NEW ORLEANS —
Joan Bundy still believes in her hometown.
Talk about a glass half-full. This lifelong New Orleans resident thinks that Louisiana city can overcome its desperate reputation and the stubborn hopelessness caused by the Hurricane Katrina flooding.
“I personally believe God is going to work a revival in this city,” Bundy said with a confident smile, standing on the sidewalk in front of her home on Tonti Street in the 8th Ward. She was talking with members of Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute. The church group came to New Orleans in late April as volunteers for Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational Christian disaster relief organization rebuilding homes still damaged by the 2005 hurricane.
The determination of faith groups to help revive New Orleans is significant in Bundy’s view.
The Mississippi River town’s rich, diverse culture of food, music and architecture drew tourists worldwide for decades. Its wild, seamier side, though, attracted plenty of attention (and visitors), too, often overshadowing its other attributes. The world would go there to party in the French Quarter, rarely getting a glimpse of the life and neighborhoods of the people who serve the jambalaya, drive the cabs and work the desk at the hotels.
Katrina put all of that in peril and gave much of America a first look at real, everyday life in one of the nation’s most historic places.
The city is still rebuilding in places. Some blocks remain abandoned. In others, recovery has begun. The Lower 9th Ward, hardest hit by the levee breaks, now features unusual, eye-catching new homes commonly known as “Brad Pitt houses.” The actor helped organize a group of housing firms and experts to create low-cost, environmentally sound homes in a community nearly wiped out by the disaster.
Its reputation is still in the reconstruction phase, too.
The presence and success of long-term, faith-based rebuilding efforts by Samaritan’s Purse, the Mennonites, the Southern Baptists, Habitat for Humanity and others could leave a lasting impression, said Bundy, whose home was renovated by Samaritan’s Purse after her contractor left town before finishing the job. A new reputation for New Orleans is possible.
“The city where people came to party is where people are going to come to pray,” Bundy said.
It’s actually not a far-fetched possibility. “People here are much more open to prayer,” said Richard Brown, program director for Samaritan’s Purse in New Orleans. “You stop people on the street and say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ and they’ll say, ‘Sure.’ And nine times out of 10, they’ll even pray for us.”
Still, reputations can be tricky. Good ones, as the saying goes, take years to build and an instant to wreck. Bad ones are much harder to shed.
New Orleans’ post-Katrina image is rough. The murder rate leads the nation. According to the FBI, there were 179 homicides in 2008, which translates to 55 per 100,000 residents, or 64 per 100,000, depending on whose population statistics you use. Last year, 174 murders were committed there, according to the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
Last month, an analysis by a group of news media outlets including CNN and Forbes tagged New Orleans as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world, alongside Baghdad, Beirut and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed, the violent crime rate and the city’s ability to contain it continues to be a problem in 2010. During their one-week mission, the Maryland church volunteers heard about the shooting of a nephew of a Samaritan’s Purse house homeowner, and the discovery of another apparent homicide victim’s body nearby. A week later, New Orleans’ new mayor asked the U.S. Justice Department to help restructure the troubled police department.
The “mean streets” label hurts people such as Bundy, who care about their hometown, who worked and raised families there and chose to stay after the deadly, costly hurricane. She was impressed that the group of Maryland church members walked five blocks from the Samaritan’s Purse home base — the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church — one evening to visit homeowners whose houses had been completed by SP. They stayed talking past nightfall, then walked back to the church.
The following night, Bundy and neighbor Helen Vigne spoke to the full group of nearly 40 volunteers, thanking them for working in New Orleans. Bundy specifically mentioned the Maryland group’s walk to and from her street the previous night. New Orleans’ bad reputation hadn’t harmed them.
“You’re here tonight, aren’t you?” Bundy said, grinning.
Displays of faith are important right now in her city.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.