A group of 25 Lutheran youth from Blue Earth and Bricelyn, along with five chaperones, traveled to New Orleans recently for a large gathering of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) synod youth from all over the U.S.
There were 38,000 of them in the Super Dome in New Orleans from July 22 to 26, hearing inspirational speakers, listening to Christian music, and generally growing in their faith.
They also all had to partake in a service project while they were there.
That is not a hard task to accomplish in the City of New Orleans. The city is still – after four years – trying to rebuild and recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Friends of mine have made an annual trek to the city to help rebuild homes in the same neighborhood year after year.
One could make a comment or two about how Minnesotans would rebuild after a tornado within a few months or a year, and wonder why New Orleans is so slow about it – but without being there, it is better to keep such observations to oneself.
The ELCA synod sent out 12,000 youth – and adults – each day of the convention.
Some residents of New Orleans said it was the largest number of volunteers in the city at one time since Katrina hit, said Lori Frisk-Thompson of Blue Earth, one of the leaders.
The mayor of New Orleans thanked the youth for their efforts and support, and called them “Katrina’s Rainbow,” since youth groups from the different churches wore bright colored matching T-shirts.
The rainbow remark probably had something to do with God’s promise after the flood, as well as the many nationalities of the youth involved.
Frisk-Thompson says the youth from Trinity Lutheran in Blue Earth, and United in Faith in Bricelyn, had a strange assignment as their service project.
The youth and adults just naturally assumed they would be helping rebuild houses, which many of the other 38,000 kids were doing.
But before the Faribault County youth got on their bus, they were issued shovels. Some of the kids told Trinity youth director Kim Jacobson they had heard their mission was to rebury the dead at a cemetery.
Jacobson says she told them that couldn’t possibly be true.
But it was.
About 600 of the convention youth, over a three day period, were sent to the Holt Cemetery in New Orleans City Park.
The cemetery, according to a story by the ELCA News Service, is a pauper’s cemetery and is an African-American burial site. It is a lumpy field full of weeds and brush. Some of the graves are marked with wooden headstones, but many of the names are no longer legible.
One of the headstones is made of styrofoam. Others are broken or tipped over.
Jacobson said the city had sprayed the weeds before they got there, so they were all dead. The kids pulled them out by the handfuls, hauling them to the back of the cemetery, piling them up and burning them.
According to the ELCA story, some of the youth found bones and a skull, and the remains were re-buried in the site, with a blessing.
When the kids learned they were going to go work in a cemetery, many replied, “Oh gross.” But when they got there, they saw how badly the grounds needed work.
They all pitched in, Jacobson says, and the many hands made short work of the job.
Because Holt Cemetery is actually at sea level, graves are all dug by hand and only go four feet deep. Only wooden caskets are allowed, the story says, which hastens decay.
That is important because the graves are reused – bodies are buried on top of one another. One grave listed nine names on its marker, the story says.
As if working in the cemetery wasn’t enough, the youth stayed in the Hotel Provincial. It had once served as a hospital in the Civil War, housing hundreds of soldiers, many of whom died there.
The story is that the hotel is haunted, and the youth say they heard a lot of strange sounds at night.
For many of the teenagers from Blue Earth and Bricelyn, the whole trip was an eye-opener. They say they learned a lot, and working in the cemetery was just one part of it, although a very interesting and different part.
They went from being grossed out to developing a new-found sense of the dignity and respect the dead deserve.