by Fr. David Garcia
Recently I visited New Orleans and heard the story of one parish following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was a moving story of death and resurrection that makes for a good meditation this Lent.
The parish, Saint Gabriel the Archangel, is a mostly African American working class community that had a vibrant liturgical and parish life. It was also a parish that reached out to poor sisters and brothers in other countries. For years it had participated in CRS’s Operation Rice Bowl and had twinned with impoverished parishes in Haiti and Nicaragua. Visits to those places solidified their relationship and helped parishioners understand their obligations to global solidarity.
Everything for St. Gabriel’s and many other New Orleans parishes changed with Katrina. The worst catastrophe to hit a major American city in decades left the neighborhood around St. Gabriel’s under eight feet of water for weeks. Some parish members, who did not evacuate, drowned. All the homes were either totally destroyed or heavily damaged by the destructive waters.
Father Douglas Doussan, the pastor of St. Gabriel’s, was one of the first people allowed to return to the neighborhood. He had spent anxious days with a priest friend in a parish in Baton Rouge while the storm ravaged his city. As he returned to tour the aftermath in his community he was devastated. Experiencing the damage to the homes of his parish members and seeing the church and parish plant decimated caused him tremendous despair. He wondered as he returned to Baton Rouge after that first visit if St. Gabriel’s could ever recover. It was the lowest point of his life as a priest.
Fr. Doussan poured out his experiences and hopeless feelings with his priest friend that night. There was an immediate response: “Of course St Gabriel’s will recover and once again be full of life because the parishoners of Baton Rouge will go help.”
With that assurance, hope for the resurrection of the parish began. Streams of volunteers spent countless weeks and months cleaning, repairing and donating. Catholic young adults came from all over the country and spent weeks working to bring back the church and the neighborhood. The parish received $1.5 million from a national collection taken up in all US parishes. All in all, $3 million worth of damage to the parish plant was restored. Today, after more than five years, St. Gabriel’s and the surrounding neighborhood are as vibrant and alive as ever thanks to the solidarity of other Catholics who reached out to help those who had lost everything.
The story does not end there. The parish in Nicaragua, which had received so much help over the years from St Gabriel’s, heard about their tragedy. Within a few weeks they gathered up $262 among some of the poorest people on earth to send to their sister parish in the United States. In a remarkable moment St Gabriel’s had experienced what it means to be truly poor and desperate, with no hope, as so many millions of people experience daily around the world. In that same moment, solidarity among God’s children showed them they were not alone.
Lent tells us we are all poor. We stand before a loving God knowing that we are completely dependent for everything we have. When we experience loss and hopelessness in times of trial we begin to understand more fully how much we need God and one another. We also learn we are not alone.
Lent is also about reflecting on our personal and communal experiences of death and resurrection. As we meditate on the sufferings and death of Christ we see our own sufferings. We are called to imitate Christ who gave himself in solidarity with all of humanity. We also know that what seemed to be the end of Jesus on the cross was temporary. The Resurrection is God’s promise to us of our own new life. That life must always be shared with others.
Finally, Lent is about the solidarity of God with us and our solidarity with our sisters and brothers, especially the most needy throughout the world. One way to do that is to participate in Operation Rice Bowl. The Rice Bowl, given out at the beginning of Lent, is a small carton you fashion into a bowl, which you put on the dining table or wherever you can see it daily, to remind you that your Lenten sacrifice can help your sisters and brothers in desperate need throughout the world. Use it every day. Let it remind you of what our faith life is all about this Lent.
Father David Garcia is a senior advisor at Catholic Relief Services. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
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