On Sunday, February 18, 17 First Parish youth and 5 chaperones traveled to New Orleans for the annual Senior Youth Group Service Trip. This would be the Youth Group’s 7th trip to the Crescent City. The youth included Zoe, Zack, Tori, Ryan, Logan, Julia, Jeff, Eric, Eli, Eleanor, Coby, Christina, Cassie, Cam, Brooklyn, Alex, and Aidan. They were accompanied by chaperones Phil Lynes, Marianne McGowan, David Mecsas, Carolyn Lynes, and Amy Gilmore.
Travel went smoothly and we arrived in the late evening at our long-time hosts, the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Reform. Housed in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (FUUCNO), CELSJR specializes in putting together week-long service itineraries for youth groups. It didn’t take long for us to settle in and get to sleep.
Breakfast is a serve yourself affair at CELSJR, and afterwards we made sack lunches – this would be our routine for the week. We spent the first morning on a self-guided tour of various parts of New Orleans including the 9th ward. Thirteen years later there is still abundant evidence of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially in the form of vacant lots and boarded up homes.
We spent the afternoon in a “Systemic Racism and Solidarity Dialog” before going to a dinner meeting of a coalition of activists known as “Justice & Beyond”. Before dinner we all joined hands in a big circle and one of the clergy there offered up a moving prayer. The food was a home-cooked New Orleans Monday tradition: red beans and rice. Delicious! The meeting began with everyone introducing themselves followed by two seminars: one from the Sierra Club about organizing opposition to a major new gas-fired power plant, and one from a group who were preparing to release a report on the disproportionate number of African-American men in the New Orleans jail system. Both were followed by some lively Q&A – ask the youth about the other kid from Boston who asked a very loaded question! For many of us, this was a very meaningful night. When we got back to the Center, it made good fodder for our nightly reflection — another daily ritual during the trip.
We spent Tuesday morning and early afternoon cleaning out the gym at the Andikra NOLA school – a small (14 students), Montessori-like school that had recently moved into an old community center. We got a chance to see the schoolroom and the kids, before turning our attention to stacks of old desks, tables, chairs and HVAC equipment; layers of dust and grime; and moldy exterior walls. Tuesday night we enjoyed a community dinner hosted by FUUCNO – another chance to get to know locals and enjoy New Orleans cuisine.
From the AdinkraNOLA website: Adinkra symbols are visual symbols originating in Ghana, West Africa. They represent human qualities and values that we should uphold. These include harmonious living, independence, life-long learning, patience, forgiveness and many more. We can discover many of these symbols built into the architecture of New Orleans, especially the French Quarter and Treme. We view these remnants as a reminder from our ancestors to constantly create and be innovators of new ideas and concepts but to never forget the roots that were planted in order for us to be leaders in this world.
Wednesday morning found us at the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a group that hopes to help New Orleans and Louisiana rethink incarceration. In 2015, Louisiana had the highest imprisonment rate in the nation for persons of all ages (776 per 100,000 state residents) and adults (1,019 prisoners per 100,000 state residents age 18 or older). One in 86 adult Louisianans is incarcerated. As the name suggests, OPPRC focuses on Orleans Parish Prison, a 1,438-bed jail – it actually is not a prison – where over 90% of the inmates have not been tried or convicted. OPPRC is leading the effort to block expansion of this jail – if we build it they will fill it – and refocus funds and planning on things like bail and bond reform, decreasing wait times for hearings, and generally reducing the jail population. To help these efforts the Youth Group spent time doing data entry and preparing social media postings.
On Wednesday afternoon we took the trolley to the French Quarter. After an easy stroll up a very dead Bourbon Street, we cut across to Jackson Square and Cafe du Monde — famous for its beignets. At this points the kids took off in groups of 3-5, promising to meet us back at the trolley at 4:45 — which they all did like clockwork. Though brief, the visit to French Quarter was a highlight for just about everybody.
Wednesday dinner was a bittersweet Creole meal prepared by Chef Amina who has fed the group many times over the last several years. Unfortunately, this would be the last meal that Chef Amina would prepare for CELSJR guests, as the grant that funded her position has ended.
Walking the 9th Ward was the theme of the day for Thursday, as we went door-to-door seeking and sharing information about a series of nighttime explosions and rumblings that have been heard along the Industrial Canal, which divides the 9th Ward in half. The source of the explosions is a mystery, though many suspect the US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible. Organized by A Community Voice, we first asked whether residents had heard or felt the explosions (many had, but sometimes their next door neighbors had not). We also invited them to sign a petition asking the Army Corps to either explain what was going on or help find out, and informed them about a rally that was going to happen this past weekend. Thursday dinner was at Datdog, a Youth Group favorite within walking distance of the Center.
We wrapped up the week working at the Center on Friday, painting two rooms, and giving the Sanctuary a thorough cleaning — or at least we tried to, as the Property Committee member who was organizing us and the Housekeeper had very different ideas about what needed to be done. After two or three “mopping summits”, the housekeeper won out and we were able to finish the job.
The last night of the Service Trip has two big traditions. The first is the Pizza Contest where we divide into teams, dream up crazy ideas for pizzas, and then do our best to make those ideas a reality. The pizzas are then judged based on presentation (which can be quite elaborate), creativity and taste. This year’s winners were Julia, Logan, Eli and Cam.
The second tradition is the final reflection, which is longer and more elaborate that our other nightly reflections. We gathered in the Sanctuary to reflect on the week and light candles. After a while the chaperones wandered off to bed. The youth stayed later, some even sleeping in the Sanctuary. Saturday morning we were up at 5am and back in Needham by about 4.
Special thanks go out to our Youth Programs Coordinator and lead chaperone, Alexis Capen, who did a great job of organizing everything from the plane and car reservations to working out the hour-by-hour schedule with our hosts. Alas, Alexis came down with the flu on Friday and was ordered not to travel with the group, so veteran chaperone Marianne McGowan stepped in on very short notice.
For more photos, visit the photo album on this site or check out the First Parish Facebook page.