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Read more of Kim Lawton’s March 20, 2007 interview in New Orleans with the Rev. Lance Eden of First Street United Methodist Church:
Q: Nineteen months after Katrina, how is your congregation doing? What has changed since we were here a year ago? What hasn’t changed?
A: I think for a lot of my members what has not changed is still the response of our government and the funding they need to get back into their homes, the insurance and all of those things has not been a good response, and I think they’re still wading through the bureaucracy of that a year later. Things that have changed within the congregation is I do believe that persons’ faith is stronger, persons’ love for the Lord and being in the church has increased, and I think particularly here at First Street, because of the work that we’re doing with the volunteers, the members get a chance to see that they’re giving to something positive and something that’s making a difference.
Q: Have a lot of your people come back? Are there still a lot of people who haven’t come back?
A: There are still a lot of people that haven’t come back. A lot of my members are not able to be back. Some of my members have been in Baton Rouge, which is some 60 to 90 miles away, and they are not able to be here weekly or every Sunday. I have a lot of my members that have lost loved ones, and they are not here anymore because they’ve had to switch, because that’s who they were living with. We have members that just could not stand to be in a FEMA trailer any longer and had to move to relatives and friends in other places, so a lot of the members are not back, but we’ve added onto our numbers with persons that are here in the city.
Q: Tell me about that. How many people did you have before? How many do you have now, and where are they coming from?
A: Before the storm we had approximately about 75 persons worshipping. I remember one Sunday we got over 100 and we were excited, and we did 100 for a little while. Then the storm came, and since the storm we’ve been worshipping at about 270, 275 a Sunday. And so that’s been a blessing, with two services, and then we have the other churches that are with us. We have seven other churches that worship with us during various times of the week, and other pastors that tend to their needs, so it’s been a lot of change and transition here.
Q: Your congregation has almost tripled?
A: Yes, it has.
Q: And is that from the other churches that have closed in the area?
A: Some because of that, but we’ve had a large influx of persons who are of other denominations, who are not United Methodist, who have become a part of our church and are looking for a church that’s really doing something. We’ve gotten a lot of members because the volunteers gutted their home and they will say, “I want to go and visit that church and thank the people,” and so that’s how we’ve received persons, in that way as well.
Q: Tell me about the volunteer effort. What’s happening with that? It seems like it’s still a steady business.
A: It is. It is a really steady business. We are working hard. This is March, and our volunteer organization Hands On New Orleans was supposed to be out of our facility in March to a new facility, which is a sister church to ours, and we’re still working on the preliminaries of making it happen. It is going to happen, but March was our year marker. And we’re just excited that they’ve been here a year, and they may be here till June, and that’s great. That’s great for us. The work is still needed, and it’s still happening, and wherever they go, they will continue the work. We’re just knowing that we’re growing out of our space here, and they’re growing out of their space, and they need more space to house volunteers, and we need more space to do ministry things here in the church, and so we’ll continue to be a partnership and work together.
Q: But that was always just supposed to be a temporary thing anyway, wasn’t it?
A: Yes, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. They needed an entry point into the city, and we needed an organization that was capable to do the volunteer work and helping persons recover in their homes in a very capable way.
Q: Before we talk about hope, let’s talk about realities. How frustrated are folks here? How difficult is day to day life?
A: It’s very difficult. You’re talking about 18 months later and people have not received the aid or the assistance that they need, and the longer that they have to sit in that situation the harder it is, I think, the more stress it is. You would think that it gets easier with time. That means that they still have not responded to my needs yet, so where in most cases, you know, things get easier in time, with this people are more irritable, less patient, including myself, when I need things done, and so you feel that amongst the members and the people. It’s a hard struggle every day. It’s a hard struggle, and especially for persons that live in front of their home, persons who had a job and lost their job because of the storm and are working at Wal-Mart, or working somewhere else and just trying to provide the needs for their family. It’s a lot to bear and to deal with.
Q: Do people feel kind of abandoned?
A: Oh, I wouldn’t even say kind of. A lot abandoned, a lot abandoned by their city government, a lot abandoned by our state government and by our national government, which is so amazing to me, considering we can respond so fast to tornadoes now that are happening, but we still have not appropriated the right funding and things to help persons regain their home and their life, livelihood in New Orleans. And so we’re still in that dire situation. I call this a Third World city in a very affluent nation, and that’s what it is, except for the Third World city, like the area in the Ninth Ward, people are walking around. You don’t see anybody in the Ninth Ward. And so that’s where we are, and I think it’s very frustrating. I think you’re going to get more and more a radical response, and more and more a strong, prophetic voice out of the persons here in New Orleans, those who are about making the changes that are needed.
Q: We hear a lot about crime, and I know that you’ve had a problem in this neighborhood.
A: The crime is very strenuous on the community, and we really have to have lockdowns within the church and amongst the volunteers because of the shootings, and having to spend $6000 a month on security, New Orleans police, between the church and our volunteer network is a real strain financially on the church and on the organization. And that even is with the chief of police providing one officer with 4 to 6 hours a day in this area. So it really has a major impact, but with making that sacrifice, and with the chief of police putting officers on the corner to make a difference in this neighborhood, it’s pushed the crime through to other neighborhoods and communities, but in this high crime area we’ve seen a better situation, a much better situation.
Q: As you are preparing for this Easter season, thinking about Good Friday, thinking during Lent and then again to Easter, what are some of the spiritual themes that have special significance this year? What do you tell your congregation about Good Friday? What do you tell them about Easter?
A: I don’t even know. Last year there was a hope. I think we were in such early stages that there was hope. The hope now, I think, is much different. I think that the hope now is that we’re going to have to do it ourselves, and we’re going to have to make it happen ourselves in the communities and the people. Our hope has always been rooted in the Lord, but hoping that our officials and our leaders would do the righteous thing, and it has not happened. I think this time we’ll be looking at a Jesus who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem but also turned the tables over in the temple, and the Jesus that stood on the cross, and it became dark, and the soldiers recognized and realized exactly who Jesus was, and looking at the power of being able to come up out of a grave through the help of the Lord and nobody else but the Lord our God in heaven. I think it is going to be that type of message. We’re going to have to be like Mary at the tomb and run tell the story. We can’t wait for anybody else to do it. We’re going to have to get into the highways and the byways and make it happen ourselves, and make the difference. I keep thinking about Dr. King, and I don’t know why I keep thinking about Dr. King for this Easter time, but I think about Dr. King because of the suffering that he went through and realizing that not everybody was for him, and not everybody supported what he was doing, and he had to suffer through that along with Jesus. Not everybody supported Jesus, but in the end, the ultimate end, the victory was gained. And now we’re here 40 years later and look at what the civil rights movement has gained us. So I think we’re in those dark stages, and I don’t think there’s going to be one prophetic voice, but I think there’s going to be many, and as the disciples went out and started the church, we’re going to have to go out as the twelve did and be the prophetic voice to the city. And so the hope is — it’s almost unexplainable. Matter of fact, I think I’ll be right at the point of Easter before I realize exactly what it is that needs to be said.
Q: A lot of times preachers talk about Good Friday and suffering, and then about Easter and hope. But there’s that Saturday in between when it seems like nothing is happening.
A: Nothing is happening. We feel still stuck in Saturday. As a matter of fact, here in the church the altar, the benches, everything is going to be draped in black on Good Friday, and Easter Sunday we will then replace it with the vestments and all of the beauty. But that Saturday, you’re just waiting and waiting and waiting, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any movement, anything happening — when will Sunday come? Last year I was able to preach hope, and I have hope, but it was with some restraint. It was with a question mark. And this year I can preach hope without that question mark, and I’ll tell you why I can preach it without the question mark. It’s because we’re not going to rely on waiting on anybody else. We’re going to pull up, and I’m going to encourage my people to pull up their bootstraps and make the difference and really do like Jesus did and go there and take it to the limit until we get some response, and if it means that we have to keep working, keep doing the service work, keep pressing to survive, we’ll do that here.
Q: How have you grown spiritually? You came here not long out of seminary, and you’ve had to deal with all of this. How have you grown over the last year?
A: Oh man, a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. Nobody can tell me anything about making sacrifice for the church. I live in my office, so I don’t want to hear it, and my patience is kind of, I guess, my patience is such that I don’t even want to, even when I talk to preachers, I don’t want to know about your lavish cars and homes that you have, the jet, I don’t want to hear, because to me unless you’re living in your office and really on the ground working, you’re not doing anything for me in terms of the work, and the more I look at Jesus, the more I see that type of Jesus that would sleep at someone’s house one night, the next night he was at someone else’s house, whoever would open their doors, and I think that we’re going to need to return back to that. Surely I pray that one day I’m in my house, and I can have the luxury of being there and relaxed, but in the meantime I know what it is to have grown in an environment where I was in the community working with the community and will be rooted in the community that I minister in and pastor in, and I don’t see that in a lot of churches. There are a lot of churches on this corridor in the central city area and neighborhood. If every church was doing something like housing volunteers it would expand, and we would circle each other and make a difference in the neighborhood. But we are one church right in this neighborhood that’s trying to do that, and so we’re missing that in the church. So [I am] growing leaps and bounds spiritually. As a pastor, [I am] learning how not to take the mess of church folk, and put my foot down. Being 28 years old, and some of them are twice my age, and say no, it’s not happening that way, that’s not what God has called us to do, and we will move in this way. And so I’ve been strengthened. I’ve been strengthened, and it’s made me a more effective pastor. And if I leave here this year or next year or wherever I go, I will take the gifts and the graces that I have. I said last night to my administrative council in a meeting, and they asked for me to write it down, that I told them I’ve gone through too much this year, even with having lost my grandmother and Katrina happening, to be in a church that doesn’t want to go anywhere. If you don’t want to go anywhere, don’t let me waste my talent and what God has gifted me with and what I’ve been through in ministry and even the theology that I teach. Let me start somewhere else afresh. But if you’re willing to go, I’ll go with you as far as you want to go, and I’ll pray that God gives me the vision to be the type of pastor that I need to be for the congregation. So trying to explain to them that we just can’t take things for granted anymore, and we can’t take life for granted, and it’s a difficult thing to try to not go back to those same patterns of just blasé life, but now we have to live in a different circumstance because of Katrina, because of what persons have gone through. We have to live life to the fullest and not take it for granted.
Q: Do you think about leaving? Do you think about going someplace else, and if you did, would you leave this area?
A: No, I don’t think about leaving. I’ve been offered to leave, when I first got here and after the storm and since I’ve been here. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been offered. But I refuse every time because I think this is the work that needs to happen, but if I find that what I’m doing is not effective, then it is time for me to go, and I feel that the Lord would lead me to know that my time has been well spent here and that it is time for me to move on. So no, I don’t think about leaving. I love this community, I love this neighborhood, I love the people, I love being on the street with the people and making a difference, so I plan to be here. And I thank God for allowing me to have the wherewithal to say, “Oh, we’re going to do this” when the members said, “Has he lost his mind putting bunk beds in the multipurpose building to house volunteers?” And now I think we all say we’re glad we did it, and it’s been worth it.
Q: Last year, when I asked you how you kept your spiritual strength up, you told me several things, but one of the things you told me was your grandmother helped you do that. She died last week. That’s a tough loss.
A: It’s a very tough loss. It’s indescribable, unexplainable, and a center to me that keeps me grounded. I’m grateful to still have a grandmother that’s living, but this grandmother was much different. She wasn’t just a grandmother, but she was a teacher, she was a counselor, a person I could tell anything, and I mean anything, to, and as a pastor you don’t have a lot of friends like that. But yet I feel that she gave me what I needed and that I have that now, so that gives me some resolve. My second best friend would be my mom, who is still here, and that makes me grateful for that. I would definitely, without words to say, miss my grandmother, and I was just thinking yesterday how often I would call her, like I would have been calling her three times today just telling her what’s going on and just realizing well, no, I can’t call. There’s going to be a definite transition in my life, and who becomes that root, that grounding? Definitely the Lord above, but on Earth who becomes that, that can fill that void? I don’t know yet, and I don’t know exactly how I’m dealing with it yet, but I do believe by the time I preach the eulogy, there will be some more resolve, because in that expression — I’m able to free myself up and express what needs to be said and go through the experience of not only being her grandson but taking and living out the philosophy that she lived. So that’s what my prayer is, to do that.
Q: Katrina was tough on her, wasn’t it?
A: It was. It was tough on her, and she handled it like it was nothing. I mean, years of what she had gathered along with my grandfather, worked so hard together — lost and gone. You know, being 28, I can lose things and I’ll start over. But for her — she just rose above it and just went with it, went with “we have life, we have each other,” and she kept saying those kinds of things and bringing us closer and closer. She [had] amazing strength and courage to do that. She didn’t give up. Even in her recent sickness and illness, the doctor said to her last breath she fought. And so that made us know that she wasn’t a person to just give up, but it was, even with going home, God was going to have to call her to come home. And she had a choice to make. And we saw that struggle that she had a choice to be here, to be there, my grandfather with his little, she called it a queer smile that he would have, probably was sitting in heaven and said “come over” and she was, that was the end of that, so she looked at us like “well, now wait a minute,” you know, and it’s kind of comical, because she would be thinking in that manner, that would be kind of her thought. Katrina really did give us a hard blow as a family, but we stuck together, we stuck together, and she stuck right with it, and she did not want to let Katrina get the best of her. She proved that it wouldn’t get the best of her.
Q: You grew up in her house. I know you want to fix it up. What’s the hold up?
A: The hold up has been really the response, like everybody else — SBA, FEMA. My grandmother didn’t receive anything from FEMA, not a penny, and what she did receive from the insurance we used to secure housing for her in the present time, so that’s been a type of situation. She recently, about four weeks ago, signed the house over to me, and of course I have to go through the process of succession and then pay off whatever the balance of the mortgage is on the house. She took out a second mortgage to help her children and her grandchildren, all of us, through school, because her father died while she was in her second semester of her first year, and he was trying to support her, and so she said, “Well, I have something that I could use,” and so all of us were well educated. It’s my desire to have the house and rebuild it, and the architects who loved my grandmother so much wanted her to see it, and they were just so hurt that she will not be able to see it on Earth. But she will see it. I think that she was just comfortable and happy to know that the house would still remain in the family. It’s my desire to live there and take it and rebuild it and redo it, yeah, and that day is the day I’ll fall on my knees and say wow, because that will be a day of victory, that we have done it. We have made it. We’re back in our house, and we’re home.
Q: Do you see small signs of resurrection, renewal and new life, even though there’s a lot frustration?
A: Every time I see a volunteer, especially when I’m traveling on a plane heading this way, every time a volunteer crosses our door or you see a charter bus of volunteers coming, I see the hope and the resurrection. I see a hope in humanity. So many of the volunteers I’ve encountered are not Christian believers. They don’t even believe that God has to call them to come and do this work. They believe that it’s something good to do, but as I always tell them we prayed that God would send somebody, and you answered. Now I don’t know what happened between our praying and your answering, but we thank you for answering the God that we prayed to. They normally want to ask more questions about that. We see hope there. Neighborhoods that are pulling together, people in the community who are from New Orleans who are pulling together to make a difference — we see a hope there. Persons who are fighting to save their neighborhood and their community from crime — we see hope there. The persons who are on the street every day trying to make a difference — there is some hope happening. I believe it’s going to have to come from the people, its going to come out of the people and out of the communities and out of the cry of the people, and so it’s happening. And when I see a person like Barack Obama running for president, I see hope.
Q: I’m sure you hear people saying New Orleans is never going to come back. It’s never going to be the way it was. Why should people put money into rebuilding something that maybe shouldn’t be rebuilt? How do you respond?
A: I don’t want to see New Orleans come back the way it was, because the New Orleans that was allowed a lot of injustices to slip through the cracks, and Katrina uncovered that. But I would like to see the culture, the joy of the people, the thing that made us New Orleans in terms of the food and the culture, and the people are so friendly, and everybody speaks to everybody. I’d like to see that part stay. But not to come back, rebuild? We’ll rebuild. It may be different, it may be unlike what was before, but we will rebuild — but prayerfully. We’ll rebuild and savor the best of our culture and do away with those things that put to shame what has happened here.
Q: Talk about the Shalom project you are starting with young people.
A: Shalom Zone is an organization that works with communities around making peace, especially dealing with crime after the riots in Los Angeles. [It] was formed by the United Methodist Church. Here we have a Shalom Zone, and the focus was grandparents raising their grandchildren. We switched that focus after Katrina to housing volunteers. We’re looking to add another component called the Shalom Youth Academy, a three-part program dealing with mentorship, college preparation, and community organizing for youth and young people, where we will partner them with a mentor who will be in the area or field of their interest, someone who has a story of “where I came from was not the best place, but look at what I’ve been able to do,” and so we’ll partner them with that person that can direct them in life and in their future. Also college prep — we’ll be working with different colleges here in the city of New Orleans, Dillard University in particular, to get them prepped [for] in the future. I feel that education is a way to the world. It was a way for me to get out of my community, and it’s been a way for many to get out of their community to experience new things, and so through that education part we will allow them to experience a world that they’ve never seen before. And the final part is the community organizing. We have a lot of youth challenge programs, we have a lot of juvenile boot camp programs, but none of those programs equip the young people to come back to their communities and change it and make a difference. So many times they get back to their community, and they are trying to fight to keep away from the temptations, and then sooner or later they fall back into the same thing, but in the community organizing part we hope to train our young people how to go back and be activists in their neighborhood and to not take anything lying down anymore and to speak out and speak out. Shalom has really been a major part of the work that we’re doing, and [we are] looking for grants and applying for grants for that work, and it’s loosely based on a program that’s called Youth Hope Builders Academy out of Atlanta. So we’re formulating that and continuing to work with that, and it is our prayer to build a home for young persons who are by themselves, who are orphans, who are supporting themselves, out of the city of New Orleans, to get them out of this environment, and maybe a place — a boarding house — where we can help to rear them and push them forward in the future, so that’s also in the works.
Q: Have you been getting enough support from other churches around the country?
A: We have been looking for a long time with Ambassador Andrew Young to get churches to partner with churches all across the United States, particularly churches in other areas to partner with churches here in New Orleans. And the response — there’s been great interest, but the response has not been as great as we want it to be, but it is building. We know that Ambassador Young and many others had some great success on the West Coast recently in getting churches to really respond, and what a benefit it would really be for a church like First Street to have 10 churches partnering with them and helping provide the needs. So much more we could do in ministry, so much more we could do for this community, this neighborhood. So we’re at prayer for that, that it will grow even more, and it will catch on.