Skip to comments.New Orleans Episcopal Rector Describes Ongoing Horror of Katrina
Posted on 05/02/2006 5:54:28 PM PDT by sionnsar
At 38, Fr. Jerry Jerry [sic: Kramer] is wise beyond his years. He has also lived more in the last five years of his life than most priests have lived in 25 years. He has suffered more than most Episcopal priests have ever suffered.
A former priest in the Diocese of Mt. Kilimanjaro where he was the rector of Christ Church cathedral in Arusha, northern Tanzania, Fr. Jerry planted seven churches among a formidable group of nomadic warriors known as the Maasai Tribe.
As a result he became affectionately known as oloongishu 'fond of cows' (which as a Texan he appreciates) because when he was accepted into the tribe it was considered a high honor, as the Maasai's whole world revolves around cows.
Owing to circumstances beyond his control, he and his wife Stacy and their two children were forced to leave the country, his visas denied renewal, and through an invitation by Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana he came to New Orleans and took the stately old parish of Annunciation.
Little did he know that he and his family were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
"I was called to Annunciation in January 2005, installed as 13th rector of the 162-year old church in late July and evacuated out a month later in august, as the waters rose in our parish and home, becoming victims of the dreaded Katrina storm surge."
As the levees were stormed, suddenly his stable world was ripped apart. He watched as neighborhood homes disappeared with parishioners scattered across the country.
"It was a nightmare," Fr. Jerry told VirtueOnline. "On Saturday morning August 27, 2005 we were having an altar guild meeting, and by Sunday afternoon we were running for our lives."
Fr. Jerry sent his wife and two small children off to a retired priest's home in Baton Rouge along with their 84-year old altar guild lady. The priest himself had fled to Texas fearing for his life.
"We still thought at the time we would be returning in three or four days. We only packed a few belongings sure I would be back in the pulpit next Sunday. How wrong I was. The next service I lead in NOLA was Christmas Eve in the shell of what was left of the church. Gone were the pews, bibles, prayer books, everything inside the church prior to Katrina's landing. We sat on plastic chairs and plastic tarp on the floor to protect people from the toxins spilling in from the outside washing in with the flood waters."
At the service 75 showed up, the normal congregational size was 100. "It was awful, this was the first time members of the church had been inside the church and they were able to see the devastation first hand. Hardest hit were the elderly who realized that they would never see their 85-year-old church as it was. The elderly sat and cried through the whole service."
"We could certainly relate to the manger experience and our Lord being born into poverty, but I agonized for our people who were beginning to realize the depth of what was happening to us. It was the rule of thirds. One third came back to pre Katrina homes who thought they may have had significant damage; another third had longer term temporary solutions like ourselves who are now living in a 4-room apartment in the suburb of Kenner, about 35 minutes from the church. Another third are indigent living with family and friends."
Fr. Jerry set about changing everything he could.
"My first thing was taking care of God's people in our parking lot. We began one of the areas longest running, busiest daily relief centers, providing bleach water cloths, canned food, medical hygiene supplies, initially with no power or running water or shelter."
Eventually the parish was able to acquire five trailers from Texas (not from FEMA) that now serve as his base of operations.
It was 120 days in exile. Fr. Jerry commuted 6 hours a day from beyond Baton Rouge to NOLA in a borrowed F150 Ford loaned to him when he got back from Africa, and perfect for hauling in bleach and water from Baton Rouge.
Now eight months later and only five months from the 2006 hurricane season and Fr. Jerry wonders again what will happen.
"Last week in NOLA three major pumping station pumps blew up including the one on the 17th street levee, the epicenter for the flooding of NOLA. The Sewage and Water Board and Army Corp of Engineers took the old pumps that had sat under water and reinstalled them; this is the equivalent of throwing your toaster in the ocean for a month and after taking it out, putting it on your counter and plugging it in."
If we had another quarter inch of rain our apartment in Kenner would have flooded, he said.
Throughout it all Fr. Jerry got a lot of wonderful support from his Bishop of the Diocese Charles E. Jenkins. "He provided a lot of pastoral support and leadership, making sure the clergy families were okay. He came and led services in the parking lot and made sure that I could still be paid and have ample relief supplies."
"Our bishop has been heroic in racing around the country to rally support, support that has kept us alive. It is a tremendous struggle for a diocese that did not have a great wealth of reserves before the storm. We need to maintain the regular ministries for the diocese plus undertake a massive relief operation. Our circumstances are similar, but the bishop's headaches are bigger."
Of the 55 parishes and missions Fr. Jerry thinks that all but one is fully operational which is extraordinary under the circumstances. "Down the road there will be some consolidations but for now all the parishes are simply working hard in their ministries and outreach."
Fr. Jerry says the national church foundation is helping organize a capital campaign for the Diocese of Mississippi and Louisiana. These will be funds targeted for the capital needs of the devastated churches, he says.
It would appear that all of Annunciation's buildings will have to be demolished and rebuilt. This includes the old church, parish hall, a youth ministry wing, offices and kitchen and conference room. The cost will run into the millions of dollars.
Fr. Jerry is presently mortgaging the current property, which a bank has agreed to do, to buy six lots adjacent to the church from people who have left town. This will enable Annunciation to acquire most of the block on the busy center city street.
All his congregation are living rough, some are back in their homes, others are awaiting trailers or for their homes to rebuilt as they stay with family and friends, and others are living in trailers on the campus.
Only about 60 percent residents of NOLA had flood insurance, says Fr. Jerry, but his congregation did somewhat better. Fr. Jerry, like many others, has had to sue the insurance company, a subsidiary of AIG, for offering a paltry amount compared to the total damage that was covered under the policy. "We have accepted partial payment but we are having to sue for the remaining coverage. We had a forgiveness service the other day and someone prayed for the forgiveness for the insurance company and Army Corp of Engineers."
In Philadelphia recently, Fr. Jerry preached to a stunned congregation at the traditionalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont and told how he and his family survived America's worst national disaster.
"I recall my first trip back into New Orleans, one week after the levees burst. Eighty percent of the city stood under water. Thanks to some friends with the Dutch media, I was able to acquire a pass that enabled me to get past the military check points. And when that didn't work, my collar went a long way. New Orleans, is, after all, steeped in Catholic culture. Right after the storm, our bishop gathered together the local clergy and said, "Boys, put on your black shirts and collars . . . and if anyone asks . . . tell 'em you're Catholic!"
Jerry said he snaked his truck along the River Roads, known to locals as "the sliver by the River" hugging the precious dry land. Finally, we reached Napoleon and St. Charles, where we could go no further. That's where the water had reached its most southern point. And I knew my home and church were somewhere several miles to the north - somewhere in all of that water. So I began walking home, making my way slowly, watching every step, stepping in swill that was 20 percent fuel, plus biotoxins, chemicals, human and animal remains. I had already begun to itch and scratch, ending up with a rash, headache, stomach ache and a week's worth of antibiotics."
"When I reached Ferret Street, the water was between my waste and chest. A long way still remained, yet there seemed no way forward. Just then, two Iranian men - whom I recognized as owners of the Shell station next to the church, paddled by in a john boat. I asked if they would lend me the boat. This being New Orleans the Muslims said, "anything for you Fawduh! It's all yours!"
Jerry continued his trek, eventually reaching the 162-year old Church of the Annunciation, now under six feet of water. "I found a number of trash bags and rescued all of our vestments and silver, then I worked my way up to our house. There it stood under eight feet of water, the front door entirely submerged. We had lost everything. And I knew that everyone in our neighborhood had lost all as well."
It was at this moment, while paddling down familiar and once busy streets that he had his worst experience of despair. "I thought it would have been better had I just drowned in the flood waters along with the others who didn't make it out alive. It all seemed so entirely hopeless."
Yet it was right then that Fr. Jerry remembered the promises of Christ, recalling how He had walked with me faithfully through all of the sieges and storms of my life, mostly of my own making. "He never failed me before. He would not fail me now. I had no idea what this meant, or what this would look like. Quite honestly I still don't. But every day I see His wounded, redemptive hand, lifting us out of waters that reach up to our necks. Jesus is real. Jesus is risen. Jesus is here."
Jerry recalls vividly the story of his Deacon in Slidell, who held down the fort practically by himself in a city of 40,000, half under water. (The other half was covered in downed trees.) "In the early days he would drive to Alabama every night to find medicine for people, using up all of his own resources to pay for fuel and desperately needed supplies. At one point, he encountered a distraught woman who had just learned that her husband and children had perished in the flood waters. The intrepid deacon told her, "ma'am, just hold out your hands. Hold them out." She did. "Now give it all to Jesus. It's just too much. No, you can't handle it. Give it all to Him." And so she did. She stretched out her quivering hands to be held and relieved by our Savior, who accepted her burden with his own wounded and pierced hands."
During his 120-day exile in Baton Rouge, (75 miles from home,) he worked tirelessly to find and settle parishioners scattered all across the country. Annunciation is a working poor parish. Like much of New Orleans, his folks don't have credit cards, cell phones, insurance, savings accounts, and in may cases -- cars. "One of our families was trapped in Memorial hospital for a week with no water or power. 45 people perished inside. The nurses gave each other IV's to conserve waster for the patients and refugees."
Jerry then tells the story of Adina, a beautiful, bright young Black girl of sixteen who attended a pre-pharmacy program at Xavier University. Her dad is a hopeless street drunk. Adina's mom, who was in hospital with her where they had taken shelter in the darkness of the upper floors, cannot work as she has Hepatitis C. Also in tow was Uncle Ramon, who is severely autistic. "Adina later told us that it was the skills she learned on our recent summer mission trip, particularly the ability to pray in every circumstance, where we witnessed for Christ in the Islamic neighborhoods of Chicago that kept her alive and enabled her to serve others throughout the siege."
Jerry has countless stories of individual tragedies. "All we could do is look to Jesus, look at His wounds, and surrender to His grace and healing. In every instance, Our faithful Lord was there walking every painful step alongside of us."
"As we began working our way back into the City, the earliest re-settlers began gathering weekly in the evenings for the Eucharist. Annunciation became a home church, which is how we began in 1844. I would commute in six hours round trip and, starting with five hardy people on the West Bank, which did not flood. We gathered to be fed by our Lord's body and blood. This fellowship grew to forty over the course of the fall as we came together in our brokenness to worship and experience the One broken for us and our sins."
Beginning in late October, Jerry launched what is now one of the longest operating, busiest relief operations in the Gulf South. "We began these efforts in the parking lot with no storage, no power, no water or sewage, no place to store relief goods. Every morning we would shop for supplies in Baton Rouge and then truck them in for the day. Our primary mandate was to provide relief where no other operations were present, and to assist people during their "look and leave" visits."
Residents came in during daylight, outside of curfew hours, to look at their houses, find what they could, and leave. "What we quickly discovered, however, was that people would come in, see what had happened and go into complete shock. It was impossible for them to comprehend what had happened. They had lost simply everything. We would find people in the neighborhood stunned in their shock and grief. We would then pray with them, offering comfort, turning entirely to Jesus."
Eventually, said Fr. Jerry, we began the hard and painful work of what we call, "mucking out" out houses. "I had helped many through this awful process, throwing everything they owned out on the curb. Then it was our turn. Furniture can always be replaced, but what can never be replaced are our children's photos, our wedding album, and my great grandmother's handwritten cookbook."
Fr. Jerry says there are still tens and tens of thousands of homes still to "muck out." Residents are returning, discovering that the landscape isn't much different than what it was in September. About 180,000 people sleep in New Orleans each night, many piled into small apartments or squatting on the second floors of their homes. On an average day 200 - 250 people come to our campus for bleach, water, mops and buckets, cleaning and hygiene supplies, medicine, canned food and clothes. "The latest phenomenon is people and families living in their cars. Their funds have run out forcing them to come back, but they have nowhere to live. Our critical need in the hot summer months ahead, when the heat index reaches 130 degrees, will be water. We will need it daily by the truckload. Presently we're installing misting machines in the parking lot, along with tents for shade."
At one point last Christmas, after the bill came due, his family only had $15 in the checking account. "Individual families and residents like us not only have to pay our mortgage, but we also now have to pay for apartment rent, which is two to three times what it should be. Just before Christmas we moved into to a four room apartment, with three children, and no kitchen, no laundry."
Fr. Jerry is not angry or bitter. He could be, but he's not. "We recognize our Lord's abiding presence in our midst. We're experiencing the love and grace of Christ as Christians come from around the country to volunteer and dig in and out with us. We're experiencing the power and reality of the risen Christ in the countless prayers said around the clock for us. We must trust and follow Jesus faithfully, confident of His redeeming power, even if we cannot see the end of the tunnel."
"No longer do we take the celebration of the Eucharist as routinely as perhaps we once did. We learned to hunger for Christ, to come before Him humbly and entirely broken, empty - so that we may be filled by Jesus and nothing but Jesus.
"And we've learned to look to scripture as our bedrock, on which we can always find firm ground. Jesus had to open the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures. This means to us that we need to approach the sacred texts humbly, in total trust and confidence. We bow before scripture. And what we are experiencing is the truth of God's word and the power of God's word.
"Flood waters play no favorite. When you lose everything, it doesn't matter if you were a lawyer, a doctor, a clergyman or a family struggling to get by, a person on disability or the elderly on a pension. Katrina was the great leveler."
Fr. Jerry says that thanks to the generosity of so many, plans are in the works for a community Laundromat - washateria as they say in New Orleans - so residents who are squatting in the homes without power and minimal water pressure - can have clean clothes. "We're putting in a coffee shop, so residents can have a place to gather and connect. Our main double-wide, where we worship on Sundays and Wednesday nights, is a daily respite center where people can come for coffee, sodas and to use the phone and internet as they look for resources, assistance, and work."
On Easter Sunday, the double-wide was packed with new faces of all colors from around the neighborhood. As was the case before Katrina when attendance doubled over six months, they are again growing in numbers. The seekers coming into their fellowship are hearing the Gospel proclaimed with clarity and in truth, they are experiencing the reality of the Gospel in lives transformed and they are seeing what the in-breaking Kingdom looks like in our daily relief operations.
"Our parish leadership made what I consider an extraordinarily brave decision. They agreed to mortgage our entire campus in order to buy six lots adjacent to the parish. We've more than doubled the size of our footprint for future ministry and growth. Some people think we're crazy - we have no money to pay for it. So be it. We'll be fools for Christ."
Annunciation has become the capital of Broadmoor. No longer does anyone say, "We didn't know who you people were or what you did here." And we do it all in Jesus' Name. And He is walking with us. He is feeding us. And He is blessing us. But eyes of faith, and humility before the Sacrament and before Scripture, are necessary to grasp the totality of the Kingdom bursting forth. I pray for those eyes every day. Jesus must open our eyes to see."
If you would like to assist Fr. Jerry Kramer and his parish you can do so by sending a tax deductible check to:
Fr. Jerry Kramer, OP Church of the Annunciation 4505 S. Claiborne New Orleans, LA 70125.
If you would like to have Fr. Jerry come and preach at your church and tell you what God is doing through him and his people drop him a line and invite him. His phone is 504 895 8697.
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