Easter is a joyous holiday. This year’s early spring brought forth an exquisite Easter fireworks display of trees adorned with vividly colorful blossoms. Holidays like Easter are typically times for family gatherings, traditions, and rituals. Sometimes though, it is the holidays away from home that make lasting impressions. One Easter away from family, friends, and familiar celebrations in particular was very meaningful for me. During Easter Break in 2006, seven months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, students in the Honors Program and I traveled to Slidell, Louisiana to work for Habitat for Humanity. Witnessing the devastation firsthand was an experience that media coverage just cannot reproduce. We saw, smelled, and felt the reality of entire neighborhoods demolished – each with hundreds of flooded homes that had everything once inside the houses, including furniture, carpeting and drywall, still piled in front lawns awaiting clean-up and repair. The bent over trees and broken structures showing the direction of the strongest winds and power of the storm surge testified to the incredible forces that nature can exert.
We stayed in a Methodist Church Center, which had been converted from a multipurpose auditorium into a temporary home for volunteers from around the country who came for a week or two at a time to rebuild Slidell. This church provided food and shelter for dozens of workers and the church members were building another barracks for dozens more that would come over the upcoming summer. At the rallying point for Habitat for Humanity we met people from all fifty states. One particular group consisted of all the employees from an Indiana lumber company who collectively took two weeks of vacation from their regular jobs to volunteer their skilled labor to the rebuilding effort. The first evening in Slidell, after a long day of clearing ground and digging trenches in preparation for pouring the foundation of three homes, we sat down to eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There a local couple stopped by our table and asked where we came from and what we were doing. They thanked us for our work and quietly paid for our dinner.
On Holy Saturday a local man, Daryl, joined us at the job site where we had been working that week. Through the conversations during the day we learned that he lost his home to the hurricane and that he, his wife and young child were living in a trailer provided by the federal government. Daryl and his family evacuated before Katrina hit and lived with family north of Louisiana for a while, but decided to return to the region and to his job with the Social Security Administration where he spent his weekdays. Every Saturday, Daryl volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. His positive attitude and determination to rebuild the city that he called home was an inspiration. He told us that while the storm took most of his family’s material possessions it left him with an appreciation for the truly important things in life including the importance of helping others in need.
On our last day in Slidell, Easter Sunday morning, we were awakened by the hymns of our hosts’ Easter service held at sunrise in the Church parking lot. As the sun rose above the trees we heard a choir of Slidell’s citizens singing praise and thanksgiving. Before we left Louisiana to begin the 20-hour drive to return to Saint Vincent we attended Easter mass at the landmark Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans – the backdrop for so many sports reporters at this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. This Easter, with the fresh images from the Final Four weekend in New Orleans in mind, I remembered clearly that jammed-packed Easter morning mass that year. We heard the most heartfelt homily on the gift of resurrection delivered to a congregation who were in the process of bringing their lives, a city, and a region back from the brink of total devastation. Clearly the positive attitude, dedicated efforts, and perseverance of thousands of residents like Daryl, with the support and prayers of millions more from around the country, have succeeded in bringing the city and region back. Even the 2010 BP oil spill has not prevented New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast from rebuilding, giving testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Truly 2006 was an Easter that I will always remember for what it taught me about the devastating power of nature and God’s more powerful gift of the strength of human determination and the call to serve others.
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.