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What Can I Do


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									What Can I Do? – New Orleans Speech at Wednesday Worship, Marble Collegiate Church April 25, 2007 By Kellie Tabron As I watched in horror as the events unfolded in the Gulf Coast after Katrina I felt as if I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. All kinds of questions raced through my head. Why wouldn’t, in the wake of a category five storm, the entire city have been under mandatory evacuation? Why were people begging for water, food, and medicine in the United States of America? Why wasn’t my government doing anything? Why wasn’t I?

Months passed and the situation slipped from the front pages, replaced by the tales of Anna Nicole’s baby, Brittany’s stints in rehab and who would be dancing with the stars. I sent money to a charity, donated clothes to another, but I continued to have this nagging feeling that I should do something. But what could I do that would make a difference? The devastation seemed so huge! I still had so many questions. But I prayed to God to show me the way to help.

Then while visiting my family this past Christmas, over a year after Katrina, I saw a broadcast of Comic Relief on HBO. They were raising money for Gulf Coast relief. I watched Billy Crystal go into the lower ninth ward with a camera crew. They showed house after house devastated by the storm. Cars and twisted wreckage was piled 6 feet high everywhere you looked. Street after street was in complete darkness. It looked as if the storm had just come through. And then they came across one lone house, with a single stream of light coming from the front window. Inside was a soft spoken man in his late 80’s working on rebuilding his house, alone.

When Billy asked him why? Why come back to this desolate neighborhood and try to rebuild, he said he was doing it for his 80 year old bride who was waiting for him back in Baton Rouge, where they had evacuated after the storm. He explained that this was where they had raised their children. “This is where we have Sunday dinner together with our grandkids,” he said. “She wants her home back, so I am building it for her.”

I wanted to drive to the airport right then, jump on a plane and find that man to help him. Then Billy Crystal echoed my thoughts. He said, “I have to go back and finish Comic Relief, but when it’s done, I am coming back with a hammer.”


A few days later, Reverend Lewicki announced the trip to the Gulf Coast. And I instantly knew that God had answered my prayers and answered my question “what could I do?” We had several options of ways to help including counseling and political activism, both seemed incredibly necessary, but they didn’t speak to desire to physically do something.

Then there was a third option. Gutting. It sounded physical and sweaty, dirty and dangerous. After what the people of the Gulf Coast had gone through, risking a little physical discomfort, a little safety, to get my hands a little dirty seemed like the least I could do.

So a group of about 20 friends and members of Marble and Middle Collegiate Church put on these really unattractive royal blue coverall suits, work boots, goggles, gloves and respirators and descended on the Dupree’s house in the lower ninth ward like a bunch of blue bees. I still had a lot of questions. Will I be safe? Will I be able to deal with the heat and the physical work? Will I get bitten by bugs or rats? Will something horrible happen to me? I had no answers. Only one or two of us had a tiny bit of experience gutting houses and we got little instruction on how to do it. So with few answers, we just took the tools we were given. And like the Nike commercial says, we just did it. We blindly stepped inside this hot, dark, moldy house not knowing what we would find inside.

I can’t speak for my fellow gutters, but I attacked the job of gutting this house with a kind of controlled and focused rage. I took the frustration and anger and disappointment at whatever or whomever was responsible for the outrageous suffering and deaths of 100’s of people; for having to watch an 80 year old women, who could have easily been my own grandmother, die in the hot sun outside the Super Dome; for seeing terrified children frantically searching and screaming for missing parents: at feeling completely helpless and frankly fearful that there but by the Grace of God go my family or me. I unleashed my rage on the unsalvageable contents of the Dupree’s house.

We learned that Ms. Dupree, the owner, was a graduate of New Orleans University, because we found her water soaked diploma; we learned that she was the mother of 2 young children by the toys in the house, a boy and a girl. We learned her daughter’s name was Mai, because I found what was left of a water color paint set with her name in permanent black ink on the back. I felt a special connection with her because like me she loved pink and Hello Kitty. We took the toxic


water logged furniture, clothes, pots, pans, books, radios, TVs and computers and deposited it into what was eventually became a 6 foot by 20 foot pile on the curb. Everything in the house was damaged and useless... every single thing.

Then with crow bars, shovels, wheel barrels and hammers we literally took down the walls and the ceilings, we stripped that house bare, down to the studs. It’s as if we had worked together gutting houses for years. We were Black people, White people, Asian people, straight, gay, men and women, young and old. And the amazing thing was that because of the respirators we wore we couldn’t talk and because of the head to toe suits we were wearing you couldn’t tell who was who or who was what. And it was so clear that it just didn’t matter, because our diverse little group, with all of our questions and inexperience, gutted that house in less than eight hours.

I believe that I got to experience God’s ultimate vision for the world that day. People of all kinds working side by side, without judgment or pretense, all focused on making someone’s life better. We focused on gutting Carol Dupree’s house so that it could be rebuilt and gave the Dupree’s the opportunity to return to their home if they wanted to.

Could the government take a lesson form our little team of gutters? I think they probably could. Did we make someone’s life a little better? Will the Dupree’s come back to live in the ninth ward again? The truth is I have no idea. But Ms. Dupree’s father came down the street as we were finishing up and thanked us for our work. We gave him the one item we were able to salvage, a laminated card that his granddaughter had made for Ms. Dupree for Mother’s Day 2005, it said Happy Mothers Day, I love you Mommy. He said his daughter had been heartbroken to lose it.

He said he had called his daughter, who had evacuated her family to Tennessee, to tell her someone was in her house, that someone was working on it so she and her kids could come back. When she asked him who it was, he said he told her, “I think it’s God.”

Despite the pictures we see of the French Quarter and of Mardi Gras, the situation in the Gulf Coast remains critical for a lot of people. The political corruption and the racial inequality still exist and there are so many other problems beyond my comprehension and understanding. I don’t pretend to know how to fix them.


But what I do know is that by asking God what can I do? He gave me an answer. Sometimes if feels like what we did was just a tiny little drop of nothing in the scheme of the big ocean of what needs to be done there. But if you’re thinking that you’d like to do something, I encourage you to ask God to reveal to you what that is for you. Because a million little drops of nothing could add up to a great big sea of something. And a great big sea of something is what the people of the Gulf Coast still really need.


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