When the call went out for volunteers last fall after hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared through New Orleans, a group of men and women from the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge were among the first to step forward.
The group became known as the Weekend Warriors. Since November they have made nine trips to New Orleans, or about one a month. The group helps individual members of the three New Orleans-area Unitarian Universalist congregations put their lives back together. The warriors have cleared vegetation and downed trees from yards, removed water heaters and other debris, made repairs to floors and windows, moved furniture, erected fencing, help gut houses, hauled building materials, and washed sidewalks and sides of buildings.
The leader of the warriors is Michael Hebert, an air pollution consultant. Asked why he volunteered for the group, he quoted the Sufi poet, Rumi: “Love is the religion and the universe is the book.” He added, “It’s all about compassion. Everyone on earth deserves a fair shake.”
Shannon Cavell, the Baton Rouge congregation’s president and a warriors member, made the first trip to New Orleans in November, helping salvage belongings from the flooded Community Church UU. The next month the warriors made another trip—and then another.
On each trip the warriors work on three to four projects. They’ve helped about 15 families in total. “These folks are still struggling every day just to get by and we figure it’s the least we can do to help wherever we can,” said Hebert. “We’re not trying to help all of humanity, just one person or family at a time.”
The warriors are a group of about 24; five to ten members make each trip to New Orleans. There are homemakers, lawyers, computer technicians, a veterinarian, agricultural and environmental consultants, an engineer, a physician, a journalist, a social worker, and a working and a retired nurse.
“The whole reason why we can do this is our location,” said Hebert. “It takes us a little more than an hour to get into the city and then we can put in an 8- to 10-hour workday and come home again.” For many months volunteers from farther away found it difficult to volunteer because there was no place for them to stay in New Orleans. “We’re self-contained,” he said, “so we didn’t have that problem.”
And there’s more to these trips than simply physical labor. “The other way we help is simply by listening to people,” he explained. “We might be cutting down a tree for someone, but while we’re doing that we’re talking to them and listening to their frustrations and their plans. We help them celebrate their small victories and commiserate about their losses.” Most of the time, he said, the homeowners are out there working alongside the warriors.
Hebert doesn’t see an end to the warriors’ trips. He said the group helped one Ninth Ward member, Augusta Butler, finish the gutting of her house, and is teaming with a program run by the Episcopal Church to gut another house for a First Unitarian Church of New Orleans member, Rita Hubbard. He is also lining up opportunities for members of his congregation to work with other groups in New Orleans.
Conditions are still pretty primitive in some areas of the city, Hebert said, choking up as he described what the city looked like back in November and December and how little some areas have changed. “People who live there,” he said, “have to face the insanity every day of piles of trash, no city services, fighting with insurance companies, whether there will be another hurricane, and if so, will the levees hold.”
Irene Kato has been on four warrior trips to New Orleans. “I just wanted to help people get their lives back in order,” she said. “At first I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I had to be Wonder Woman, but I found that just doing a small task means so much to people. I spent a day pulling tall weeds out of a woman’s yard and she was so grateful. She said that just the fact that we were there helping was inspiration enough for her to do more on her own.”
“Another time,” she said, “I hung blinds in a man’s house. It was just a small thing, but he was so excited. He said, ‘Now I can dance in my living room again.’”
Rita Hubbard, a member of Community Church UU in New Orleans, lost most of the contents of her house to flooding. The warriors arranged for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge’s senior youth group to come help her for a day. The warriors themselves will follow up with a workday on August 26 to start gutting her house.
“People from the church have just been a godsend,” said Hubbard. “They helped us clean out the house, including finding some valuables that we’d not had time to get to.” Hubbard has been living in Houston since Katrina, but still supports Community Church. “I hope to move back but I don’t know yet if that will be possible,” she said. “But people like the Weekend Warriors help make that more of a reality.”
- Continuing coverage: Hurricane Katrina. News about UU responses to the hurricane, reported by UU World staff.
- We Are Called to Continue the Journey. A pastoral letter on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by UUA President William G. Sinkford. (UUA.org)
- Voices from the Gulf: Hurricane Katrina, One Year Later. Reports from UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others. (UUA.org)
- UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief. Information about Unitarian Universalist relief work with links to other resources of the UUA. (UUA.org)