When over 180,000 homes were flooded in New Orleans in 2005, open-hearted volunteers came by the tens of thousands. Among the first were the Presbyterians. Because of our offerings to One Great Hour of Sharing, the church was ready to respond with immediate relief supplies and personnel. When people began calling and asking, “How can I help?” Presbyterians were able to organize quickly to meet the needs of an army of volunteers. The churches of the Presbytery of South Louisiana opened their doors to provide a hot meal, a shower and a safe (if not always comfortable) place to sleep for those who gave their time to clear away debris, provide a listening ear and share a prayer with New Orleans.
Project Homecoming, Inc. (PHI) was established by the Presbytery of South Louisiana to channel energy, money and volunteers to the neighborhoods where they were needed most. The city is deeply grateful to these church groups and generous individuals who gave so freely of their time and resources. For many, especially low-income, elderly and physically challenged residents, the assistance of volunteers made the crucial difference in being able to rebuild.
Since 2006, PHI has hosted over 10,000 volunteers and rebuilt more than 200 houses. The work is far from done: almost 30,000 homes are still either blighted buildings or vacant lots. Right after the storm, everyone said that this was going to be a very long recovery process, but very few people anticipated just how long it was really going to be.
Over the years, PHI has grown in its vision, capabilities and outreach. The organizational health it enjoys today is the result of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance funding, early long-term planning, strong agency backing, flexibility, fast learning and organization. In response to the changing needs of long-term rebuilding, the organization’s focus has expanded. While PHI continues to build houses for people affected by Hurricane Katrina as a primary activity, they have also realized that the city’s recovery depends upon its ability to build communities, not just houses. Consequently, their focus is on rebuilding resilient neighborhoods.
Volunteers remain the backbone of Project Homecoming’s existence. Since 2006 PHI has hosted over 10,000 workers, most of them mission groups from churches. The experience usually lasts a week. People sleep on the bunk beds at the Volunteer Village and cook their own meals. Working on a house is the main agenda, but it wouldn’t be New Orleans without good food, lots of music and a night or two on the town. People have fun here, and that’s a reinforcing reason why so many groups keep coming back two, three, four years or more. The busiest time of the year is spring break, with college groups in from all over the country.
In 2011, PHI began a Summer Youth Mission Program for middle and high-school church youth groups. Up to 90 teenagers at a time come to explore their faith in the context of rebuilding the neighborhoods and communities of New Orleans. Hard work, daily devotions, Bible reading and community living help young adults to put what they believe into practice. Life overcoming death is all around us. Being a part of this rebirth strengthens faith in the God who leads us from death and despair into life and rejoicing.
Project Homecoming is committed to building faith: faith in the people of New Orleans, faith in the future of the city, faith in the wider community of volunteers and supporters, and most important, faith in the God who creates gardens out of deserts, homes in the wilderness and a new world out of chaos. In this context, faith is contagious and life-changing.
Volunteer Alex Dacey says of her experience:
“I’ve seen more faith in these homeowners down here than I have anywhere that I have ever gone. It’s really crazy to me to see the amount of damage that can be done in somebody’s life, but they’re still so faithful, and they’re still such an amazing example of optimism and what God’s love would be. I think that faith shows up in many ways and in many different people. I went to a Christian school, and it’s totally different to live it here and see it than just by going to church. With the homeowners, I’ve seen that more than I have in any church that I’ve gone to. It’s amazing.”
MARTHA ROBSON is a resident of the City of New Orleans, a member-at-large of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and a member of the Board of Directors of Project Homecoming, Inc. She compiled this article from sources provided by Project Homecoming, Inc.