Boulevards of Broken Dreams

When I think of the streets of New Orleans, I don’t think of the Mardi Gras parades. I think of the Louisiana Mission Hope Christmas Mission (Dec. 26-30, 2005).

Someone had spray-painted the words “A Broken Dream” on a plank fence in front of his ruined home on one of the many desolate streets. This someone was among the thousands of others who had lost everything to the floods — only he had expressed himself with particular poignancy.

The waters of menacing Lake Pontchartrain had drowned this city in a magnitude of human suffering and destruction difficult to comprehend. Though nearly four months had passed since Hurricane Katrina and my visit, dead traffic lights still dangled from their cables, dirty automobiles with flat tires muddled streets and driveways, and whole neighborhoods lay quiet, abandoned and eerie in their stillness.

But this destruction did not really sink in until I had entered several homes where volunteers would soon be working. After forcing the door open, I was greeted by rooms strewn with furniture and belongings that made movement around the house very difficult. A pungent and repulsive smell hung upon the air, black mold covered the walls and — in places — the ceiling, and warped floor boards made speed bumps under the carpet. I stepped out of this house on Lafaye Street for some fresh air and looked to my left and to my right.

As far as I could see, I knew that the inside of each residence was exactly like the one I had just seen: completely ruined by four weeks of stagnant, polluted water that had reached seven feet up the walls.

The television had failed to convey the reality of the situation to me.

Mission Hope

In response to this disaster, thousands of volunteers have traveled from around the country to New Orleans. One of the most recent volunteer efforts was the Louisiana Mission Hope Christmas Mission, organized as an outreach of Regnum Christi, the Legion of Christ-affiliated movement of apostolate, to bring young people and families together to offer assistance and hope to the people of New Orleans.

Funded by Catholic World Mission, including funds from the Register Reader Response effort of this newspaper, about 600 volunteers from across the United States came to work on homes, churches, rectories and convents.

All along the streets of New Orleans, “House Gutting 4 Less” signs appear. It usually costs $4,000 to $5,000 to pay for one’s house to be gutted, and many simply do not have the money. That’s where we came in.

There was one house that my group of girls worked especially hard on; the owner of the home, an older gentleman with a German name, mournfully looked on as we hauled a lifetime of possessions out of his once lovely brick house, creating a mountain along the street.

Only a few pieces of china could be saved.

We ripped up floors, we pry-barred molding boards loose and we sledge-hammered drywall to break it up for removal, leaving just the frame of the house (which was still sound) to fully dry out and wait for repairs. That is how you “gut a house”; it is a lot of work.

Thankfully, house gutting did not fill up all of our time on the mission.

The opening Mass took place in St. Louis Cathedral at the heart of the French Quarter. This historic district of New Orleans (or “Nawlins” as the locals call the city), with its European architecture and ornate wrought-iron porches, still draws many tourists to its shops and cafes for such foods as tasty beignets (French doughnuts) and raw oysters.

Due to its early settlement in the 18th century, the French Quarter was built on the highest ground available, and so the flood waters of Katrina stopped rising at its doorstep. The oldest cathedral of continuous Catholic worship in the United States, St. Louis (1794), rises above the mimes and portrait painters around Jackson Square, as well as the fortune tellers near its front steps and the brothels on nearby Bourbon Street, to remind New Orleans to repent and to pray.

Real sinners and saints live here — in your face; it is all so different than the culture of Yankee mediocrity that I am used to.

Everyone on the mission gathered each evening for feasting and music on the famous paddle-boat Natchez, moored across from the cathedral on the Mississippi River. Surrounded by the splendid lights of downtown New Orleans, and with jazz in the mild evening air, we ate Southern dishes of gumbo and jambalaya and barbecued chicken.

Besides work and fun, the spiritual dimension played a major part on the mission. We went on “Rosary walks” around the desolate neighborhoods in which we worked, to pray for the people whose homes we passed. On one of our walks, one man got out of his car and asked us what we were doing. When we told him that we were volunteering and praying in the area, he said excitedly in his Southern drawl: “We need it, brother! We need it!”

Once, a sweet black woman came up to me and asked hopefully: “Do you help Methodists?” I responded with a smile: “Of course!” I arranged for a group of young men to come over to gut her house, while a priest friend of mine spoke gently with her teary-eyed sister about the Catholic faith. Both were so happy for our help.

The Legionary priests also led meditations each day for the boys and made themselves always available for confessions. This, I realized, was a double mission: to the suffering people of New Orleans, and to the missionaries themselves!

Is New Orleans worth rebuilding?

Before I came I wondered if it was. Now I have no doubt. Yes. Though it is a confusing, dirty city built below sea level, much of New Orleans remains relatively undamaged, and it is a historic city full of beauty and culture — rare things in the United States. New Orleans contains so much Catholicism, in all of its lovely old churches, its convents and monasteries and extensive Catholic schools.

Were our efforts to help New Orleans over Christmas 2005 worth it? Probably, some of the houses that we worked so hard on during the week will eventually be bulldozed anyway. After thinking about this depressing fact, I realized that we had come primarily not to accomplish great feats, but to bring hope. When dozens of bright-faced youth swarm about a home working diligently, it helps to restore the hearts of the owners and everyone in the surrounding neighborhood, to help jump-start the massive rebuilding work that lies ahead. The hope we brought was often more important than the actual physical work we accomplished.

What Wasn’t Lost

After the mission had ended, I drove away from New Orleans through central Louisiana with a song by Green Day on my radio: “I walk this empty street/On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

I had walked such streets and such boulevards in the city of New Orleans; I had seen broken dreams written on plank fences; I had met people who had lost so much. I thought of particle-board bureaus spilling their contents out upon the floor when moved. I thought of warped kitchen counter tops that pulled off the cabinets with no effort. I remembered crumbling pianos, stinking carpet and moldy couches — everything destroyed and falling apart in the homes we had worked in. In our world today, we surround ourselves with material things that seem so important when we buy them, but can so easily become heaps of mush.

There, in New Orleans, I had seen last loads of laundry still in the dryer, and dishes in dishwashers not put away before people had to flee from the flood — the private belongings of other people.

How similar my personal things are to theirs — how human we all are, and how quickly our lives change and we must leave everything so familiar to us.

A cartoon in an end-of-the year edition of New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune newspaper pictured a man saying, “We lost everything in the hurricane.”

The next drawing showed him standing with his arms around his wife and children; he says: “— Except what is most important.”

That is the lesson for all of us.

Joseph T. Stuart writes

from Hersey, Michigan.