Summer Communities of Service
Presentation at the Wider Church Ministries luncheon, July 1, 2013
General Synod 29, Long Beach, CA
Today I wore my Summer Communities of Service T-Shirt. It says “Change your Life. Change the world.” When we received these t-shirts during orientation last summer, I thought “that’s a little tacky!” But by the end of the summer I believed it.
During my time with Summer Communities of Service I received a true UCC Extravagant Welcome both at the church and the social service agency where I worked. I had an amazing experience and who doesn’t like the idea of spending 10 weeks in New Orleans?
I first learned about Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ, the church where I was invited to work, during the new church parade at the last General Synod in Tampa. This church started as two separate churches, St.Matthew UCC which was a predominately white church in one section of the city, and Central UCC, which was a predominately African-American church in another section of the city. The Central UCC building was a total loss after Hurricane Katrina, and after years of consideration, in October of 2009 the two churches became one, and renamed to be Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ.
This church was particularly interesting to me because I grew up in small town New Hampshire where it is difficult to find diversity, and this opportunity allowed me to grow in my faith and experience new worship styles. One of my favorite things about Central St. Matthew was that at the very end of the service, everyone stands in a big circle around the church, holds hands, and sings a song called “Bind us together.” What a statement of their faith!
The Social Service agency that I worked for was named Belle Reve which literally means “Beautiful Dream.” This organization provides permanent and transitional housing for those living with HIV who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless. In addition to providing a house, they also provided residents with 3 hot meals a day, and with classes to help them transition to independence. When I first started working there I was apprehensive of everything. As a public health major in school, I have learned all along how HIV was transmitted between individuals, but we hadn’t learned that you may interact with those who are HIV positive on an everyday basis, and be at very low risk of becoming infected.
Working at this organization allowed me to develop relationships with the residents there. My first day of work I was told “If you ever find yourself with nothing to do, go sit on the back porch, and just listen to people’s stories.” I found this to be a very valuable piece of advice, however, more often than not the residents seemed more interested in my stories, as I was from the exotic land of New Hampshire.
Now, there are a few stories that I remember very clearly. One resident told me the story of how and when they discovered they were HIV positive. This person told me that they were diagnosed with HIV over 20 years ago, and that they are lucky to be alive, as most of their friends had succumbed to HIV. Can you imagine being diagnosed with HIV at that point in time, when no one really knew anything about the disease, or how to handle it?
Another Resident casually told me about something that happened to them while they were in Jail. This was not something I was used to hearing, and it caught me by surprise and I realized how fortunate I was that this person trusted me with their story.
A difficult aspect of the job was to see the transitioning of some residents who were forced to leave because of not obeying the house rules and my realizing that they would most likely end up back on the streets.
I returned to New Orleans about 5 months later to visit all of the friends that I had made during my time there. When I arrived at Belle Reve I learned that only a handful of the residents that I knew, were still there. Due to confidentiality, I do not have any ideas as to where these former residents are now. I can only imagine that some of them are in their own housing, or living with family, and unfortunately some are most likely back on the streets.
Through the Summer Communities of service experience I had the opportunity to grow in my faith at both Central St. Matthew and Belle Reve. The biggest thing I learned at Central St. Matthew is that we are all truly one in the spirit of God. Even though Belle Reve does not have a religious affiliation it helped me to grow in my faith as well. The residents showed me how to trust in God, and the right things will come along, that is how many of them ended up at Belle Reve. They also taught me that each day is precious, and to live life to the fullest.
If given the opportunity I would go back to New Orleans in a heartbeat! I miss the church, Belle Reve, my friends and of course the food! I would also love to participate in Summer Communities of Service in the future, as this experience was so life changing.
Finally, I would like to thank everyone who supports these young adult ministries, as it has deeply influenced my life, as well as the lives of many other young adults.
Katie Howe served as a Summer Communities of Service volunteer in New Orleans through Volunteer Ministries of the United Church of Christ.