Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Train They Call the City of New Orleans

[UPDATED: See below and see comments.]
[UPDATE 2: Additional items requested: dominoes, playing cards, chapstick, and musical instruments].

I have just completed my second day as a volunteer chaplain at the Austin Convention Center. I have met the most incredible people with indomitable spirits.

I can add to the items which are needed the following:

1. Reading Material, especially large print and other senior adult reading material. Even old magazines are appreciated, especially national geographic, music industry publications, Austin or Texas Magazines, and general fiction. The adults need diversion, and all that is available are large screen TV's which are tuned to news channels. Religious services and child care provide some diversion, and many are beginning to get their bearings and walk around downtown, but reading material is a plus.

2. Underwear.

3. Children's books and simple toys. There are far more children than I expected. Four huge rooms in the convention center are filled with people. There are also an extraordinary number of single men, who fill one large room. Many of these men remained behind while getting their families to safety and are anxious to hear from families.

4. Large Size Women's clothing. Many people have donated clothing but women who need larger sizes have been underserved. I am thinking of one woman in particular who still remains in the clothes on which she camped on the remnants of I-10. I am taking her some men's tshirt's in the morning, but she is only one of several.

5. Fun. We need some outdoor downtown concerts or some such thing soon.

6. Jobs are a critical issue for many people. Most of the men and women whom I have met are proud to be workers, and anxious over accepting government unemployment benefits. There will be a critical need for creative employment counseling soon.

Most of the people who are in Austin were in the Convention Center in New Orleans. Many others were sleeping on the concrete on I 10. Most came here by commercial airliner, some by military aircraft.

The Austin Police and Firefighters have been awesome.

Saw Mark Strama with Will Wynn and Lee Leffingwell as I was leaving. Mark immediately set about arranging a concert.

Here are a few stories:

A most amazing day. The situation in Austin is nothing like it is in Houston, I am sure, but the need for the people with whom I interacted simply to have their basic human dignity returned to them is intense. Everyone is missing someone close to him or her and has no idea how to find the person or if he or she can indeed be found. The loss is staggering, but the spark of human spirit is impressive. I am overwhelmed by a 19 year old pastry chef who waded through water to insure his wheelchair bound grandmother could have transport and that she could live. 7 family members are here, but his own mother, father, brother and sister are missing. His smile is still strong and his spirit unbroken as he talks of finding work, shuffling through his backpack to show me the two books he managed to save from the flood. We talked of my time as a cook during college and law school and what it means to grill a steak Pittsburgh rare for a picky customer on a busy Saturday night. He had saved the tools of his trade, but had to surrender them when transport was arranged by commercial airliner and he could not board with his grandmother and maintain his culinary knives. His grandmother spoke of her church, her pastor, and how she served food to so many in the Church. I affirmed her years of ministry and told her it was time to rest and let others return to her the ministry she had provided to so many for years. The family had survived five days living on the remnants of I-10.

Another woman who managed to hold thirteen family members together in the New Orleans Convention Center, and somehow get them all together to Austin, watching her nine year old grandson play and return to childhood.

A man who operated machinery to fill soft drink bottles, waiting on his first shower in six days and watching his wife sleep and rest at last on the adjacent cot. Wondering when he will work again, when he will again be a provider, but holding his head high.

So many kind words for the people of Austin, who lined the streets and waved as buses brought these folk from the airport.

UPDATE: More Stories from Day 2.

Harry, the New Orleans pastor who stayed with his flock in the New Orleans Convention Center, slowly letting go of his shock and grief as we drove from the Austin Convention Center to a local Austin Church Sunday Morning so he could repair his spirit and return to ministering to those with whom was staying at the Austin shelter. This extraordinary man was overwhelmed but refusing to give in, caring for the sick, the elderly, the dying, the dead, the children - staring death and collapse in the face and somehow finding his humor and his song, greeting members of other New Orleans churches as we walk back through the Convention Center, affirming life, offering a prayer, a connection to a way of life gone for good, by sharing Stories of the New Orleans that was while he ministers to the Diaspora. A modern Ezekiel, encouraging all his people to Stand in the full honor and dignity of their personhood, connecting the Banks of the Colorado and the Mississippi to the Tigris and Euphrates, uniting the Diasporas, teaching and maintaining civilization.

Troy, the former marine, who never got the name of the 16 year old boy who swam 8 blocks to bring a flat-bottom boat back to the rooftop where he sat watch with three elderly New Orleans folk and his girlfriend. Troy tells me how the young of New Orleans helped the elderly, how they retained the lessons of civilization itself by passing the elderly and the infirm forward in the lines for the exodus. His smile when he realized he and his girl could stroll down Sixth Street and breathe and let in some life. The smile on his girlfriend's face when I gave her a copy of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which she clutched to her heart as she held hands with the elderly woman, unknown to her and Troy before the flood, with whom they they survived and who now is their family. She knows she belongs to America, and yearns to reclaim her inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Shirley, keeping a silent vigil in her wheelchair, awaiting word from her daughter, describing the okra gumbo she left in her freezer and wondering when and where she will cook again, but knowing she will.

Karen, who arrived with 7 family members from Baton Rouge to join the family of 13 which had made it to Austin the night before. She is a preschool teacher and accepts a copy of the Wizard of Oz, which she will read to the children gathered about her. Where will she teach? Wherever she is, she will teach, she will contribute, she will move the human race forward. She smiles as she realizes her son may be able to play sports in a Texas school this fall. She encourages her mother to rest, she chats with her sister. She holds her head high and embraces life.

The worshippers at the impromptu service, singing again, connecting with their God, with each other, and with Austin at a service led by an Austin Police Chaplain, who reminds of the Covenant of the Rainbow, the symbol of hope after the flood.

The children of New Orleans, playing again at last, laughing, going about the business of childhood, coloring and playing childhood games, tossing toy footballs, running in the aisles and getting in the way, laughing, connecting, socializing, providing the connection among the families, and the assurance of a future and a hope.

3 Comments:

Blogger roses said...

I don't think that othniel will mind if I share something he emailed me this morning:

"We are moving from shelter and survival in the Maslov matrix to belonging. Schools, Job, Community are critical questions on the lips of everyone.

"Major connectivity across the country. People ask, do I belong here, back 'home' in Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta. The people understand the basics of population pressure, the unavailability of jobs if large numbers of them land in any single location. The answer is more often they belong to all places rather than to any one place. The most important Diaspora since the wave of Eastern European Immigration, and maybe since the slave trade displacements. The Jewish Diaspora of the Exile provides perhaps the most readily accessible cultural matrix, as this population is so Biblically literate. Hunger for Human Rights. I wish I could provide enough copies of our founding documents to satisfy the hunger. Also the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New Orleans was an American city, but also a City of the World. Even the hunger for relocation to Houston connects with the special status of that place as the gateway to the Stars.

"Music. These people need music. New Orleans and Austin connect in this matrix. We need street musicians near the Convention Center. Watch for the Songs to be written and sung and taught. The Louis Armstrong Airport as the locus for the exodus to Austin impels it.

"Humanity will honor this event and study it for centuries. We must preserve the primary sources."

6:57 AM  
Blogger roses said...

In response to the above, I've printed out some copies of the Declaration of Indepence (some in large print) to be taken to the convention center today. Don't have time to print any other founding documents today. But that is an item that others could contribute!

11:17 AM  
Blogger Othniel said...

Thanks Roses.

Troy, Ralph and I just returned from a picnic in Lampasas. Ralph and I dropped Troy back at the convention center, where he planned to distribute the sunshine and nature sounds of the Texas Hill Country to his fellows.

1:31 PM  

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