Saturday, January 20, 2007

The ODR Gutting Philosophy and the Bishops

I’ve been meaning to make this post for quite some time!

Shortly after Thanksgiving, the bishops of Province 1 (the Northeast) came to New Orleans to gut houses. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire had to be at a funeral, but was the only bishop to miss it. I saw Bud Cederholm of Massachusetts again, and met Maine’s Chilton Knudsen and Connecticut’s Jim Curry.

More on the bishops in a minute, but this first: the Episcopal gutting program’s philosophy is not typical. Many church gutting programs require homeowners to promise they’ll rebuild the house and stay in New Orleans. On its face, this makes sense: why gut a house that will be demolished anyways when you could focus on a more permanent project?

But Katie Mears, who runs the Diocese’s gutting program, doesn’t ask homeowners to make this promise, and with good reason. I have talked to a number of homeowners who couldn’t decide whether to rebuild until they saw their home fully gutted. Some people, upon seeing their house untouched since the storm, feel overwhelmed and think there’s too much work to do to come home, but when the building is cleaned up, it doesn’t look so bad after all! Other homeowners see it stripped down to its studs and, even if they initially wanted to come home, just see too much despair, or find they don’t have enough money to rebuild after all.

Programs that require these people to say they’ll come home without this information essentially say, “Tough luck.” They focus on the structures, but Katie and her crew focus on the people. What are structures but instruments of people? Isn’t it the family that makes a house a home? Gutting a condemned house can help a homeowner make decisions, pick through their belongings, or find peace of mind as one item is crossed off their mile-long to-do list.

I am pleased to report, the bishops get it! They were quite excited about Katie’s philosophy and were thrilled to return to their pastoral roots and work directly with a homeowner, but horrified by the extent of the city’s remaining damage. This surprised me, actually – no one can understand the extent of Katrina’s wreckage until you see it for yourself, but surely the bishops knew something. Gulf Coast Bishops Charles Jenkins and Duncan Grey have briefed their peers. There was little I could tell my own bishop, James Waggoner, that he hadn’t already heard from his friends. But nevertheless, the damage came as a shock to the Province 1 bishops. All promised to return to their dioceses re-energized and dedicated to helping the people of the Gulf Coast.

The bishops surprised some of the other interns. Katie had warned them that bishops grow used to giving directions, not taking them. Everywhere they go, Katie said, people fawn over them, hold doors for them, kiss their butt, etc., so don’t expect much from them on the job site. And boy was Katie wrong! Jake, one of the crew leaders, told me the bishops were among the best volunteers he’d had. They took direction incredibly well, worked tirelessly and relentlessly, and hated to leave at the end of the day.

Jake also said they enjoyed fart jokes, but that’s his story to tell, not mine.

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