The end of July brought the biggest convention to town since Hurricane Katrina, but it wasn't doctors, lawyers or other professionals. In fact, it wasn't even adults. It was 37,000 teenagers and their chaperones from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), who filled hotels all over town for the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering, which they called "Jesus, Justice and Jazz."
Besides their worship events at the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the teens spent much of their five days in New Orleans performing some 200 community service projects, including hosting a health fair in New Orleans City Park, building a two-mile hiking trail around the park's Goat and Scout Islands and adding new plants to the Botanical Garden. Elsewhere, they held reading fairs for children and painted and cleaned houses and schools. Some boarded buses and headed to the Falgout Canal marina to replant marsh grasses; others converged on Holt Cemetery to weed, seed, restore tombstones and, in some cases, rebury the dead. At the end of their busy days, many of them found time to donate blood to the Red Cross. In all, our Lutheran visitors from all over the United States contributed a quarter of a million volunteer hours to the people of New Orleans — and, in many cases, thanked us for the chance to have done so.
We're humbled. Humbled at their generosity. Humbled at the sight of so many young people traveling so far to do so much hard work during their summer vacation. Humbled that the "Katrina fatigue" felt by so many Americans was replaced, for a few days, with an enthusiasm even some of us find hard to muster some days. Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, these excited young volunteers were an inspiration, and just one of them accomplished more good than all the preachers and politicians in the world who saw Katrina as either perverse justice or crass opportunity.
Among the many small moments of grace between our young guests and the locals came last weekend at Betsy's Pancake House in Mid-City, which had its usual mix of Sunday morning regulars — sleepy folks with Saturday night faces and regal African-American churchwomen in their Sunday finery. Into Betsy's dining room came nine teenagers, led by a pastor and two chaperones, looking friendly but shy and a bit out of place. Tables were rearranged; coffee was brought. The waitress, with little prompting, welcomed them and told them the tale of the coffee shop during Katrina. The kids were more curious about grits. They opted for white toast instead.
"We could have gone to Burger King, but we saw this and wanted to eat at a place with neighborhood people," said the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Brian W. Armen, shaking hands with people who approached their table. He and his flock were from Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Johnston, Penn. None of them had been to New Orleans before.
Then, the waitress laid a $20 bill on the table. "That man who just left paid for some of your breakfast," she said, and within a couple of minutes bills were being passed to the visitors from around the room — $10 here, $20 there, and the pastor's wife began to cry, saying "Thank you," to which the morning regulars replied, "No, thank you."
How do you thank someone for helping rebuild your city? It's a question with which we've all wrestled during the past four years, and the answer is: You can't.But the simple act of buying a stranger a breakfast said "Thank you" in myriad ways: Thank you for coming. Thank you for caring. Thank you for your sweat and your optimism, for your curiosity and bravery in traveling to a place so unlike your own home. And, when many in the rest of the country seem to have "gotten over" Katrina and can't understand why we can't, perhaps the real message was: Thank you for not forgetting.
Most of all, thank you for reminding New Orleans — a city that's so dependent on the kindness of strangers — that there still are people in this world who come to town and leave behind things more valuable than overflowing cash registers.