 5:30pm on a Thursday night and prime ‘last minute dinner shopping’ time. Eliza and I picked the 20 items or less line and began our 15-minute wait. I noticed immediately that the older man ahead of us in line had a grocery cart filled with a single bag of cat food and some flea protection medicine. He had a whole cart for just 2 small items. This man also made notice of the two young women who now stood behind him in line with their hands full of groceries.
Now this is where I want to pause the story and remind you of the burden I held upon arriving in New Orleans. And here I stood with a cold gallon of milk in hand as a young woman new to this unique city, thinking I was here to change to world. The man looks at me and says, “Would you like to use my cart?”
I was shocked. What did he say? The man proceeded to move his cat food to make room for our groceries. The man was offering for us to share his cart. I looked at Eliza thinking, “we’re the ones supposed to be helping this community.” We are here to be spreading the love of God and here, in a Walmart, was a kind man showing God’s love to two women who had devoted a year of their lives for volunteer work. God already existed in that Walmart, in that city. And I couldn’t see that until that man offered to help me carry my burden. He made note of my cold gallon of milk and invited me to put it into his cart so that I didn’t have to hold it while we waited in that grocery line for 15 minutes.
I have never seen a stranger share his grocery cart like that before. Thinking back on it, I’ve also never seen someone grab a whole grocery cart for 2 small items. But here he was. The grace of God standing in the Walmart to relieve me of my cold heavy gallon of milk burden. This man had the ability to help me carry my burden because God was living and breathing in him. He was there to relieve my expectations for making an impact this year. Here God was in a New Orleans Walmart.
But why did I need that burden lifted? Isn’t the point of volunteering to make a difference? I think many people get confused between the idea of being ‘needed’ and being ‘welcome’. ‘Needed’ means a task cannot be completed without your specific talents and skills, whereas ‘welcome’ means you come with whatever talents or skills you have and work alongside others to accomplish a task. I don’t know if I will make any impact on this city, but holding that as a requirement for success will only set me up for failure. I alone cannot move a mountain, but if I build relationships in this community, if I am completely immersed in the work I am doing here in New Orleans, then maybe the locals will welcome me to help them move mountains.
I’ve been gone from my lovely home in Wilmington, Delaware for 14 days and a lot can happen in 14 days.
My YAV year technically started August 21st but my journey began on the 17th when my mom and I departed in my Honda Accord for New Orleans. I was so anxious. I was so anxious that my face was breaking out and there were ulcers in my mouth. What would my new housemates be like? Would I get along with my roommate? And the most stressful question going on in my head, Did I pack too much stuff?? But throughout all these anxieties, my excitement shined through. My mom and I hopped in the car at 6:30am Thursday morning and began our 3-day road trip. We had an awesome trip where we spent one night in Knoxville, Tennessee and a night in Huntsville, Alabama. We made some fun stops along the way such as the Natural Bridge in Virginia, a tour of the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, and the Rocket and Space Museum in Huntsville. On the 19th, my mom and I arrive in New Orleans mid-day. I got settled into the house and meet a handful of my awesome future housemates. That night, my mom and I had dinner in the French Quarter and she showed me some of the traditional New Orleans’ sites. It was a fabulous last night together filled with a stroll down Bourbon street and beignets from Café Du Monde.
On Monday morning before sunrise, 4 New Orleans’ YAVs set off for orientation in Stony Point, New York. Yes, we all had just arrived after long road trips and were now departing for a week away from the new city we would soon call home. Our long day of traveling consisted of a drive to the airport, two flights, two terminal AirTran rides, two train rides, and a yellow school bus drive to arrive at the Stony Point Center (a Presbyterian conference center that houses missionaries and travelers from all over). At this center, all 62 YAV of the 2017-2018 year who are serving in about 20 different locations across the world, along with a dozen YAV alumni and YAV staff members, came together. This week was filled with new friendships, deep conversations, and preparation for our year of service. The week was renamed ‘Disorientation week’ as it made us think about our role in this program and what it truly means to be a YAV volunteer in this damaged world. We learned that although we might not make a huge impact with just one year of serve, our actions will have a ripple effect. We learned that we are going into places that are already filled with God’s love and that we have so much to learn from the people in these places. We, as YAVs, are doing a year of service for a lifetime change.
This past week definitely disoriented me but I feel it also made me more aware of the challenges individuals face day in and day out. I am safely back in New Orleans with the 6 other YAVs I will be serving with this year. We live in a two-story house together in Gentilly, which is a high elevated area in the city (we are all currently safe with no flooding). We will spend the next week learning about New Orleans, its history, and navigating around our new city. I will begin my site work next Tuesday and am super excited to begin this new journey in this beautiful, lively city.
If you wish to donate to this amazing program, we now have an online donation site https://www.neworleansyav.com/donate
Or you can send a check to Presbytery of South Louisiana (please put the name Kristen Reisor on the memo line). Mail to: NOLA YAV, PO Box 8666, New Orleans, LA, 70182.
Thank you so much for your love, support and prayers