The Rev. Tyrone Edwards is leading the revival of his hurricane-battered Louisiana town with help from the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.
Phoenix, Louisiana, is a half-hour drive plus a ten-minute car-ferry-ride southeast of New Orleans. It also feels like a trip back in time. Phoenix is a rural town of 600 families in Plaquemines Parish on the East Bank of the Mississippi River. In the foot-shaped delta region, locals call Plaquemines Parish “the big toe dat slipped out da boot.”
Orange trees and horses dot the landscape. A gently sloping grassy hill on the bank of the river is the levee that usually separates the Mississippi from the one-level clapboard homes like the one the Rev. Tyrone Edwards grew up in. More than nine feet of water crashed over the levee when Hurricane Katrina struck his town in August 2005. The town’s above-ground cemetery was turned topsy-turvy. Caskets were toppled, and bodies spilled out, floating into the town’s front yards. “Katrina came in and tore Plaquemines Parish up,” says Edwards. “The whole community was wiped out.”
Edwards is pastor of Phoenix’s Zion Travelers Baptist Church, the geographic and spiritual center of his devastated community. He returned to Phoenix in November 2005 to find a community in shambles. His mission since then has been to restore hope—and people—to his town and help Phoenix rise again. “FEMA wasn’t giving people hope; the insurance companies weren’t giving people hope; so we had to give people hope,” says Edwards. “We decided we couldn’t wait on the government.”
FEMA had offered to build the town’s residents a trailer park. But Edwards knew that wouldn’t bring people back. The agency would have had to lay down new power and sewer lines to create a trailer park—and trailer parks had become known in other post-Katrina communities as “concentration camps,” fenced-in, cramped neighborhoods with curfews and poor living conditions. Edwards argued that the trailers belonged in front of people’s homes, where water and power hookups already existed and where people could oversee their homes’ resurrection.
Edwards has built his reconstruction campaign for Phoenix around the scriptural verse, “Let us arise and rebuild,” (Nehemiah 2:18). He established the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in a trailer next to the plot where his house once stood. Unlike the home of his 81-year-old mother, and many others in the community, Edwards’s house wasn’t salvageable. Where it once stood, blue tarps hang over a plywood frame, making a structure that a few months ago was the community’s only working shower.
The cooperative center is one of seventeen “partner groups” receiving funds from the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund (GCRF). The fund, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, has raised $3.6 million from individuals and congregations for hurricane relief and recovery efforts. (For more on the fund and its partner groups, see the related stories below.)
The Zion Travelers Cooperative Center has become a relief hub for the community. With grants from groups such as Oxfam and the GCRF, which donated $41,450, Edwards equipped the cooperative center with rebuilding supplies. An orange shipping container houses a lending library of saws, generators, rakes, lawn mowers, and hammers. The center also gives residents lumber accounts of $500 to $1,000 to rebuild. Armed with hope and building supplies, residents have begun to return to Phoenix.
Edwards drives through town waving to returning friends and admiring signs of recovery: a flower garden, a vegetable patch, a boy riding a scooter up and down the dirt lanes. By the storm’s anniversary in early September when I visited Phoenix, approximately 60 percent of its residents had returned, although the school-age population is less than half what it was before Katrina. The K-12 school reopened in August for half-days in portable classrooms, where “Welcome Back Spartans” signs hang from the walls.
“A community without children is a dead community,” says Edwards. “Now we have the old, the young, and all that.”
This past summer, Edwards attended the UUA General Assembly in St. Louis to share his experience, strength, and hope in the wake of Katrina. Edwards thanked the Assembly for the GCRF grant and explained how his community is beginning to rebuild. He also had a chance to wander the exhibit hall, where he was struck by the description of a summer religious education program called “Culture Camp.” The GCRF gave him an additional grant of $11,000 to operate such a camp out of his church.
“Because of Katrina, our kids have been exposed to all kinds of people, with different looks, religions, food, and ways of life,” says Edwards, referring both to the people the children met when they were scattered around the country after the storm and to the volunteers the children have met who have come to town to help them. He wanted to offer a culture camp to build on the lessons about differences and similarities that they had begun to learn.
During each week of the six-week camp in Phoenix, children ages 5 to 15 pretended to travel to different countries, such as India, Ghana, Morocco, Native America, and a land called “Peace.” The children sat in circles, meditated, and discussed conflict resolution and communication. They talked about the different cultures and religions, with an emphasis on appreciating and accepting them.
“We emphasized that people have all different kinds of beliefs,” says Edwards. “And that people’s beliefs don’t have anything to do with their service.” He says he was impressed that Martha Thompson, a UUSC staffer who works with partner groups for the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, never promoted her own beliefs or asked to have the words “Unitarian Universalism” on anything when she extended grants to his organization. Edwards plans to offer the Culture Camp again next summer, and he is also offering some of the program to students in the local public school. “I want kids to identify that we are part of the world family,” says Edwards. “We’re interconnected.”
Like almost every organizer I encountered during my visit to the Gulf Coast at the anniversary of the storm, Edwards invokes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He preaches community activism and rising up. When the Cooperative Center is emptied of its rebuilding supplies, Edwards plans to turn it into a technology center to keep the isolated town of Phoenix linked to the outside world and active in its continued recovery. “We have to build a movement,” he says.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).