The former Arizona Diamondback minor league pitcher sat before us, tense with the muscles he now uses to work construction instead of throwing baseballs. In a small side-sanctuary of the mega-methodist church with 4500 members, Alex Byo told us the tale of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
You may remember some of the key points from the news.
In July of 2016, a black man named Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer. Riots began then a block from the church on Government Street. Byo said he had never seen racial tensions so high in his home city where the geographic divide between black and white is marked on Florida Street, a block away from where we sat.
Weeks later, a sniper came to Baton Rouge from Missouri, perhaps to avenge Sterling’s death, and shot 7 police officers. Three died, and three were hospitalized. One is still in the hospital today.
A First Church youth told us later that, for that month of July 2016, she felt like people were either on the side of the black community or the side of the police officers with no grey areas or places in between.
And then, after the human strife, nature stepped into the mix.
A tropical storm hit on August 11th and sat over Baton Rouge, unable to move because of the pressure systems. In three days, the storm dumped trillions of gallons of water–one church businessman who served us dinner said it was enough to fill the enormous Lake Pontchartrain four times. Three times the amount from Hurricane Katrina fell from the sky. Over 160,000 homes were destroyed, many of them without flood insurance because this was either a 500-year or a 1000-year storm. (I heard two different versions.)
I do not remember hearing about the storm last year. But I sure saw it’s effects on our trip.
People’s homes flooded up to the bottom of the four foot sheetrock we replaced. (In some places, the water level was double this.) A year later, piles of debris from inside stood outside the houses. Everything below the water line had to be torn out and thrown out. On the last day, I worked with the youth to fill a trailer with one pile as we finished up a place where hundreds of volunteers had worked for the past year.
First United Methodist Church started project Revive 225 two years before the nameless storm of last August. But it wasn’t until the flood that the large and almost exclusively white downtown church partnered with Hope United Methodist in North Baton Rouge. The flooding had virtually decimated the small church with a dwindling membership of almost all black people from the neighborhood.
My son and the team he worked with spent days in Hope church, sanding the mud and tape of new sheetrock, installing sinks, and (in his words) ‘painting and painting and painting.’
Meanwhile, my team worked on four different houses blocks away from the church and then miles away in the town of Zachary where the flooding began as those rivers ran backwards from rains.
Not one person said that the floods were a blessing. But I did hear over and over again from Pastor Louis of Hope, from Pastor Witton of First Church, and from members of both churches that the floods pulled everyone together in those weeks after the racial pain and violence.
After Byo told us the story on our first night, many others told us the same. The youth of First Church, the church groups who fed us dinner, and Hope church members who cooked us fried catfish told us what it was like to live through the anger and the tensions.. Each time I heard the story, a new detail would come out, and I felt the pain of the person telling his or her tale. The grief is still fresh–from the shootings and the flood.
Listening sometimes seemed like the most important part of our mission.
Puyallup United Methodist was the last group of the year for Revive 225 and, coming from the Seattle area, we had traveled the farthest. Byo ended with us last Friday night by emphasizing that our piece of the puzzle mattered just as all the other pieces had mattered when group after group came from all over to help.
No one is naive enough to think that the racial divide has been crossed anymore than we think the rains will end. New Orleans flooded again the night we left Louisiana. Florida Street still marks a line between people. I saw looks of distrust at Walmart and heard hurtful words in homes.
Nor do I believe that Baton Rouge has the only problems with natural disasters and interpersonal strife. I’ve seen too much of the same behaviors, racal divisions, and painful discussions in my own community to believe that. The churches here are often just as monochromatic.
In a moment of despair, I once turned to a friend who comes from the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes. I told her I didn’t know how to fix things. She looked at me with soft eyes and said, “I don’t think anyone does.”
But I do know when we try it matters. Loving each other always matters. It matters to the people with no flood insurance. It matters to those of us lucky enough to learn about a far away place. It matters when we bring back a new resolve to ask the hard emotional questions and even sweat as much as needed to make a change.
And you can trust me when I say that magical green place called Louisiana taught me how to sweat.