On June 15 I boarded a plane with no real idea of what I was heading for. This was not the first time God had put me on a plane with spiritual destination unknown, but for some reason I thought I knew what to expect. I was going to spend four days with other young Christian leaders, doing some sort of service project and learning about where the church seems to be heading. Pretty simple. Except that all I really knew was that I was going to New Orleans and everyone told us to pack for heat and to bring bug spray.
It has taken me nearly a month to begin to unpack the lessons and experiences of those few days in New Orleans as part of the Fund for Theological Education 2011 Leaders in Ministry Conference. Sure, I had the experiences. I had the notes I took and the notebook with handouts and schedules. I read blog posts by others who had been there and listened to the recordings of various talks. I also pondered. There has been a whole lot of pondering.
The first day with all of the travel and assorted confusion of checking in and getting situated took me completely out of my comfort zone. The group I was assigned to arrive with was late, so we were unable to check in prior to beginning the conference. This meant that while everyone in our Round Table groups were forming the foundations of those small communities a couple dozen of us were down in a stuffy office while staff members continued the struggle to find acceptable housing among the apartments we had all been assigned to. Jocelyn Sideco, one of the leadership team members, finished off any expectation I had that this would be just another conference when she looked at us standing in line for apartments that may or may not be ready for us and said “at least you know you have a place to stay, even if you don’t know where it is or if it has linens and toilet paper waiting for you. That is more than some people in New Orleans still have even now”.
As I stumbled off the shuttle with my fellow students into the dark courtyard of the apartments we had been assigned to I realized that I needed Jocelyn’s very honest reminder of my surroundings. As I would discover later the physical scars of the storm were everywhere, including these apartments where we lived and gathered as small Round Table groups.
Worshipping with 108 enthusiastic young leaders from across all denominations was truly inspiring, as were the discussions it often started. It was also a way to discover that there is so much more common ground among Christians than we often give ourselves credit for. I can’t even begin to count the times in my life where worship styles have drawn lines in the sand that have caused argument and dissention where there should have been peace and compromise. I am not saying that I would like to worship in that style all the time – I am, after all, a cradle Episcopalian who loves high church liturgy – but it was truly refreshing to find a middle ground that was nourishing enough that it seemed that everyone could not only participate but learn something new in the process.
New Orleans itself became our teacher outside of worship. The heat and humidity forced many of us to slow down even more than the usual disorientation of a new city, and New Orleans embraced the chance to really force us to pay attention. Our first full day we were out and about getting personally involved by taking a bus tour on our way to various service project sites. It was an incredible experience to stop at various churches and ministries to hear their stories of ongoing recovery and struggle as well as their stories of hope and everyday miracles. As I listened to these stories wash over me and stood in places where so much change was taking place I was able to begin to wrap myself around the scope of the disaster. Like so many people I remembered watching the news about Katrina and the disastrous flooding that had destroyed so much of the city, but I also remember being utterly baffled at the sheer size of what was happening. Now I had no choice but to see the reminders everywhere. The houses still damaged and vacant in so many parts of the city; the marks still spray painted on homes that had been searched one by one for dead bodies, even homes that were inhabited still bore these marks; the contrast in recovery from area to area.
We traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit in the flooding and still one of the least recovered areas of New Orleans. I spent that afternoon at Viet New Orleans, a group that is working to provide a safe place for the children of the neighborhood. In this case it is a primarily Vietnamese population, with the recovery effort led by Mary, Queen of Vietnam church. We picked up debris from when this location had served as a construction dump during the rebuilding of the neighborhood, cleaned playground equipment, painted a volleyball court, and installed fake turf on the beginnings of a mini-golf putting green. Other groups in other locations were helping to cut back overgrown vegetation from lots where houses had been swept away by the flooding, picking up trash, and helping a congregation prepare for a Vacation Bible School. For so many of us, we felt that it was a small drop in the bucket of what was needed and that our efforts wouldn’t have much of an effect. For the communities it was an affirmation that they were not forgotten and that somebody still cares about them even if the media has moved on. In the end it was a potent lesson about the gift of presence. It may not seem very big or important to us, but to the person or community we are with our mere presence may be the biggest gift God could give them at that moment.
The rest of the conference was spent on the campus of Dillard University in discussions, practical workshops, and small groups. Within the context of disaster and recovery we learned about new ways to help make the church relevant to a world that increasingly describes itself as spiritual but not religious and sees churches as irrelevant. In a potent video we watched a couple of times during the conference and is still posted on the FTE website Rev. Dr. Lois Dejean tells us that “I am not just here to talk a scripture. I’m here to do a scripture. To be a scripture. Ministry is no longer just at the pulpit”. This became a powerful reminder that sticks with me as I move forward in my discernment and ministry journey.
One of the tools the conference put into our toolboxes is the VocationCARE practice, which provides a framework for taking a community as well as an individual deep into discernment and acts as a catalyst for ideas and action. CARE is an acronym: C, create space to explore Christian vocation together; A, ask self-awakening questions together; R, reflect theologically on self and community; E, enact ministry opportunities. This formed the foundation not only of the small group discussions but also our large group times and even the way the conference was shaped.
My workshop time was spent with Enuma Okoro, who taught us about writing not only as an agent of community building and storytelling but also of being a faithful witness to the community. We did some writing exercises and discussed the role writers have often held as a reflection back to the community of what it is doing both right and wrong.
In the end, it is the experience of the community as a whole that was the most dynamic piece of this conference. Within that framework God took me and turned many of the things I thought I knew on their heads while also confirming things where I had felt so much doubt and concern.
Once again, God placed me on an airplane home with so much more than I expected and more than just my luggage to unpack. In the chaos of returning home and the sorting and packing involved in my preparations to move and begin seminary I have been quietly unpacking the lessons learned from four days in New Orleans. I have been changed by this experience and I am only now beginning to see those changes emerge. With God’s help they will grow and lead me closer to the heart of the purpose God has laid out for me in this path.
Since Blogger is not allowing me to embed the link to the page with the video and conference information I will do it this way: http://www.fteleaders.org/events/detail/2011-leaders-in-ministry-conference/