By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2005
“Winds of Change” was the spiritual theme of the 2005 National Catholic Youth Conference, but the phrase could as easily describe the extraordinary upheaval some conference participants, youths and adults, have experienced since hurricanes demolished their Gulf Coast communities this fall.
Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans, who sat with about 75 teens from his archdiocese in the Georgia Dome during the Oct. 27-29 conference, said, “I thought it would be important to come and be with them at this special time.”
Wearing a khaki ball cap and conference T-shirt, the archbishop blended in perfectly with the New Orleans contingent who wore and handed out Mardi Gras-style beads to everyone they met and carried gold and purple parasols that helped their adult chaperones herd them amidst the 17,000 teen participants.
Two hundred to 300 New Orleans teens normally would have come to NCYC, but after the hurricanes they were scattered and living in temporary situations all over the country. In addition, some no longer could afford the trip. Teens from other Louisiana dioceses and from Mississippi and Alabama dioceses were similarly affected.
The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) appealed for help in September, and over $60,000 was donated by businesses, by 23 U.S. dioceses, and by many Catholic parishes and individuals, so hurricane-affected teens and their adult chaperones and youth ministers could still come to the conference.
The hurricanes have changed all their lives in ways that are immeasurable and are still being assessed, Archbishop Hughes said. There is no going back.
“We have a very daunting challenge. The young people, of course, are resilient,” he said, smiling at their energy as they wove through a massive crowd of exuberant teens toward a regional NCYC meeting Oct. 28.
“It is the older people and the poor that are going to be most severely impacted,” he continued.
Agreeing hurricanes have been devastating “winds of change” for his people, the archbishop said, “It is very significant for all of us and I think it is going to nudge us into a changed way of life—to let go of some of the secondary realities that in the past we considered too important.”
The fact that a sizeable group of New Orleans teens could still come to the national conference is “a great opportunity,” said Ron Goldman, a chaperone, whose wife Sandie is the youth minister at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Algiers, La. “They are so excited.”
Because of the NFCYM fundraising “nobody didn’t come for monetary reasons,” he said.
“There’s a good spirit among the kids,” Archbishop Hughes agreed. “I think they are entering in and becoming a part of it.”
John Smestad, CYO and young adult ministry director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said, “People are hungry for opportunities to gather, to pray, to celebrate Eucharist.”
“The television doesn’t even begin to capture what it looks like,” he said of his home city. Many around the country have seen footage of the devastated ninth ward, but “there’s about a dozen neighborhoods just as bad.”
He lost everything in his flooded home, except what he took with him when he evacuated: “three days of T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.”
But what is additionally devastating is the loss of years of accumulated youth ministry resources at their archdiocesan office, which took in 11 feet of water.
“We lost our library, all of our training materials,” he said. “We have to work to try to rebuild that. In a house, it’s your pictures (you grieve losing). At the office, it was all of the years of accumulated resources.”
Of necessity, the archdiocesan youth ministry staff has now been reduced from four full-time and five part-time staff members to Smestad and one assistant. Communication is also still very tenuous.
Just finding and assembling those teens and youth ministers and chaperones who came to NCYC on two buses was an extraordinary task. Staying in a real bed in an Atlanta hotel was a novelty for a man alternating between an air mattress in Houston and a sofa in his cousin’s house in Baton Rouge.
“The fact that we’re here is a real accomplishment,” Smestad said. “It’s a snapshot of normal.”
Amanda Hurley, a high school senior from the New Orleans Archdiocese, was reunited with one of her best friends at NCYC. She hadn’t seen her in two months.
“It’s very emotional,” Hurley said. “My best friend flew in from North Carolina. We’re seniors. We’ll be going off to college next year. It is very emotional to see her.”
Her friend, Alison Hotard from River Ridge, La., was evacuated to Raleigh, N.C., where she is now going to a different Catholic high school.
“It’s a completely different world,” she said. “It was really important to me to come to NCYC because I hadn’t seen my youth group in two months. It was very emotional. It was very exciting.”
She said that the conference, where the teens from the Gulf were asked to stand up on opening night and where their presence was repeatedly applauded, had also been a positive experience.
“It’s really affirming. It’s really great,” she said. “You realize you’re not alone. You realize other people are praying for you.”
Because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a special meeting was held Oct. 28 for youth ministers and teens from Region 5 of the NFCYM, which includes Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. There was music, prayer, talks, icebreakers and an informal lunch where teens could sit on the floor and talk with each other.
The hope was to bring the groups together to strengthen the community, Smestad said.
“I think (it offers) a feeling of solidarity with the suffering we’ve endured and an opportunity for people in this tragedy to share their stories. In sharing the stories, that’s part of the healing process.”
Greg Miller, youth minister at St. Alphonsus Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., near Biloxi, was able to bring five teens from his parish because of the funds raised. Three out of the five and Miller himself lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina.
“They’re teenagers. It’s normalcy,” Miller said. “I can see how much it’s lifting their spirits to be here and see how much support emotionally and spiritually they’re getting from the kids and the adults.”
During the opening session Oct. 27 all the affected youth groups were asked to stand up and were recognized, Miller said, but “then they asked everyone who had helped to raise funds to stand up. It was so breathtaking to see the whole stadium stand up. It lifts our spirits so much to see the love of everybody and what they’re doing … It lifts our spirits to see everyone’s smiling faces.”
Telling his story in the regional meeting, Miller said 27 feet of water carried away 140 homes just in his immediate neighborhood. “They don’t exist anymore. Everything in them is gone. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
When he saw his house immediately after the hurricane passed, he was in shock.
“You can’t imagine all your stuff—how destroyed it was, how upside down it was, how covered with muck, your family pictures. It was like a nightmare walking through it,” he related. “There were parts of people’s houses all stacked up in my yard. Then I began to cry. It was so overwhelming. The whole world had changed. How was I going to take care of my family?”
The area is a tapestry of destruction, but some buildings survived, he said, including St. Alphonsus Elementary School, which was damaged but reopened Sept. 17, and the church where Mass has been celebrated daily. Of the 1,500 families in the parish, some escaped the damage completely, others lost both their homes and their jobs, and some lost either residence or livelihood, he said.
“We have had to learn to be humble and accept what God is providing,” Miller said. “I have to watch what I utter. God has really provided everything I’ve needed since the storm and it seems to come exactly when I need it.”
He said now his perception of “home” has changed.
“We go home to our families. Our families are our home.”
Archbishop Hughes, who was asked to speak after the reading of the Gospel account of Jesus calming the wind and the waves, thanked them for coming.
“Thank you for being a part of these special days and for wanting to proclaim publicly that in the midst of whatever storms we experience, we turn to the Lord and we know that he is going to calm the winds and the storm.”
All the dioceses that have been severely impacted by the hurricanes are now experiencing historic times, the archbishop said.
“I’m learning how to be a shepherd without buildings, a shepherd of people,” he pointed out. “We’re being taught in a very powerful way that people come first.”
Out of the over 1,200 New Orleans archdiocesan structures, over 350 were severely flooded and over 600 had significant wind damage, he said.
But confronted with the extensive damage, he said, it is more and more apparent that “the archdiocese is the people, and this is true in every diocese from which you come.”
He thanked “all dioceses who welcomed us with open arms … who welcomed our children into your schools.”
He especially thanked the Diocese of Baton Rouge “who absorbed over 220,000” from New Orleans into their homes, their shelters and their community.
He also noted that in the midst of the hurricane and following it, the people who make up the church still were able to respond.
For example, he said, through “an extraordinary effort” they were able to safely evacuate 25 Catholic senior citizen complexes and 10 Catholic residential facilities “and saved many lives.”
Throughout the crisis, “our priests were present with the rescuers. They were present in the Superdome, in the Cajun Dome and the Astrodome,” he said.
The food bank of the archdiocese was destroyed, he said, but in the month of September a new food bank was reassembled and in one month “we distributed over 7 million pounds of food to people in need—an extraordinary way in which we tried to recognize what God is asking of us at this time in history. People make up the church.”
“We are in a privileged moment in our history in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and, I am sure, in the surrounding dioceses that have been so severely impacted,” Archbishop Hughes said. “We have a chance to recognize what it really means to be church. We have an opportunity to move beyond the materialistic way and focus on what is more important—the things of the Spirit.”
He said that he now observes people “moving beyond barriers that have separated us” and “toward self-sacrificial love for one another.”
He believes “God wants us to come together as one people. The Lord wants us in the midst of the storm to recognize he is with us. He wants to calm the winds and calm the seas.”
A statue of the Sacred Heart still standing behind the New Orleans Cathedral reminds him “of God’s powerful, transforming, redeeming, sanctifying love reaching out to us, wanting to engage us, wanting to transform us.”
While it will not be possible to rebuild every Catholic facility that has been damaged, the archbishop said he believes that “the life and mission” of the archdiocese will be reestablished.
“We’ll be smaller in numbers, poorer in resources, we won’t be able to rebuild all of the churches, all of the schools, all of the facilities, but we will be restored … Those winds are bringing about a very important change in our lives.”