Angels on The Levees\r\nBy Ginni Spencer\r\n \r\n I arrived in New Orleans fifteen months post-Katrina. I was part of a team of fourteen organized through the social ministry arm of my church. Among other things, we had been told during our orientation that many of the people we would meet would have stories to tell about their experiences, and we should make listening our first priority. To be honest, I heard that as \"church talk\". I was certain that real help in the form of razing houses, construction and repair was what would be most valued. I desperately wanted to \"do something\" and the needs of this beleaguered city were painfully evident to me. I believed that I had no expectations other than to help out with an open heart. \r\n\r\n Our first assignment was to paint the interior of a small home near City Park that had had its roof blown off but was now partially restored. The owner was there to greet us as we arrived, but instead of the grateful, weeping family I had imagined, she was a frail, middle-aged woman who reminded us repeatedly in a shrill voice not to get paint on her new cabinets. Her elderly neighbor next door came over as we sat on the front steps taking a lunch break. She was plucky and funny, with a frizz of dandelion hair. She chatted on about our owner who she described as a \"real bitch\" but conceded that things had been tough for her and the mother she cared for. They fled the storm to relatives in Seattle and the mother was desperate to come back to the city in which she had spent her whole life and where she wanted to die. Then, as a post-script, the neighbor told us her story: at age 79 she and her husband had been separated in an airlift evacuation from the hospital in which both were patients when Katrina hit. For several frantic days, before being reunited in Atlanta, each feared the other was dead. Eventually, they were sent to live with relatives in North Dakota for six months, where they saw snow for the first time. She related this harrowing tale matter-of-factly, then opened the paper bag she was carrying and handed out necklaces of Mardi Gras beads as a gesture of thanks. \"Lots had it worse\'n us,\" she called to us cheerfully as she tottered away.\r\n\r\n We finished our painting job the next day, working alongside a paid contractor who was tiling the bathroom. Except for telling us that the iPod he was continually plugged into played an audio version of the Bible, we didn\'t talk much. We didn\'t even know his name. Among ourselves, we called him the Bathroom Guy. The Bathroom Guy disconnected himself from his electronic scripture long enough to help us carry our tools and ladders to the truck at the end of the day. As he stood on the curb with the iPod wire dangling over one shoulder, he began relating his Katrina story in an impassioned Louisiana drawl. He described how he gathered his family into their car and led them in one last prayer before fleeing. \"The Bible tells us we can commission angels,\" he told us, and so he did, directing them to stand at the four corners of his property with their wings spread thick and wide to protect their home. \"I told my family not to fear. And when we came back, our house was intact. Intact,\" he said again, after a dramatic pause. He seemed to be looking at my skeptical face in particular. \r\n\r\n Our last assignment was to gut a house in Lakeview East, out near Lake Ponchartrain. We arrived there in the early morning of a beautiful day bright with sunshine and blue sky. The house, emptied of furniture and other possessions by an earlier team, was moldy and dark, folded into itself like a wounded dog cowering by the side of the road. We plunged in, startled by our own energy in the face of a task none of us had ever undertaken before: stripping a house down to its studs. Our work became a strange and graceful surgery which we tacitly agreed to complete as quickly as possible to minimize the pain. We felt the presence of the family who had lived there, and in a way, we heard their stories most clearly of all even though we never met them. There was something profoundly intimate about being in their home in this way. We were there to tear apart the sacred spaces in which they had shared their dreams and disappointments, and we mourned that. In two days we were finished.\r\n\r\nI discovered that I had many expectations about my trip to New Orleans. I had high-minded ideas about what I could do, and found that I was most helpful when I simply was, listening and being present without trying to troubleshoot or diagnose. I certainly did not expect to find any comfort in angels. But when we flew over New Orleans on the way home, I remembered what the Bathroom Guy told us, and I commissioned an army of them. I told them to spread their wings thick and wide all along the tops of the levees to deflect the rising waters of future hurricanes. And I prayed also that they would rest those wings gently on the weary shoulders of all those who carry on.\r\n


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