Students making a difference - Real
When Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, it hit hard. Within two days, 80 percent of the city was flooded. Levees broke, water flooded neighborhoods and districts, and residents fled in every direction in an attempt to escape with their lives. Many left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. And when the floodwaters receded and refugees began to return to their homes, few could recognize in the devastation before them what used to be one of the most beautiful cities of the South.
The Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ, which has stood in the Mid-City district since the late 1930s, was struck particularly hard. The storm stripped the building to the studs and caused extensive water damage, heightened by the month-long delay before members could start reconstructive work. Worse yet was the damage done to the congregation itself. Members were evacuated to various states, the congregation dwindled to less than half its original size, and for a brief moment it seemed that the light at Carrollton Avenue was going to be snuffed out.
Hurricane devastation hits home
ACU students witnessed both sides of Katrina.
"Everything was chaotic; our members were scattered all over the place," said Shannon Williamson, an ACU graduate student who grew up in New Orleans and attended Carrollton Avenue for most of her life. "But Carrollton has a really strong faith that God has a purpose for them."
That faith would carry members through nearly four years of reconstructive work and community outreach. And they would not be alone in those efforts. More than 500 miles away in the city of Abilene, Texas, a congregation was preparing a mission effort to help its brothers and sisters in New Orleans.
Vann Conwell, connecting minister at the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene, had a long-standing relationship with Carrollton Avenue. When Katrina hit and he learned of the devastation of the city, he went to the elders at Southern Hills and asked them to establish a partnering relationship with Carrollton Avenue. They agreed to a minimum two-year commitment as well as special contributions.
Vann didn’t stop at funds and commitments, however. During the fall break of 2005, he took 60 ACU students to New Orleans to help with the physical labor involved in cleaning up the storm’s aftermath. The group members were shocked at the sight that greeted them as they entered.
"We were basically right on the heels of the storm," Vann said, and "just overwhelmed by the devastation of the city."
During that first trip, volunteers did backbreaking manual labor "from daybreak to dark," Vann says. Working alongside homeowners, they gutted houses, carted out personal belongings and helped owners sort through the things they wanted to keep and those that would have to be trashed. Vann says that some of his favorite memories are of standing next to people who had lost everything they owned in the world, and yet gave expressions of faith and confidence in God despite their situation.
"They moved out in tremendous faith," he said.
Crisis all too real for ACU grad student
Shannon Williamson's family was among those whose homes was damaged by the storm. On that first campaign, she worked alongside other ACU volunteers as her family's possessions were carted of their house and dumped outside. The emotional atmosphere was intense, she says.
"Everyone was totally shocked at the damage," she said. However, her father was deeply touched by the caring exhibited by the ACU volunteers. "[He was] very honored that all these ACU kids were carrying the wheelbarrows out to him and helping him find the things he wanted to save."
During the second campaign, volunteers were still involved in mainly physical labor. They worked through "the heat, the dust, the grime and the smells," Vann says, despite the fact that housing was limited and many had to live outside the city for the duration of the week. Throughout the ordeal, he was continuously impressed with the "heart and spirit" of the ACU students.
"It seemed that anything we could do was an encouragement," he said.
By the third campaign, Carrollton Avenue had begun to reach out to the community again. In a great leap of faith, the congregation chose to focus less on reconstruction efforts and more on ministry to the surrounding neighborhoods. At this point, many churches in New Orleans had simply ceased to exist, and Carrollton Avenue stood as a symbol of Christians who cared about a still-struggling city.
"[They were] a lighthouse for Jesus," Vann said. "It continues to make me smile at the power of God and expression of faith at that church."
Shannon Williamson agrees, noting that the church chose to reach out at a time when logically it should have focused on more internal affairs.
"They stepped out on a limb and said, 'God is going to do something really big in New Orleans,' " she said.
In that spirit, Carrollton Avenue planted a church in the Hollygrove area, a neighborhood known for high crime rates and low average income. At the same time, the church began to revive its children's ministry program, called Kids' City. The program, which consists of tutoring, parties on holidays and a summer camp, ministered to about 30 children before the storm. Now the numbers are up to about 45.
Blessings through outreach
Shannon, who has worked with Kids' City since her freshman year at ACU, feels blessed to be part of this outreach. She's still impressed that the church has done so much with the community despite the extent of the hurricane damage.
"It's amazing that one church has really reached out to people," she said. "God is working so much in them."
So when ACU's spring break campaign to New Orleans arrived in April 2009, the groundwork for change had already been laid. The most recent campaigners were greeted with a host of tasks that needed to be done.
First on the list was putting new ceiling tiles in the church building. Students also scraped and mopped floors, helped homeowners gut and remodel damaged buildings and did further reconstructive work. Kirk Garrison, one of the two ministers at Carrollton Avenue, succinctly summarized the physical labor involved.
"They've put stuff in, torn stuff out," he said. "When somebody shows up, something gets done."
Efforts didn't stop at reconstruction, however. Community outreach took priority as the congregation prepared for a huge neighborhood block party/fish fry. Students took flyers around the neighborhood and spoke to residents about the new church at Hollygrove and the upcoming celebration. Shannon Williamson noted the enthusiasm on residents' faces as they heard of the night in store.
"I think it got the neighborhood excited to see that the church was here," she said.
On the night of the party, coordinators roped off a city block, got out the vegetable oil and propane burners, and started frying fish. Nearly 300 people showed up for an evening of food, music, fun and common ground.
George Pendergrass, ACU's director of multicultural enrichment and a former member of the gospel group Acapella, brought his guitar and flew down to join the festivities. He found the entire event incredible.
"I hadn't seen something like that since I was back in New York," he said. "I brought my guitar - sang some popular songs. It was a night to behold."
The crowd enjoying fish and gospel was diverse. It ranged from members of Carrollton Avenue to neighborhood residents to ACU students, all enjoying the "possibility of God in that moment," Vann Conwell says.
"That was church," he said. "If you tuned your ears, you could hear angels singing."
Block party touches community
Shannon Williamson saw parallels between the party on a New Orleans city block and a similar meal nearly 2000 years ago.
"It reminded me of the story of the feeding of the 5,000," she said. Carrollton Avenue was choosing to feed others even though it had few resources of its own.
Dan Grenier, an ACU student who went on the 2009 campaign, felt much the same way about the bonding experience at the block party.
"It was really cool to see the tight-knit community around the church," he said. "The people were so passionate. It was amazing."
Dan helped other campaigners put in ceiling tiles, work at the block party and volunteer at a homeless shelter in the inner city. He wished he could have joined other students who helped tutor students at a local school, but didn't have time to do everything he wanted to.
Though the trip was full of opportunities for service, ACU students got to have a little fun as well. Dan was part of a group that took a transit ride to the French Quarter on the last day of the trip; he describes it as "beautiful." One of his favorite memories is of walking back from an ice parlor one evening and starting a devotional song with his friends as they went down the street. He says they got a few strange looks, but kept singing anyway - they "just didn't care."
Shannon Williamson remembers fun moments too, including eating beignets and dinners in New Orleans' well-known restaurants. She also recalls a devotional out by the lake and learning a street dance from a little boy she helped tutor. But through both the work and the fun, one mission was clear for all the students involved in ACU's 2009 campaign.
Vann Conwell sums it up best when he looks back at the campaign's original message four years ago. He says that the point was to say to the congregation of Carrollton Avenue - and the people of New Orleans - "We are beside you. We are here for you."
According to Kirk Garrison, the effort hasn't gone unnoticed. "[They were] amazingly wonderful hard workers," he said. "We're celebrating every step."
Vann Conwell agrees, noting the ACU volunteers' work ethic and willingness to serve.
"They have been incredibly amazing," he said.
There's much more ahead for the city of New Orleans and the church at Carrollton Avenue. The church wants to continue its outreach into the community, working with the new church planted in Hollygrove and continuing its ministry to New Orleans' kids. As it transitions out of rehabilitative mode, Carrollton Avenue wants to plant another church in the downtown area of the city, one that is geared toward the young people who are currently flocking to New Orleans in search of job opportunities. The church isn't worried about its still-damaged building - it's looking for new opportunities to reach out for God.
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