Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Strength of a Community

Many of the homes surrounding Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in the St. Roch district of New Orleans were damaged when Katrina blew through in 2005. Some of them, and countless more all over the city, sit abandoned to this day, their windows boarded up, dates spray-painted on the front door or the porch wall marking the last time anyone set foot inside. The school next to the church still has not reopened.

All of this stood in stark contrast to the people drifting in from all directions.

As we pulled up we were greeted by a man named Emmanuel, dressed sharp right up to his Kangol cap. Moments later Choir Director Richard Cheri emerged from the golden double doors of the church; his wife Cynthia, a choir member, would appear beside him out of nowhere. They all thanked us, graciously and enthusiastically, for coming to their parish. Only a few minutes in we already knew the pleasure would be all ours.

The plan was to carry the cross into the church and stand it up. This quickly went to pot when we discovered the hard way that it wouldn’t fit through those gold front doors. Our only other choice then would be to stand it up at the foot of the steps outside, but with the breezes threatening, leaving a 500-pound, 14-foot piece of steel teetering by itself out on the sidewalk for the hour and a half service (‘He gets us out of there in about an hour if the Saints are playing,’ young Roy LaFargue told us) was quickly voted down. ‘Just leave it on its back,’ Jon said, already sweating in the bright humid morning.

Mass began, not surprisingly, with the choir belting out a brilliant opening hymn. The altar was backed with a mural that stretched all the way to the arched ceiling. Stained glass windows, massive and sparkling; hardly a church in Europe could compete. The reading of the gospel was injected with more singing; the sharing of peace and handshakes lasted ten minutes. It was amazing to think this church, this neighborhood, these people’s lives had been so recently ravaged.

After Mass Richard spoke of his community, admitting that yeah he was surrounded by an incredibly strong group of people. But they hadn’t done anything so special. ‘Thanks to God, we’re still here.’ Richard’s smile and his spirit were infective. Outside, watching the congregation milling around praising the cross and slurping on cherry ice, a woman spoke to Rev. Fernand Cheri (yes, Richard’s brother). ‘I felt the spirit of the Lord in there,’ she gushed. ‘He rose up from your toes and right into my heart!’ Gerard Hairston, from DC and a university student there in New Orleans, understood the strength of the community, after Katrina and in all things. ‘You can go through any problem, any obstacle,’ he said. ‘And come out victorious in the other side.’

Spending a little time at Our Lady Star of the Sea, you can’t help but believe this is true.