Our congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Area Church in Sherborn, Massachusetts, has sent ten groups of people to New Orleans since the storms in 2005. We have committed ourselves to the long haul and will keep going back because we can’t bear not to return. We raise money for our building materials, send our tools ahead in a minivan, stay at the First UU Church of New Orleans, and arrive ready to work right away. One of our members is a contractor who organizes the job and has taught us to do most of the tasks required to rehab a house. We have been remarkably effective with the actual rebuilding work. The spiritual work associated with “service as our prayer” is more complicated and ongoing.
When I returned from my fifth rebuilding trip, I found myself teary and disoriented. Most of our group had similar feelings. Not that it was a bad trip; it was wonderfully successful, both in terms of what we shared with the family with whom we worked and what we accomplished with their house. But the emotional and physical aftermath of this trip reminded us of our first trip, which introduced us to horrifying conditions and decades of deprivation. This tremendous shadow or afterimage seems to me a gift as important as the work itself.