UCC work crews making a difference, one house at a time
Written by Dennis Murphy
February - March 2007
March 1, 2007

Editor's note: Dennis Murphy is a member of Mt. Sinai Congregational UCC in New York. He and others from the church have participated in several work camps in New Orleans. Below is an account of his crew's experiences. On Jan. 13-14, Murphy attended "Resurrection Weekend" at Good Shepherd UCC in Metairie, La., celebrating the church's much-anticipated return to its sanctuary.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf States in August 2005, the UCC, along with dozens of other agencies, launched efforts to aid the victims of this disaster.

The UCC hurricane-response motto - "Hope Shall Bloom" - became the slogan for individuals and groups who traveled south to be part of the recovery. Our church - Mt. Sinai Congregational UCC in New York - was one of them.

In February of last year, 20 of us traveled to New Orleans for a week to rebuild. This meant gutting houses and transporting a family's ruined possessions and placing them into 6-foot piles on the sidewalk. Then, added to the pile, were mold-covered wallboard, crumbling insulation, and leaking freezers, refrigerators and washing machines.

Finally, after leaving the house with bare-wooden studs and rafters with nails neatly removed, the actual rebuilding would be done by a future group.

In October 2006, 18 of us returned to New Orleans for our second rebuilding effort. We met a number of individuals who once had been evacuated from the city and, after months of being separated from their homes and scattered throughout the country, they had returned and decided to stay and rebuild their lives.

One of those we met was Charles, a 72-year-old Honduran-born man, who became our "poster man," our personal symbol of hope. A 35-year resident of Pleasure Street in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, Charles first approached our group while we were taking a break from gutting a house in his neighborhood. It was then we first learned his story.

On Aug. 29, 2005, the waters of the Mississippi River swept up the 9th ward Industrial Canal, broke over the levees and sent waves through his house. He and his wife were rescued by the National Guard.

After the disaster, they were sent to Georgia where a church took them in, arranging for them to live in a fully-furnished parsonage. In March, six months later, they finally returned and Charles began gutting his own house. His FEMA trailer sat aside his two-story, wood-frame house.

With a sweep of his hand against a wall in his living room, Charles showed how high the water had risen.

Now, Charles' wall is new and neatly painted and he has begun to rebuild and restore all the walls, moldings, floors, and electrical wiring. Light pours into the living room through the windows he was able to purchase from a nearby Lowe's.

He's clearly motivated by his personal motto - "rubbing two pennies together hard enough, you may get another."

He showed us the long list of things yet to do with whatever money he would have left after his social security check was used for living expenses. It appears that he will need to be rubbing lots of pennies together to try to fund his own rebuilding effort.

On Nov. 11, 2006, The New York Times reported that nearly 79,000 New Orleans families have applied for the federally-funded "Road Home" assistance program, but only 1,721 have been told how much grant money they will receive. And just 22 have actually received access to the cash.

We learned important things from people like Charles. His penny-on-penny philosophy stayed with us, even after we returned from New Orleans.

On our last day, we returned to East New Orleans to view the house that 10 of us had gutted on our last trip. It sits only 100 feet from another canal that overflowed after Katrina. This small, single-level, brick-front house is located in a middle-class community and is owned by a special education teacher, Cassie, and her two children.

Cassie's house was flooded by six feet of water and sat abandoned for six months before our UCC work group arrived - opening the front door and gutting the entire house. We left it after one week - as we did with the house on Pleasure Street - with bare rafters and studs, awaiting actual rebuilding.

Upon our return, we peered through the new door and windows. There were the beginnings of electrical wiring, a new bathtub and fresh tiling on the floors.

Outside, the roof had been repaired, and a new fence enclosed the property. In this middle-class community, there were also signs of life.

Nine months ago, this community was eerily silent. There were no dogs barking, birds singing or construction sounds. Now there are more FEMA trailers, along with sounds of hammers, generators and saws. Together, contractors and homeowners are working to restore the city's houses.

Our group also helped to renovate the second floor of a small church that will provide space for bunk beds and showers for 50 volunteers.

Hundreds of houses still require work, and more will need a place to stay when they come to help.

"We will be here forever," says the Rev. Alan Coe, the UCC's Disaster Recovery Coordinator in New Orleans.

Hope does and will bloom in New Orleans. We saw it with our own eyes.

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org