Each year for nine years, Terry Combs has joined about twenty other volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, Massachusetts, on an annual service trip to New Orleans to rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. A residential contractor, Combs had skills to offer; a heartfelt progressive, he was eager to help.
“I went into it out of shame, after watching the news on TV about the Superdome and how badly it was handled,” Combs said. “I wanted to do something from that perspective.”
What Combs did not need, in his own eyes, was a mandatory orientation on racism and white privilege foisted on him at the end of an exhausting, 12-hour day pounding nails in the Louisiana heat. Wasn’t his presence proof enough of his commitment to racial equality? The program, required of all Unitarian Universalist volunteers in New Orleans, was especially unwelcome because he had to repeat it each time he returned. “They were preaching to the choir,” Combs thought at the time.
But from its inception in 2007, the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal—a clearinghouse for post-Katrina UU service work in New Orleans—set a far more sweeping mission than simply coordinating volunteers: it wanted volunteers to recognize that entrenched racism created the 2005 tragedy that killed at least 1,400 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, with the impact disproportionately on blacks and the poor.
The presence in New Orleans of 1,000 UU volunteers each year was an opportunity for societal transformation that could not be squandered, in the eyes of the center’s founding director, Quo Vadis Breaux. She said many volunteers were inclined to view New Orleans as some tragic exception while avoiding examination of racism in their own backyards. Breaux was determined to try to change that. After engaging UUs in discussions about racism and white privilege, Breaux would challenge them to go back and find the Katrina in their own communities.
“We wanted to sensitize people because no matter how liberal and wonderful you think you are, if you are white and middle- to upper-class and you’re coming in here, you have some of the ‘savior syndrome,’” said Breaux. “We encountered this time after time after time: a group would go out to help a family, and the family would ask them to do thus and so, and they would try to redirect the family’s energy and money, ‘No, that is not the thing to do, this isn’t efficient, logical, the smart way to do it.’”
Launched by the three UU churches in New Orleans and the UU Service Committee, along with help from the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, all of which were deeply engaged in the post-Katrina work, the center was visionary in hiring Breaux, an African American woman born and raised in New Orleans, said the Rev. Deanna Vandiver. A white UU minister, Vandiver stepped in as director when Breaux retired three years ago. Breaux is “a brilliant and creative soul without whom I do not believe the center would exist, at least not as an organization committed to rearranging power within our oppressive systems,” said Vandiver.
From the start, the center’s aim has been far more ambitious than reclaiming the city from the floodwaters. It was fostering “a big humanity reclamation act,” said Vandiver. “There’s direct service, which is what most people come to do, to feed hungry people,” she said. “But you have to ask, ‘Why are there hungry people?’ If you come to help because it makes you feel good but you go home and that’s it, if you’re not continuing to see what’s going on around you and working to undo the system of oppression internalized in us, then it’s an exploitive relationship.”
The center’s racial justice focus is directly connected to the values of Unitarian Universalism, Vandiver emphasized. To commemorate Katrina’s tenth anniversary, the center is joining with Gulf South Rising to sponsor events that lift up the stories of black victims of Katrina “in a way you won’t find in the official list of events put out by the mayor’s office,” she said. “That’s the role that our faith is called to.”
Under Breaux, the center developed a program that includes a self-guided tour of the New Orleans neighborhoods affected by Katrina, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, which had been predominantly black and poor. After the tour, volunteers engage in a two-hour dialogue called “Systemic Racism and Solidarity.”
“We ask, ‘When you were in the Lower Ninth, where there were 14,000 people before the flood but now there are less than 4,000, and many of those were not the original residents—and then you go to Lakeview and you see some empty lots but also thriving businesses and people’s homes are back, how do you hold that, when you know they got the same 12-foot water levels, but the Lower Ninth was more black and Lakeview more white?’” said Vandiver. “We talk about racism as beyond interpersonal, that it shows up in institutions and a belief system of white supremacy.”
Not every UU has been enthusiastic about the program. Breaux said some were “furious” and some congregations chose not to return to New Orleans; Combs admits that he and some others “fought” Breaux and Vandiver. As Breaux recalled, “All they wanted to do was swing a hammer. To them, we were taking away time they could use more effectively in the community. I can’t tell you the times I walked away exhausted. There was such a wall in terms of [UUs] grasping those cultural complexities.”
At the same time, Breaux emphasized, UUs have stood out in their commitment to New Orleans, matched only, perhaps, by Quakers and Mennonites. “They show up! They show up!” said Breaux—thousands and thousands of them over the past decade. What has “astounded” her, she added, are the many UUs who’ve returned time and again, the youth and adult groups, the kids who first came during high school and continue to return as college students; the congregations that have sent groups twice a year; and those, like Combs’s congregation from Sherborn, that have shown up ten times or more.
And in the last few years, something has shifted: resistance to the racial justice orientation has fallen away—especially in the past year, after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Missouri, and the subsequent focus on systemic racism in the United States. Congregations are now enthusiastic about the training, Vandiver said, and non-UU groups have contacted the center asking to participate.
About three years ago, Combs finally experienced a personal transformation—“my understanding of racism had been so shallow before,” he said—and he’s not alone. At least 190 members of his 300-member congregation, including its minister, the Rev. Nathan Detering, have been on at least one service trip to New Orleans since Katrina and gone through the center’s orientation. “A lot of our group have had epiphanies in how race affects everything: education, how we speak to our kids. It’s all-encompassing, and I finally see that,” said Combs, who will go on his tenth New Orleans service trip in November. “But you have to open a lens to see it.”
This year, 28 members of the Sherborn church participated in an eight-week program on understanding racism that Detering ran, Combs said, and a number from the congregation have also applied to attend a two-and-a-half day workshop at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which is committed to undoing institutional racism.
It’s that kind of personal change that the center is seeking. “I remain hopeful that the discussion will lead people to action,” said Breaux, “because there is so much inherent and systemic racism, not only in this country but worldwide. But the more people walking around with the veil lifted, the more likely some of them will be in a position to make a difference about what’s happening systematically.”
As for the center’s future? “I see it as a social justice destination in the Deep South, a place where people go to do the hard work of self-discovery around social change,” said Breaux. Currently housed at First UU Church of New Orleans, she hopes it will someday have its own space.
“Our mission,” Vandiver said, “is to serve as a catalyst in New Orleans and beyond.”
She added, “My heartfelt, deepest gratitude for all the UUs from across the country who’ve shown up and continue to show up, not just with willing hands but open hearts, willing to do that often uncomfortable and truly necessary work of undoing the racism done to us.”