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Recovery needs deep roots

New Orleans has become the realm of the unknowable.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW ORLEANS | August 5, 2006

"How do they serve their congregation if it is still scattered?"

—Alan Coe

New Orleans has become the realm of the unknowable. Alan Coe, a coordinator with the United Church of Christ (UCC) National Disaster Ministries, sees a new example nearly every day.

"We were working in a lady's house this week," he said. "The house was untouched until we got there. Her neighborhood is kind of desolate."

The woman finds herself left with a growing list of questions, said Coe: "Is my sister coming back? Is my mother coming back? Is it going to be safe with the levees still being repaired? Is the city going to say, no, is this one of the neighborhoods that's going to be a soccer field? Can I go to the grocery store - because there's not one there now. Can I go to the doctor?"

The questions go on and on for that single individual, Coe said. Then take that number and multiply it, and multiply it again and again. "There are thousands of houses still untouched," he said.

Walking beside people struggling with unanswerable questions has become part of his ministry. "You get past all that stuff," he said, "and then it gets down to yet another question: how am I going to rebuild?"

Coe also sees a lot of pastors struggling with a clear vision for their churches. "How do they serve their congregation if it is still scattered? There will be a lot of changes. What churches will come back? Who will be serving as pastors?"

As he maneuvers through the unknown, Coe is quietly putting down roots for recovery. But it's going to take a long time, he cautioned.

"We have rented a house for long-term volunteers," he said. "Beginning in September, two couples will arrive and live there. One couple will stay for six months and the other for nine months."

Long-term volunteers are an important foundation in the UCC's New Orleans effort, Coe said, because they stay long enough to understand the many quirks of the neighborhoods. "They get to know the people," he said. "They get to know the city."

Later, Coe said, he hopes to add more permanent paid staff. For now, though, three UCC churches - Little Farms, St. Matthew's and Good Shepherd - all host volunteer teams.

One church - on the verge of closing before the hurricane - has seen new life following the hurricane as a hub of volunteer activity. "After the hurricane, we noticed they've got this huge fellowship hall," Coe said.

Now the UCC is rehabbing the fellowship hall, outfitting it to host volunteer groups from not only UCC churches but other denominations as well. "We could house about 40 or 50 people there," said Coe.

When compared to the miles of desolate neighborhoods still untouched in New Orleans, these numbers seem small.

But when even one volunteer has a rewarding trip, that experience can blossom into a long-term commitment from many others, said Coe, in a growing ripple of care.

"What matters most about volunteering is what you do when you go back," he reflected.

One 22-year-old woman volunteered this summer because she heard other volunteers talking about their trip. "Now, she wants to go to Tulane and get a graduate degree in social work and disaster response," said Coe.

That kind of positive "chain reaction" is what Coe hopes for. But, he said, volunteering frankly isn't for everyone.

"They're here for a week. Their idea of being a servant gets tested. They wrestle with a lot of stuff. We're here to serve the people here. You may get to meet some of the homeowners - but you may not. We have to put our own needs aside. We have plenty of work. But one of the biggest challenges is matching up the talents of the group or the personality of the group."

Originally from Massachusetts, Coe spent six years in Texas before moving to New Orleans as part of the recovery effort. Sometimes, he said, the work can be isolating even in the midst of the city. "When the groups and the long-term volunteers leave, that can be hard. Then it's hard to find collegial support here on the ground. I'm not a local pastor. But I've made connections in other areas."

The aftermath of Katrina weighs on the city in a collective way, said Coe. "For me to go to someone and asking another minister to connect, that's difficult. They're dealing with their own stuff, whether it's their own flooded house or a loss of their congregation."

While there is hope for recovery, there is also a collective sadness, said Coe. "Everybody here is suffering from some sort of depression, anxiety, some sort of Katrina-related stuff. They're grieving."

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