Spring break has arrived, at least as far as the calendar at my wife’s school is concerned, and it has been a long time since we had a “real” vacation. With the church I serve having been pastorless for going on nine months, there hasn’t really been time for much more than a Friday or Saturday evening dinner by the seaside at Galveston. This time, we made deliberate arrangements to make the schedule work for us and left after church on Sunday for New Orleans.
The choice of destination was due in part to proximity and practicality in terms of finances. It’s a six hour drive, give or take a few minutes, and yet it is a whole different world in terms of food, entertainment, shopping, seeing the sights and just about in every other way from any other place that close by. Not only that, but New Orleans now offers a wide variety of lodging at quite reasonable prices. We’ve been participants in several organized efforts to gather resources and assist New Orleanians with their recovery from Hurricane Katrina, so there was also the idea that spending a few days there, as well as a few of our dollars, would also, in a small way, help contribute to the city’s continued recovery.
At first glance, the city appears to be recovering well. Traffic seems to be back to normal, especially at rush hour, and along Canal Street, in the French Quarter, the Garden District, Audubon Park and other neighborhoods in the crescent, it would be almost impossible to tell that the city was so devastated just three and a half years ago. In fact, along Claiborne Avenue, and the streets that criss cross through the area between Carrollton and Poydras, the recovery has contributed to a major facelift since 2000. Most of the businesses are either in new buildings, or rebuilt structures, and the homes in this area, where the floodwaters were not nearly as deep as in other parts of the city, have largely been repaired and re-occupied.
The French Quarter is as crowded as ever, and hasn’t changed since the first time we visited the city almost 10 years ago. Our first visit to New Orleans came during the month of July, when it was about as hot and humid as it could possibly get. Visiting the French Quarter on a rainy Monday with the temperature in the 60’s was a much more pleasant experience, especially since we more or less avoided Bourbon Street altogether, and hung around the French Market and cathedral area. We encountered the middle school choir from Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Alabama performing on the steps right across from the cathedral, and paused to offer a few words of encouragement and listen, until the rain came pouring and we all scattered.
New Orleans is not particularly a college spring break destination, but we observed that college students were in fairly abundant numbers largely because of news reports showing them serving as “voluntourists,” a New Orleans-coined term to describe those who have come post-Katrina to lend a hand in the rebuilding efforts. Quite a crowd collected in Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, though when we passed through earlier in the day, we did not see much of that kind of activity from the main drag. This particularly hard-hit area is also recovering well, though empty lots, boarded up buildings and slabs are still in abundance there. We heard that about half of the population of Chalmette and the parish have returned.
Next door, in Arabi and the lower ninth ward, recovery has not progressed nearly as far. There are some occupied homes and businesses, though the majority of both are still unoccupied, awaiting renewal. The few businesses that are open–a gas station here, a fast food place there–were doing booming business but the traffic on St. Claude Avenue is thin, and there are few cars on the side streets. We saw three school buildings, all with their lower floors boarded up, and still closed. Churches, too, appeared to be particularly hard hit.
New Orleans appears to be presenting a tremendous opportunity to Christians. In a city where it seems Satan has been hard at work for a long time, with a reputation for the “voo doo” culture and all kinds of decadence, the people of Christ are hard at work helping the people put their lives and homes back together. Volunteer work is the life of the city, largely responsible for the massive post-hurricane cleanup and much of the construction that continues to take place. People are hopeful and optimistic. Let’s pray that the pilgrimage of Christians to the city, to be the hands of Jesus at work, can include transforming lives as well as houses as part of their work.