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Archbishop of Canterbury gets a taste of New Orleans


Williams visits lower Ninth, preaches at jazz-backed Evening Prayer.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested September 20 during an ecumenical service at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center that New Orleans’s recovery could remake the city into God’s image of the holy city.

Noting the service’s reading from Zechariah 8:3-13, Williams said that the image of the holy city is not based on strength of a city’s arts community, business sector, educational offerings, or social-welfare programs.

“What makes a great, godly city is that it is a safe place for older people to sit and children to play in the streets,” he said, adding that few people live in that kind of city anywhere in the world today.

Earlier in the day, Williams visited the site of a former Walgreens drugstore in the lower Ninth Ward to bless what will become the new home of the Church of All Souls, founded in New Orleans’ lower Ninth after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood devastated the neighborhood. The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana helped to plant the church at the invitation of the neighborhood.

Williams said that, like the rainbow was a promise of God’s everlasting presence after the Flood, the All Souls effort is a sign that “God hasn’t gone away and God’s people haven’t gone away.”

Convention center service features hymns, jazz
The September 20 service, titled “Humanity -- Renewed, Restored and Re-Centered in God,” was sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. In addition to Williams, participants included Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori; Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins; Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III; Elder John Pierre, pastor of Living Witness Church of God in Christ; and Bishop J. Douglas Wiley of the Life Center Full Gospel Baptist Church.

Some 25,000 people were stranded at the convention center in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in late August 2005. They had no food or water. The people who died there were left unattended. Their plight outraged many Americans who watched the scenes on live television. It took National Guard troops, which arrived four days after the first people camped out at the center, to restore order and evacuate the complex.

Jenkins described the service’s leaders representing people “who in the past had little time for each other” but now have become partners in the city’s recovery.

The service, he said, was a “symbol of the good that can come from utter destruction.”

In June, Jefferts Schori asked the bishops to be in consultation with their dioceses about contributing to a purse for hurricane relief. Each donor diocese was asked to consider contributing $10,000, and during the service the bishops presented the gifts, which will be divided between the two dioceses of Louisiana and Mississipi.

Williams said the choices now facing New Orleans represent the time in every community’s life when it has to ask itself what its citizens owe one another.

“The bottom line is that what we owe to one another most deeply of all is gratitude -- not even respect, not even the recognition of dignity so much as gratitude,” he said. “We are indebted to one another. I am indebted to your existence because I would not be myself without you. A community -- a society -- that can get to that level of recognition is one that lives from a deeper place.”

When a community lives with this attitude, Williams said, it will value the young and the old who round out the life of the community, but who are “not part of the system of profit.”

One of the gifts of the old and the young is that they show us that the leisure of “enjoying who we are and who each other is in the presence of God is, all being well, what we should be spending eternity doing,” he said.

This sense of indebtedness and gratitude towards one another is exactly the attitude with which people ought to relate to Christ because of all he has given to the world, Williams said.

“We owe Christ big time, as they say,” Williams said.

The evening prayer service took a distinct New Orleanian flavor when jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the three other members of his quartet played a melody of songs typically used in the city’s signature jazz funeral processions. Members of the evening’s congregation danced along the hall’s aisles, waving handkerchiefs and orders of service as the four played and improvised around “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “When the Saint Go Marching In.”

As the jazz died away and Jenkins turned to Williams for the blessing, he said, “I told the archbishop that the only thing Elizabethan about this service tonight would be him.”

Williams visits lower Ninth Ward
The Ninth Ward is the largest of New Orleans’ 17 wards and runs along the easternmost downriver portion of the city. Located downriver from the Industrial Canal, the lower Ninth was known for its high level of homes owned by working-class African Americans. The lower Ninth received between four to 20 feet of floodwater following Katrina. Hurricane Rita’s storm surge flooded the lower Ninth again a month later.

Arriving after an all-day session with the House of Bishops at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown New Orleans, Williams visited one of two mobile respite care units that had made their routine stop in the parking lot of the former Walgreens. He also briefly toured the inside of the building before speaking to the members of All Souls and other neighborhood residents.

He blessed the congregation with holy water and incense, and he and Jenkins signed a large placard which proclaimed that blessing.

Williams said that the planting of All Souls showed that “when other people are running away, we as Christians ought not to run away; we ought to be there.”

He called the church plant “a new shoot of life in the body of Christ.”

“I want you to know that the Anglican church worldwide knows about you, cares about you, prays for you and we won’t leave you alone,” he said.

Williams spent a considerable amount of time talking with neighborhood children and young people, asking them about their experiences during and since Katrina.

The Diocese of Louisiana and the Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans launched the Church of All Souls as a mission station to minister to the many working-class families who are trying to return to their homes.

Jenkins September 20 called the invitation to plant the church “a sign of hope for us” and said he prayed that the church “will be a sign of hope for the people living here.”

The Rev. Shola Falodun, an Anglican priest from Nigeria who moved to the United States to be a missionary to African Anglicans, began assisting with the relief work in the diocese immediately after the hurricane.

Falodun proposed planting a church and received the diocese’s blessing to start All Soul’s. Falodun has said he chose the name to honor the new souls who will be coming to worship and those souls who were lost in Katrina’s waters. When it began, the church was housed in the garage of a parishioner during a time when few homes on the street were occupied. The congregation now rents space at a nearby Baptist church.

“If we are here, we are a light to the world,” he told reporters September 20, adding that the light of Christ could banish the darkness felt in the neighborhood since Katrina and her aftermath.

Such efforts, Jenkins said, are part of the diocese’s new-founded role in racial reconciliation in the city and the state. There was a diocesan presence earlier in the day in Jena, Louisiana, at a rally that drew some 60,000 people to protest the treatment of six black teenagers arrested in the beating of a white schoolmate last year.


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