Getting to the heart of things in old New Orleans
Kermit Ruffins could be anywhere. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. Miami. Maybe even Europe. Hey, why not? When your musical talent is immense, you tend to be in demand. A hot ticket, as they say. But Ruffins chooses to be on his home turf this particular night and just now he is sitting in a corner of Bullet’s Sports Bar, smack in the middle of New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. In about an hour, he’ll saunter over to the spot that serves as a “stage” — sans elevation — and just like he always does, the gifted trumpet player will wow everyone within earshot.
The crowd, made up of the usual Tuesday night bar patrons alongside a cluster of savvy tourists, has shelled out just five dollars each to hear a slice of the good stuff, the pure jazz that this New Orleans native has to offer. They’ll get more than their money’s worth. And as a bonus, in about half an hour, Ruffins will unknowingly provide the soundtrack to a bona fide defining moment for 11 USD students, three Center for Community Service-Learning (CSL) leaders and two Religious of the Sacred Heart.
When that moment comes, it’s gray-haired, bespectacled Sister Mary Pat White who delivers it. The barely five-foot tall dynamo is getting her groove on, any trace of the doting grandmother she resembles overshadowed by her excitement. Even though virtually everyone in the crowd is taller — much taller — she is not about to miss a beat. She simply steps up onto a chair, now positioned so that she can see over everyone’s head while continuing to groove to the beat.
“Look at Sister Mary Pat!” someone shouts. The USD group obeys, turning, en masse, to watch the nun let loose. “Somebody needs to get a picture!”
But there’s no need; they will most definitely remember this moment. It’s Spring Break, and right here, right now, thousands of miles from USD, these students are committed to soaking up every last thing they see, feel, taste, hear and touch. They have immersed themselves completely, and the impact will surely resonate.
Without the aorta, the ventricles, the left and right atrium, human life isn’t possible. Each works closely together to comprise the nucleus of the human heart, the pump that provides for everything else.
And heart, in a very real sense, symbolizes the role that Community Service-Learning (CSL) provides at the University of San Diego. For 25 years, CSL’s heart has been beating strong, as personified by founder and inaugural director Judy Rauner to much beloved former director Elaine Elliott to current program head Chris Nayve.
“Judy always talked in the early days about true community needs,” Nayve recalls. “We’re part of the community, not us dictating what the issues are, but community having that voice.”
“Our intention is to really get the students out there and connected with the community in a real, meaningful way,” says CSL Associate Director John Loggins. “It’s about challenging them to be out of their normal comfort zone. It’s less about doing it for ‘those people’ but for ‘my friends.’”
Promoting social change and justice by partnering with communities is a big part of CSL’s mission. And the newest example of this is its relationship-building program in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
It started when Chris Nayve, CSL Assistant Director Brenna Hughes and USD student leaders Kelsey Johnson and Chase Tushaus traveled to New Orleans on an exploratory trip in the spring of 2009. Nayve and Hughes had been interested in helping USD develop a connection to the Big Easy in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. So, from afar, they developed a list of contacts, and decided to go for it.
They got lucky right out of the gate: “At the suggestion of (former Center for Christian Spirituality director) Sister Barbara Quinn, we visited Sister Mary Pat to see the Duchesne House,” recalls Hughes. The two-story house is owned and run by the Society of the Sacred Heart; four RSCJ nuns live there permanently, and open their doors as housing for high school and college student groups while they’re in New Orleans on service trips.
Duchesne House seemed a perfect home base for eventual USD student trips. Best of all, it set the wheels in motion for something greater.
“We were very curious about the neighborhood because it had such a positive vibe and energy to it,” Hughes says. “Our first stop was next door at the Community Book Center where we met Mama J. In one morning, Mary Pat and Mama J entered our lives and our hearts.”
Jennifer “Mama J” Turner runs the Community Book Center alongside owner Vera Warren-Williams. It’s a vibrant space that showcases local, black and African-centered books, art, fabric and gifts. But in truth, the center serves as an emotional hub for the Seventh Ward. And Mama J is at the center of this particular community wheel, offering quotes from Langston Hughes, stories that connect to the Bible, telling truth about what’s still not right post-Katrina, all while delivering big hugs to all comers.
“What’s missing are the families. If we can get the families back, we get the city back,” she says. “We need families so we can strengthen ourselves. Everyone, in a place of disaster, wants to hold on to each other and figure out how we keep going.“
Recalls Hughes about just this one block: “We left there with 100 percent certainty that we’d come across a very special neighborhood with beautiful people. We knew we’d be back many, many times.”
This year marked just the second CSL immersion trip to New Orleans by USD students and staffers. In March, for 11 students — Becca Lovano, Christopher Arcitio, Giovani Marsano, Jared Barris, Kayla Witt, Mallory Wilhelms, Meagan Larsen, Megan Wilhelms, Nicole Kathol, Sean McManus and Zina Zaia — Spring Break wasn’t about taking a vacation from education. It was about deepening it.
Eight were new to both New Orleans and the type of community service that would be useful in a city that, while brimming with tremendously rich culture, remains at a crossroads.
The email that initially caught Barris’ eye had a most enticing subject line: “Free trip to New Orleans.” It had been forwarded to him from a co-worker at USD’s Student Support Services. “I thought, ‘No way. Is this for real?’”
As Barris continued to read the message, which had been sent by CSL’s Hughes, he became even more intrigued. Hughes was soliciting students to take part in the organization’s second Spring Break foray to New Orleans. They would enroll in a one-unit fall preparatory class, conduct fundraising to offset some expenses, and, most important to Barris, the trip would provide both a service and immersion component.
“That’s what sealed the deal for me,” recalls the 21-year-old junior marketing major. “I’d done a lot of service stuff in high school and worked with Crossing Borders where we went down to Tijuana and helped build homes for families.” But he also admits to having an ulterior motive: “The reason to do service work, to me, is that you can’t know where you’re going until you help other people out. It’s part of the process of learning about yourself.”
Although Kathol had also been a community service dynamo in high school, it took a trip to Los Angeles’ Skid Row for her to get her first taste of real poverty. “It was ‘Wow!’ Yeah, there are problems in my life and in the local community, but this is the world. This is the big picture Jesus talks about when building the Kingdom.”
The fun factor is what initially interested junior political science and sociology double major Arcitio to sign up for the New Orleans Spring Break trip. “I remember my freshman year, I stayed home and that was, frankly, pretty boring. My sophomore year I went to San Francisco and that was more fun. This year it was double the fun. I liked that I’d get to do community service and I’d get to travel.”
Barris, Kathol, Arcito, Witt, along with fellow students Marsano, Zaia, McManus and Larsen, were the newbies of the group. Three students, Lovano and the Wilhelms sisters, were on the 2010 trip and returned this year in a student leadership capacity. Everyone attended the fall class, Leadership for Social Change, which was taught by Nayve and Hughes.
The class emphasized leadership concepts that would prove useful during the trip, but also offered up ample information about the city through film, readings and guest lectures. Participants also sought a deeper understanding of underlying inequities by attending CSL’s annual Social Issues Conference.
“What really attracted me to the service trip was the class component,” says Witt, a senior communications major. “I appreciated that the CSL staff gave us prior knowledge of the city so we could understand it better. And, because the CSL staff was leading both the class and the trip, I knew they’d prepare us mentally for the week and would help us continue to grow in New Orleans.”
Lovano says the class brought the meaning of the trip and the students closer, many of whom didn’t know each other prior to it. “Traveling with a new group of students helped us deepen our understanding of the meaning of service. And the leadership course allowed us to strengthen our group dynamic and build personal relationships.”
While the class did a good job of laying the groundwork and managing expectations, nothing, of course, compares to getting up-close and personal. Upon arrival, the group hit the ground running.
After getting acclimated to their new surroundings, shopping for groceries, and, of course, spending a little time wandering the French Quarter, the group’s itinerary got serious. They attended Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church, a predominantly black church, toured the lower Ninth Ward and met with local resident Robert Green — whose harrowing story of Katrina-related devastation has been featured in major media such as CNN.com — and even participated in a Second Line parade, a celebration that includes a brass band and hundreds of people marching and dancing through neighborhood streets. And that was just the first 48 hours.
At a small yellow house in the Seventh Ward on Urquhart Street — the New Orleans headquarters for an international organization dedicated to ending poverty called the Fourth World Movement (FWM) — USD students got creative and got inspired.
But mostly, they got to work.
Building a brightly painted wheeled box — used for transporting books to a weekly street library the organization hosts for children — was the job facing Barris, Kathol, Witt and Marsano. But beyond constructing the box and painting it with Dr. Seuss characters, the workers seized the chance to build camaraderie, make connections with FWM volunteers and community members, learn a new skill and leave behind a physical reminder of their trip.
Full-time FWM volunteer Maria Sandvik told the students there were three major needs: the book box, creating painting easels and display easels for finished paintings, and a beautification project involving pulling weeds and planting a vegetable garden.
That was all the motivation and instruction the students needed. They split up into teams and everyone pitched in with minimal fuss.
“I was impressed with the energy, excitement and go-get-it attitude they showed,” marveled Sandvik. “They came ready to work on whatever we proposed and did so with genuine excitement. I was also impressed by their ability to work together and organize themselves in a way that people worked on things that interested them and no one was left with nothing to do.”
“I don’t know how we all decided on breaking into teams, but I knew right away I wanted to do the book box,” Barris recalls. “My grandpa builds cars and I feel I never got that experience of building things. I told myself, ‘I want to take this on, I want to build something.’”
Barris said the experience of working on his project with others also took him out of his comfort zone. “Personalities can be challenged when you have to work together. This trip challenged me to trust other people. It was so awesome.”
“Kayla and I got to spend our time painting the book box and, in the process, got to know Danny and Chelsie who were helping us paint,” Kathol says. “We talked with them all day long. We learned about their lives and struggles. We were able to connect really deeply, really quickly. It made me really feel connected to New Orleans.”
Afternoons were spent mentoring children one-on-one and in small groups at the Freedom School. Housed in a large building split into three spaces — the schoolroom, a reception/kitchen area and offices — on North Broad Street, the Freedom School empowers children, parents and entire communities.
In New Orleans, the school works with some of the youngest Hurricane Katrina survivors, those who were infants or too young to comprehend what happened in 2005. The after-school program mainly caters to boys and girls ages 5-11; trained interns tutor the kids, help them with homework and reading and instill self-esteem through an uplifting music and dance program.
After putting in an afternoon’s work with the kids and getting together for dinner in the Duchesne House each evening, students and leaders and staffers would gather as a group, alongside the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and reflect together on what they’d seen, what they’d felt, what they’d done, what they’d learned. The specifics of what happened each evening behind the closed door of the reflection room — a bright, high-ceilinged space that radiated calm and restoration — were not just emotional and moving, but extremely private.
Bonds were definitely being forged. “I could share my quirks and just be myself,” Kathol recalls. She taught the group how to “hand hug,” pressing one hand against another person’s opposite hand and having their thumbs grip, or “hug,” the other’s hand. “By the end of the week, everyone was doing it,” she says. “One night when I said grace before dinner, we were all holding hands in a circle. After I finished, Sister Mary Pat looked over and air hand-hugged me from across the room.”
On Thursday morning, Mardi Gras Indian David Montana, who lives just around the corner from the Duchesne House in one half of a modest double shotgun-style house, threw open his door and welcomed the throng of young people into his living room.
“I was born in Treme,” he tells them. “This is one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America. New Orleans was where they held the slaves. They kept them in cells, guarded them like currency.” The students looked shaken, even a little sick. “Hey, it’s sad, but that’s the way the world is,” Montana says.
The house is a riot of color, filled with feathers and beads and headdresses and scepters and more feathers and carefully displayed, elaborate costumes leaning against the walls. Montana wears them with pride during New Orleans’ ubiquitous parades and special events.
Once their eyes adjust to the kaleidoscopic explosion, he gives the students a mini-lesson on Mardi Gras history, specifically on the fact that not that long ago, black people were not welcome to participate.
“The cops said, ‘We don’t want you here in the French Quarter,’” he says, matter-of-fact. “They didn’t accept our costumes at first because they came from black people. But now, finally in 2011, we are just getting on the map.” He talks of the generations before him and those that will follow, tells stories of his father, his uncle, relates how he names each suit (one is called “Hypnotic Exclamations”), and with great ceremony, he gives each student a long pink feather. They accept the token with serious reverence.
Then he talks about Katrina.
“After the storm, I didn’t hear a child’s voice for a year,” he says, then launches into his poem, “Change of Heart Man,” a rhyme that celebrates all those who cared about the people left behind after the storm.
“God bless all you people that I didn’t know, that held out your hands and hearts so. Thank you, thank you, thank you again.” His eyes well up, and he’s not the only one moved to tears. “That poem was written for people like y’all,” he says. “I hope there will always be a place in New Orleans for people who want to help. Especially when I see so many people just sitting on their butts doing nothing.”
All of the connected strands came together on the last full day before students returned to San Diego. Together with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the group hosted a block party in the Duchesne House’s long driveway.
Loggins took charge of the grill for hours and couldn’t wipe the smile off his face while he cooked up dozens of hamburgers, heaps of hot dogs and mountains of chicken. Picnic tables groaned under their burden of macaroni and cheese, Sister Mary Pat’s potato salad, baked beans, and Mama J’s red beans and rice.
While reggae grooves competed with the high-pitched noise of excited children, Hughes pondered how best to sum up what everyone involved with the CSL project is trying to accomplish. It’s about inspiration and evolution; it’s about a deepening sense of connection between the USD community and at least some of the people of New Orleans’ Seventh Ward.
“The program wasn’t an instant response to Hurricane Katrina,” she points out. “We really took our time, knowing that when we did go we wanted to be very intentional. It’s not about just going there to do service for a week and come back. It’s about building a partnership, a kinship with the city. To start it with two student leaders and grow it the way we’ve been able to do it is extremely rewarding. It’s creative, it’s present and it’s very much alive.”
Someone cranked up the boom box so that Bob Marley could be heard urging listeners not to worry about a thing. Sister Mary Pat was deep in conversation with Pastor George Green, Jr., who wanted to share news that he’d gotten the go-ahead to start holding Sunday services at the vacant church next door. As the sun started to disappear into dusk’s shadows, the music played on.
And as for the students? They were exhausted, they were exhilarated and, most of all, they were changed. A change that began right there, right then.
~ Photography by Will Crocker