"The Lowell Sun:" Assignment New Orleans

By Debbie Hovanasian, Lowell Sun, 8/11/2007

LOWELL -- A young boy with a cast on his arm walked down the battered streets of New Orleans with his mom. They looked so sad that Priscille Matte, a Dracut resident on a mission trip with St. Anne's Episcopal Church, went to the boy and said, "I bet you have a beautiful smile." He immediately grinned widely. "It was so beautiful, but then it just went away," said Matte. That is, until a volunteer youth minister from Texas asked the boy if he could still toss a football with his cast. "He smiled ear to ear the entire time. The look on his mom's face -- she was so moved by the attention he was getting," said Matte, a retired nurse.

Two years after the area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the boy and his mother are just one example where "making a connection is just as important as gutting a house," said Anne Marie Malavich, a retired Daley School teacher who also was on the five-day mission in June. The group from St. Anne's, which also included the rector, the Rev. Ramon Aymerich, and Paul Breen of Lowell, gutted and rebuilt, but it was the human connections that moved them the most.

One day, they gave out donated food and supplies from a trailer sponsored by the Episcopal Church -- a necessity since many of the markets have yet to be rebuilt. Listening to their stories, Malavich soon realized that the residents were not as interested in the supplies as they were in talking about their devastation.
"No one wants to hear them anymore. We were new ears for them," she said. "We spent most of the day crying."

The extent of the devastation two years later shocked the group, even though they thought they were prepared after watching a presentation by Bishop Bud Cederholm of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts during Lent. "It's like living in a refugee camp in our own country," said Breen, 48. Breen, a former Marine, was especially moved after meeting a man sitting alone on a bench, playing the trumpet. Breen learned that the man had lost his wife and two children in the flooding.

Aymerich says that those hit the hardest were the poor and marginal. As for rebuilding, "some places haven't even been touched," he said, adding that Katrina may be referred to as an "equal-opportunity destroyer, but ... it's not an equal- opportunity rebuilder." Crime is rampant in the area as well, including a high murder rate, the group explained. Matte met a woman who said she paid a contractor to install copper piping, only to find him later that evening stealing the piping to resell it.

Aymerich says he was encouraged by the fact that religious differences take a back seat when there is a greater cause. In his dealings with the far more conservative local Episcopalian clergy, the crisis in the Episcopal Church over same-sex relationships and other issues didn't even come up, he said.
"There was no discussion about what divides the church, and that made a big impact on me," he said. "We were there to work together for a common cause -- all this other stuff is just nonsense."

Surely, the significant contributions being made by various church organizations left the St. Anne's group in awe. "They're working so hard to try to get them on their feet. You come out feeling so proud to be Episcopalian," said Matte, 62. The group was told by church organizers that 90 percent of the rebuilding is now being done by faith-based communities, marveled Malavich, 58. "As an American, I am outraged, embarrassed and ashamed at the lack of work being done (by the government). People should not be living in trailers two years later."

In spite of their frustration over the slow pace of recovery, all four consider the mission a life-altering experience that they will seek out again. They endured sparse living conditions, hard physical labor, tears for the victims, devastating sights, exhaustion, sweat, mold and plenty of dirt. But they also enjoyed a lot of laughter, Southern home cooking and hospitality, camaraderie, prayer, gratitude from the victims, getting back more than they gave, and strengthening their bonds as Christians.

"This is truly God's message -- love one another," said Breen.

© 2007 The Lowell Sun