Louisianans Are Not Victims

  Mattresses waiting for sanitation pickup. Downed trees. Trees pruned by nature. Bags and bags and bags of garbage that has not been picked up — but mercifully not the first Ida-round of once-frozen meat. On the way from the airport into New Orleans, you saw refrigerators outside homes, too; you wound up having to discard it if you didn’t get a chance to empty your freezer before the storm hit. Arriving in the Pelican State just weeks after the latest hurricane cruelty, I didn’t know what to expect and was even worried I would be in the way of recovery. Sure enough, the local family-owned hotel I stayed at was still getting its roof fixed — a ceiling collapsed in one of the hotel rooms during the storm. But the last thing I felt like there was an imposition. From this New Yorker’s vantage point, Louisiana would be more properly known as the Hospitality State — or, even better, The Joyfully Resilient State.

I saw the gymnasium at St. Stephen School there, which had sustained water damage, with layers of the roof coming off, filling the room with water, cutting it off for use. By the mercy of God — and a high location and solid construction — the classrooms were largely unharmed, and an impressive number of children were back in school, albeit in hybrid form, when I visited. When the pastor and the principal of St. Stephen’s began receiving video of the roof in the streets around the school, the two of them immediately pledged to each other: We’re building back better! For the adults, it’s all about the children, as it should always be in education and when thinking about the present good and right and just things — and of course about the future, including the kids’ futures.

In storm-damaged Louisiana, there is not victimhood, but resilience and gratitude. I asked an Uber driver — a single mom of two who had to quit her job as a schoolteacher during the height of COVID to help her children with their at-home school — whether it’s hard living in Louisiana. “Not at all,” she said. “Life always has its challenges, but God is good, and our lives are gifts, and we must live them in love of and trust in Him.” That witness of the people I meet in Louisiana — from the proprietor of the Park View Historic Hotel on St. Charles Avenue across from Audubon Park, to the community of St. Stephen’s and beyond — is a challenge to the rest of us, who can get caught up in so many things that we don’t have all that much control over.

As I arrived, New Orleans had a mask mandate indoors as well as vaccination requirements for indoor dining, but I didn’t sense the same level of fear as in other places. As I moved on to more rural places, my hosts, the founders of the Witness to Love marriage-mentoring ministry, had already had COVID-19 twice. They’re moving forward, doing the work of raising and supporting families. A visit to the school their children go to — John Paul the Great Academy — seems a haven from so much of the confusion we inflict on children, already naturally at awkward ages.

Back at St. Stephen’s, one is reminded of why educating children is some of the most important work we can do. When we herald frontline workers, parents and teachers surely should be among them. The school is 90 percent black — most of the student come from poverty and failing public schools. “They have experienced things that, as an adult, I can’t imagine,” St. Stephen’s principal, Rosie Kendrick, tells me. Some middle-class students from the neighborhood also attend. “Everyone plays and learns together regardless of where they come from. They are great and innocent and funny and resilient. Every day I’m reminded just how good God is!”

“We focus on not only taking the best, but creating the best,” Kendrick says. “We embrace the idea that all students can learn. We create a safe learning space, where students are not judged, but loved, they are not ridiculed, but praised, not punished, but taught.”

Before the storm, she remembers, there was an unmissable sign in the school’s foyer that read: “When you enter this loving school, consider yourself one of the special members of an extraordinary family.” That pretty much sums up the approach of the school, which begins and ends its day with proclaiming that “God is good.” It seems to capture not only the character of Louisiana, but what the rest of us ought to aspire to. Maybe there’d be less anger at the past and at one another. Maybe we’d do better by the innocents entrusted to us. Their work there is the stuff of saving lives and souls — giving a child a chance, equipping him for life in this world.  

After the Boston Marathon bombing, Father José Medina wrote:

True resilience springs from belonging to a lived companionship that bears witness to the goodness and love for which we all thirst. . . . From it, we can begin to build a society that reflects our deepest yearnings. . . . We derive resilience, this ceaseless and sanguine response, through a companionship that perceives daily life as the heroic striving for the Good.

That’s the St. Stephen’s family approach. That’s the Creel family who runs the Park View. That’s the only way to move forward together.

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