Wayne Smith's occasional blog of pilgrimages and journeys

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mission Trip to New Orleans, Second Full Day

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live
in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day,
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BPC, 133)

I had intended to post an entry last night, after the missioners' first full day of work in New Orleans, but I confess to exhaustion. I could not even stay awake to type. Today paced my work a little better, and the group had no after-work meeting, as we did yesterday. So I am able to write before physical collapse sets in.

Seventeen of us from the Diocese of Missouri arrived late Sunday night for our lodging at St. Paul's Homecoming Center in New Orleans, where we are staying for the week's work rehabbing a house. The Diocese of Louisiana is well organized to welcome missioners willing to devote time and energy toward this city's recovery, and we are all grateful recipients of their hospitality. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, next door, is in the Lakeview section of New Orleans and was itself flooded during Katrina. The Homecoming Center is an extension of St. Paul's ministry, as well as the ministry of the Diocese.

The scope of the work left to be done in the residential areas of New Orleans is so enormous that the mind can hardly take in the magnitude. Years remain before recovery could be called complete, even if private, governmental, not-for-profit, and faith-based sectors were engaged optimally. Such engagement is hardly the case. Our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Louisiana, however, have devoted themselves to aiding those who otherwise would have no help, those whose resources from other sectors have run out. It is the sort of post-disaster ministry that seems right to me.

The missioners from Missouri will, for the most part, spend our eight-hour days doing our small piece in restoring a house in the 7th Ward, a house left with a severely damaged interior within a mostly structurally sound exterior. The damaged interior has been ripped out--gutted, as they say. All the damaged walls, flooring, ceiling, fixtures, and everything else down to the framework had been removed previously. Plumbing and provision for utilities have been roughed-in. Sheetrock has gone up. We have come in at just the next stage, finishing the sheetrock. Mostly we have worked sanding surfaces and joining the sheetrock at corners. For those who know the lingo, mudding is the bulk of our work.

The work is hardly backbreaking, but it is physically arduous nonetheless. The August heat in New Orleans is exquisite, although I must admit that it is a bit cooler than normal, and cooler than any of us expected. But still, the physical labor is no small thing for folks who, like me, are mostly not accustomed to such things. The collect at the head of this entry has come to mind often during the hours of physical work, as I have been acutely aware these past two days of the gracious exchange that makes possible the life we live, an incarnational sense that indeed "our common life depends upon each other's toil." Especially as physical toil has been my willingly accepted lot for the week.

Twenty-five years ago, or longer, I read in a biography of Charles Simeon some of the usual counsel he would give to his students at Cambridge. He told them that every day he would walk to the two-mile stone (a mile marker from the University) to make certain that it was still there, and he would commend such practice to anyone engaged in the "reading life." A four-mile daily walk is not a bad discipline for anyone engaged in what is otherwise a sedentary livelihood and manner of life, and I have managed to approximate that discipline for the past several decades (not, I will admit, a daily practice). But I am also clear that I can choose not to engage in that discretionary exercise, on any given day or for stretches of time, whether for reasons of ill health, travel, a bum knee, or good old-fashioned laziness. Such a choice is not available to billions of people in this world, whose very life will depend on hard physical work.

Such labor does not deserve any condescending glance or foolish romanticism. But we do well that Benedict, in his Rule for Monks, described a spiritual life existing in a three-fold balance: (physical) work, study, and prayer--all of which is to be undertaken for the sake of the community, which is the matrix of the monk's spiritual life, and for which there is no substitute. That is hardly an unreasonable balance--work, study, and prayer. Physicality is all the more necessary for anyone desiring a deeper spiritual life, especially since spirituality, misguided, can seduce a person into forgetting the body. Anyone who has ever engaged in a demanding course of study, or a mentally or emotionally challenging vocation, to cite but two examples, will have faced that challenge. Sometimes the option of Charles Simeon is the likely one available, and if so, then let us choose it.

But let us not forget those for whom such a choice is not an option; hard physical work is their life. if that renewed insight is the only one that comes to me this week, then it will have been worth the pilgrimage.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Saturday, August 2. The Conference winds down.

As I glance back over my early posts during this peculiar pilgrimage, I am aware of a weariness having set in, during these most recent days. There is a Groundhog-Day quality, I suppose, to any conference marking an intentional rhythm to the day. But that everyday sameness, coupled with the spiritual and emotional intensity of the work set before us, has left me ready for the Conference's end. As one colleague put it, "When we first arrived in Canterbury about six months ago . . . . " And then today I awoke with a cold. I want to go home.

The awareness of a few millions praying for us around the Anglican world has been very close throughout the Conference, and no more so than during Bible study this morning, when we considered the text John 18:1-18 and pondered the question: What makes it possible for a leader to lead the way Jesus led? Whatever else, we all agreed, the prayers of many are crucial. Whatever provisional successes this Conference has arrived at--the palpable deepening of relationships, the near absence of poisonous statements, the tendency away from grandstanding, a desire for solidarity in mission, the fact that no one stormed out in protest--has happened in no small part because you have prayed, and that your prayers joined the prayers of millions. That we have arrived at these most modest achievements is no small matter, given the gloomy prognostications of many beforehand. I say "provisional successes," partly because not all the bishops were here, as you well know. They are provisional also because of the fragility of many relationships, despite their having grown during our time together. They are provisional, because they have yet to be field-tested among the whole of the baptized. Even so, the bishops are mostly trying to find ways to walk toward one another, and that gives hope for sustaining the unity in baptism that is already ours, through Christ Jesus.

Another reason for the provisional successes lies in Archbishop Rowan's spiritual leadership. Framing the Conference in prayerful listening by beginning with a retreat set the tone, and he was responsible for the content of the retreat, its shape, and the tone thereby set. It modeled the discipline of careful listening at the heart of all we have tried to accomplish. Archbishop Rowan has taken, and continues to take, many hits for his manner of leading in the Anglican Communion over these past years. Well, leaders have feet of clay, and hammers for smashing those feet are readily available. He has absolutely been in his element at Lambeth, and he shaped the Conference according to his own deeply held spiritual sensibilities.

Indaba today discussed the recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group, a report of which can be found in the Episcopal News Service daily report from Lambeth. There is nothing more that I want to say about a work still in progress, but I do know that there will be more.

And tonight under the Big Top, we heard from a panel of four stewards, representatives of the fifty assertive young adults from fifteen nations who have made the logistics of this large conference possible. It simply would not have come off, without someone to tell us all which bus to board, and when, and without someone to block, ever so politely, the occasional uncredentialed member of the press from entering a venue. It was very good feedback to hear from them, and even better to hear their expression of faith.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday, August 1. Windsor continuation & the covenant.

The pace today was markedly less intense, and I imagine that this pace was built in by design to allow the Reflections Group time to catch up. Their succeeding drafts show greater clarity, and they are working tirelessly to produce a readable document, trying, I believe, to be faithful to the "mind" of the Conference. Some of this work became evident in the hearing the Group held this afternoon. I know how full my days have been, and these folks have devoted every free waking moment and have cheated sleep a good deal, in order to serve the rest of the bishops here.

Bible study had us considering the text John 15:1-17 ("I am the vine and your are the branches") as a prelude to consideration of what it means to be so united in Jesus.

Indaba met two times today, the usual morning session and then again in late afternoon. This morning we produced a "memorandum of solidarity" to submit to the Reflections Group, one of many such resolutions to speak out against violence and divisions in various nations of the world. This one was sparked by the presence of a bishop from Zimbabwe in our Indaba, and we collaborated to lend Lambeth's voice to his as an act of solidarity. We expect to see a dozen or so similar memoranda tomorrow, through the Reflections Group.

Then we devoted the rest of our time together to consideration of an Anglican Covenant, first as a concept and then the particulars of the St. Andrew's Draft. The notion that a Covenant is necessary or desirable was by no means accepted by everyone in my Indaba, and the Appendix to the St. Andrew's Draft was found helpful by only a few. There were many specific edits suggested, as we came to the draft text itself. The shape of any Anglican Covenant, from what I can see, remains an open question.

Tomorrow we continue with work on the Covenant, and then we tackle the Windsor Continuation Process.