One month ago, an anxious excitement took hold of me as I mentally prepared myself for my return to New Orleans. Terry and I had the logistics planned out perfectly. Buses were scheduled to pick us up at 4 in the morning to take us to the airport, and upon our arrival at Louis Armstrong Airport, we would have a few small, modest cars ready for us to use to get us back and forth to the work site. Annunciation Mission was to become our home, and I had imagined it would be where we would spend most of our time, reflecting and enjoying each other’s company. I had been on mission trips before, three to be exact, and I felt mentally prepared to lead this trip and guide my friends towards the inexplicable rush of emotions that comes from spending a week in solidarity, serving a community, and immersing ourselves in the present. Despite my recurring nightmare of the bus not showing up the morning of our flight, I felt ready, though unrightfully so since this trip was guaranteed to be slightly different from my other experiences. On past trips, there had been rules, boundaries, and a unanimous understanding that time was non-existent in hopes that everyone would be completely engaged in every moment. Having built relationships with most of the New Orleans 2011 team prior to our journey, Terry and I courageously cut loose some of those original ideas, yet somehow my expectations reflected those of the other trips.
As I pulled out of the Enterprise station in my slightly modest Buick realizing that I was trailed with an entourage of a brand new Ford Explorer, two SUV-type Buicks, and the car that would come to be known as the “300 club,” I started to throw my expectations out the window. This team was far from ordinary, and as I slowly and wearily let go, I allowed myself to be completely immersed in this experience, almost more so than I had in the past. I learned that there was little interest in staying at Annunciation for anything more than food and a bed, and that our home was to become the streets of an incredible city bursting with a rich cultural pride, joined by people full of resilience, strength, and unparalleled hospitality. Kat advised me early in the week to stop thinking about other trips, which was a huge challenge in itself for me, but it was the key to making this one of my most memorable weeks since coming at Fairfield. Looking back I’d say that there are few things that we did not do. We listened to the incredible sound of the Rebirth Brass Band in one of the most unique venues I have ever been to. We had our fill of alligator, jambalaya, and gumbo. We bowled. We explored Bourbon. We danced on stage with DJs who loved the fact that we were “yankees.” We saw the desolation of the Ninth Ward. We fell in love with an often forgotten group of Katrina victims at Animal Rescue New Orleans. And we ultimately fell in love with a group of people that will always hold an important place in our hearts.
Our team formed a borderline unhealthy obsession with each other, as new friendships were formed and existing ones became unbreakable. Even the lowest moments helped build stability in our relationships with each other, and both Terry and I were surprised and thrilled by everyone’s enthusiasm about sharing “roses, thorns, and buds” and the ability to, as Phil put it, “answer the bell” every morning. Despite low expectations from Rebuilding Together, we were able to caulk, prime, and paint an entire two story house in four short days, thanks to a fearless team that jumped at the idea of climbing to the top of ladders. Now, Ms. Reed can finally look out the window of her small trailer, that she stills lives in five years after the storm, and see her house looking like a home again.
I owe the success of this experience to three people in particular. Mike, our house captain and an Americorps volunteer, was relentlessly willing to guide us towards an unforgettable experience in New Orleans, despite our sometimes childish antics and complaints about the freezing temperatures. Through him we learned the reality of Katrina and the horror stories that have since been forgotten. He joined us, not only in our evening excursions to explore the city, but also in our “rose, thorn, and bud” reflection, so that he could share his appreciation for us and create closure to an amazing week of hard work. Mike has become the model for some who are now choosing to pursue a year of service on their own, as his compelling character is nothing short of inspiring and admirable. He will remain a close friend to our entire team for a very long time.
Phil Lane, the man, the myth, and the legend, and as Terry said, “a gentleman and a scholar,” was the heart and soul of this trip, and without him I am sure that we would not have left with the same feeling of accomplishment that we did upon our departure. Never failing to be the first awake, though never seeking to be the first asleep, Phil’s dedication to being a part of every minute of this experience was astounding. Every single morning he woke up with a smile and a willingness to climb to the top of a ladder that I never could have expected. He arrived with an open heart and an open mind and I have no doubt that I speak on everyone’s behalf by saying that we are all better people for having spent a week with him in N’awlins.
And finally, Terry, my co-leader and a new best friend, could not have been a more positive and helpful partner in making this trip a reality. Being completely student run, this trip is a huge undertaking and I am eternally grateful for his support the entire way through the planning, and even more so through the experience itself.
Thank you to every person who helped make this experience a reality. Because of you I fell in love last week with an incredible city and a group of people that will always hold a place in my heart.
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
that is, than falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you
out of bed in the morning,
what you will do with your evenings,
how you will spend your weekends
what you read, who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you
with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.