My alarm went off at 5:00 am on January 6, which was only the first thing that was unusual about that day. After weeks of explaining my plans to roommates, family, friends and the clerk at CVS who sold me travel-size shampoo, the day was finally here—and I was nervous. By 5:30 am I was walking out of my door to join a group of Trinity Fellows and a group of RUF students from UVA to spend a week partnering with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans in their work of loving and serving their city.
Comfortable homes and families, vacation and work time were traded for air mattresses, one shower each for men and women, and hard manual labor that involved occasional meetings with cockroaches and rats. What we set out to do was to participate in the difficult yet beautiful work of the kingdom.
As we walked up to the church on Sunday morning, a jazzy version of “Amazing Grace” floated through the windows out into the street. When Pastor Ray Cannata told us to “stand up and greet your neighbor,” I expected a couple of awkward handshakes. Instead we spent ten minutes being hugged and welcomed like we were at a family reunion. During the sermon, Pastor Ray spoke with love in his voice about the craziness of New Orleans and all the beauty that could be found in the people there, and I wondered at his deep devotion to a place that even the secular media calls “sinful.” I later learned that Pastor Ray and his family had moved to New Orleans after Katrina, excited about the “adventure” of loving a city that was being rebuilt amidst the ruins.
And seeing the destruction throughout the week, there were times I wondered if it made sense to continue. A year and a half after Katrina most of the world has forgotten New Orleans, but we saw entire neighborhoods still abandoned, homes that have still not been cleaned up since the storm hit, people who struggle with vivid memories of dead bodies floating around them. We wondered when and how it would all be rebuilt and whether people would really want to move back. And yet there were numerous signs of God’s work of renewal in the city.
There was Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which clings in strong hope that Jesus is willing to heal their city as they joyfully participate in the rebuilding. There was Mr. Washington, a 73-year-old man who through his tears praised God when he found out that his house was now cleared out and that he could begin to move home. There was Jared, the architect who told us that the church’s work had provided visible reasons to hope, which he was able to share with many others who doubted that restoration was possible.
There was hope—what seemed like absurd hope in a bizarre city. But this hope makes sense, Pastor Ray reminded us, because of Jesus. Abraham pleaded for Sodom and Gomorrah on behalf of only ten righteous people; we can plead with even more confidence for New Orleans because of One who was truly righteous. With this great confidence and hope we can pray and labor for the city to be rebuilt and for lives to be restored, and we can joyfully trust that our God is at work—in New Orleans, in Charlottesville, and in all of the places in our lives that are filled with brokenness and beauty and which we long to be redeemed.
As we drove home, some of us listened to a CD made by musicians from Redeemer. In the opening song, a chorus of voices sings, “For the Lord our God, He is strong to save from the arms of death, from the deepest grave, and He gave us life in His perfect will, and by His good grace I will praise Him still.” Together with our brothers and sisters in New Orleans, we will hope and praise Him still.
Sarah Stutz is a current student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a participant during this recent trip to New Orleans with Reformed University Fellowship and the Trinity Fellows