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Students, Many Motivated by Faith, Clean Up New Orleans on Spring Break

c. 2006 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ Thousands of college students who might have spent spring break sunning in Acapulco or on Florida beaches this year are pouring into New Orleans to sleep in dormitory tents or on classroom floors, eat off paper plates and spend a week of vacation hauling foul muck out […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ Thousands of college students who might have spent spring break sunning in Acapulco or on Florida beaches this year are pouring into New Orleans to sleep in dormitory tents or on classroom floors, eat off paper plates and spend a week of vacation hauling foul muck out of homes ruined by floodwaters.

For many attached to campus ministries it is an exercise in faith, or what Steve Griffing, a Naval Academy midshipman from Augusta, Ga., called “practical love.”

Others, like an estimated 1,000 students spread among several encampments of the Common Ground Collective, are more political: They see spring break as an opportunity not only to help hurricane victims, but also to study the landscape of race and class that shaped the devastation they see. They are urged to go home and use the lessons of New Orleans to agitate for social change.

They come from all over the country. A partial survey by found students streaming into New Orleans from schools in California, New York, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Their schools are public and private, from major institutions like the University of North Carolina to small-town schools like Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, which sent more than 50 students.

Some provide more than unskilled demolition labor. The Student Hurricane Network, an association of 61 law schools co-founded by Morgan Williams, a student at New Orleans’ Tulane University, has more than 400 law students here helping residents and local relief organizations with a wide range of legal issues. Their effort will continue long after spring break is over.

“I know there are 45 people from Columbia University, 15 from Iowa. I’m housing six people from the University of Wisconsin myself. The list goes on and on,” said Hurricane Network spokesman Jason Koury.

Nobody knows the total number of students in the area, because participation is highly decentralized. But the phenomenon has been gathering force and is expected to continue through the end of the month.

Using campus-based Christian ministries, Internet sites like Craigslist and word of mouth, thousands of students operating independently have found dozens of churches and secular relief organizations to house them and point them toward work.

Some examples:

_ Campus Crusade for Christ, a network of campus ministries, has 4,400 students in New Orleans, spokesman Tony Arnold said.

_ The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board has more than 1,500 students here, spokesman Steve Manfredi said.

_ Common Ground Collective, a secular grass-roots organization of young social progressives, has about 1,000 students on the ground doing demolition, health care, day care, after-school tutoring and other tasks, said Lisa Fithian, a veteran activist from Austin, Texas, who has been in New Orleans since September.

_ Opportunity Rocks 2006: Rebuilding the Gulf Coast, a network led by former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., has nearly 700 college students from 27 states working in the area.

_ United Methodist churches around New Orleans are housing and dispatching more than 1,000 students to work sites daily, said the Rev. Yvonne Dayries, a coordinator at the denomination’s headquarters in Baton Rouge.

_ Three Lutheran encampments house 300 volunteers working around the region.

_ Four other major encampments in or near the city house more than 5,000 students.

Many more are bedded down in independent churches or private homes.

In shorts and rubber boots, bandannas and face masks, they immerse themselves in the wreckage of the flood zones. Often a boombox pumps out music to enliven the drudgery. But the experience remains sobering.

Jacqueline Washington, one of more than 200 students from Howard University in Washington, D.C., was hauling debris out of a ruined three-bedroom house. In better days James and Rena Potier raised nine children here in the heart of the Lower 9th Ward, a few blocks from Fats Domino’s house.

Across the street Bethel AME church stood, an empty hulk. A faded cardboard sign urged congregation members to report their locations. The neighborhood was largely vacant. A moonscape, gray and empty, seemed to spread for miles.

Washington is from Houston. She said she knew New Orleans before the storm.

“I’d been here four times before this. But this is bad,” she said. “It was very tearful coming in. Some of us were crying. This isn’t the place we knew.”

Immersed in the disaster for the first time, students begin to grapple with the full import of the destruction and its attendant misery, exposed more powerfully in the details than in the big picture.

Christina Griffin, a Howard University freshman, said she pulled empty plastic containers out of the Potiers’ kitchen cabinets and was startled by the slosh of black floodwater spilling over her arms, six months after the flood.

Bill Velazquez, a sophomore at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, found himself holding hands in a prayer circle in a wrecked Mid-City deli with a Vietnamese Catholic and her Buddhist husband. The woman broke down in tears.

At St. Mary of the Angels Elementary School, hundreds of college students working with Common Ground sleep on classroom floors where, months ago, 200 frightened neighborhood residents took refuge as the water rose around them during Katrina. The residents’ chalked messages on the classroom blackboards spell out their fear that they had been abandoned.

The messages remain as a lesson that Common Ground seeks to teach. As an enterprise that is as educational and political as it is compassionate, Common Ground staffers teach Katrina as a lesson in systemic racism and the need for social change.

“It’s very clear to us that the government has failed. It’s up to the people to restore the community,” Fithian said.

A study by Tulane University geographer and author Richard Campanella shows that black New Orleanians were disproportionately affected by the flooding, although the margin is less than 10 percent, considerably lower than has been suggested in some national news reports. Pre-Katrina, black residents comprised 67 percent of the New Orleans population, yet suffered 76 percent of the flooding, his study shows. White residents, 28 percent of the city’s population before the storm, suffered 20 percent of the flooding.

Campanella based his numbers on areas that suffered “persistent” flooding, defined as flooded after Katrina on Aug. 29 with water still present on Sept. 8.

When the students are not mucking out houses, they attend anti-racism seminars sponsored by the People’s Institute, a local anti-racism training organization.

In the field, rummaging through homes filled with ruined furniture and appliances, students said they found themselves drawn to the debris that once marked the presence of a family and its dreams: wrapped gifts purchased but not yet delivered, ruined photos, trophies, trinkets that must have held sentimental value.

A homeowner left a note that pierced Dorothy Van Duyne, 20, a second-year student who belongs to Officers’ Christian Fellowship, a ministry at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She and 16 others were mucking out two ruined homes in the downriver town of Meraux.

“She asked us to keep an eye out for her nursing pin. Her LSU nursing pin,” Van Duyne said. “It must mean a great deal.”

The Naval Academy midshipmen are among thousands for whom the work is an explicit Christian ministry. For Van Duyne, Caelyn LeBlanc and others, the practice is to pray before entering a ruined house _ to pray with the homeowner, if possible _ and leave a small, signed Bible inside the front door as evidence of their good wishes.


Whether Christian or secular, students usually engage in formal sharing sessions in evenings after work, talking about their experiences and trying to process what they’ve seen and heard.

Many said they are having difficulty absorbing the immensity of Katrina’s blow. They worry about the families whose homes they’ve gutted; they worry about the neighbors who are back, laboring under the crushing load of rebuilding.

“But I tell you, they’re doing stuff for nothing that some adults wouldn’t do for pay,” said Sheila Dixon, who helps run the Good News Camp, a Christian encampment of 1,200.

“I am blessed by them. I tell them I am honored to serve alongside them.”


(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

Editors: To obtain photos of students working and praying on spring break in New Orleans go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

A version of this story moved on Newhouse News Service today.