c. 2007 Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ In the two years since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore along the Gulf Coast, countless thousands of people have been assisted by churches and other religious groups. This is the story of one of them.
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Twice that day last spring, Barbara Duplessis rounded the block around Gentilly Baptist Church, driving slowly in circles, engulfed in a black depression.
She parked and entered the church, and in asking for help in rebuilding her home from the volunteers inside, wept in the embrace of strangers Jackie and Linda James.
Jackie James, a supervisor of Southern Baptist volunteers rebuilding houses in the Gentilly neighborhood, had seen plenty of misery in nearly two years of helping families in post-Katrina New Orleans. But the sight of Duplessis, 67, a retired educator, unnerved him even by Katrina standards.
She looked like a dead woman walking, he thought, maybe too numb even for suicide.
He sat with Duplessis that day. When he finally had to break away, he signaled his staff: “Don’t let her out of your sight.”
That day would prove to be a turning point for Duplessis.
She had gone to Gentilly Baptist seeking help with construction, but came away with a far deeper support, one that would help rescue her from an emotional hell of the kind that has afflicted so many flood victims.
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In the weeks before she mustered the courage to walk into the church that day, Duplessis had spiraled. Her home nearby on Lafaye Street had taken on 7 feet of water. She had made some repairs, but it remained unlivable.
She had no plan. With her husband, Adam, she was marooned in a tiny FEMA trailer in her front yard where, in the space of a few weeks, she had been staggered by the deaths of a sister-in-law, a brother, a neighbor and a childhood friend.
Life seemed an endless series of disasters.
“What else can happen?” she thought to herself.
Mired in a landscape of desolation more than a year and a half after the storm, Duplessis was emotionally and psychologically exhausted.
“You have completely lost control,” she would later say of that period. “You just give it up to the Lord and say, `It’s in your hands. I am helpless.”’
James sat and listened to Duplessis. He had never seen anybody that low, that beaten down. Duplessis told her story, and in the telling, she unraveled anew.
James called his wife, Linda, to join him and add her comfort.
For more than an hour they sat with Duplessis. They consoled her, touched her, promised her they would help her with her house _ assured her, in the language of their faith, that she would not be abandoned.
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Duplessis’ name that day went on a list of hundreds in the Gentilly area seeking help from the Arkansas Baptist Builders, volunteers who are helping residents rebuild their homes by rewiring, insulating and hanging drywall, usually matching free labor to materials purchased by homeowners.
A few weeks later, Duplessis’ name rose to the top of the work list. It drew the attention of 24-year-old Josh Harmon, a volunteer electrician and vagabond rodeo cowboy from Colorado.
Harmon works for nothing. He bunks for free at the church, eats its free food and drives a donated truck. He owns his tools and little more.
“How do you worship God?” he asks. “It’s how you live your life, that’s how. My heart for God has to spill over to how I treat people.”
Before Harmon arrived to work on her house in June, Jackie James had already told the cowboy to keep an eye out for Duplessis.
And when Harmon and another volunteer, Denise Woods, a paramedic and masseuse from Wichita, Kan., showed up at her house to work, they found Duplessis at another of her low moments.
They put their work aside.
For a long time, Duplessis remembers, she sat with the two strangers in the spare, gutted ruin of her little two-bedroom house: concrete floors, open studs, hardly a breath of air. She and Harmon perched on plastic chairs, Woods on an overturned bucket.
Duplessis wept again. Harmon and Woods listened and consoled.
Months later, Duplessis finds that morning still etched in memory.
“Don’t worry; we’re here. We’re going to fix this for you,” she recalls Harmon saying. They told her God had led them to New Orleans, and what a privilege it had been to follow.
Then Woods asked Duplessis to trade places and come sit on the overturned bucket. Though perplexed, she followed her direction.
Woods began to massage Duplessis’ back, kneading the stress out of her muscles.
“I cried a little, got prayed on and got a back rub,” Duplessis recalled. “I’m thinking, I can take on anything now.”
“Josh, I’m going to make you a hot sausage po-boy!” she said.
Harmon gave her a look of total incomprehension, pure cowboy bewilderment in the presence of a New Orleans treasure: a hot sausage po-boy fashioned by the hands of Barbara Duplessis.
In that moment, the tables turned. Duplessis, inspired and newly confident, assumed command.
She fed her crew.
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In the weeks since then, Duplessis’ house has moved a little further toward completion. It has a new roof, plumbing and electricity. The walls are up; soon they will be painted.
It’s rough and unfinished but perhaps soon livable enough to allow Duplessis and her husband to leave the trailer.
The cowboy and the Arkansas couple have become like family. When they meet occasionally, they tease and joke. They hug frequently. Duplessis laughs often and easily.
She is not yet home, but she thinks the worst is behind her.
“These people at the church, they were sent here,” Duplessis said. “They’re doing this out of their hearts. They come here and thank you for letting them help.
“The goodness you see in them restores your faith in people. They come and ask no questions. They don’t care about your background.
“They come over, they see something that needs to be done, and they do it.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
KRE/PH END NOLAN1,000 words
A photo of Duplessis, Jackie James and Harmon is available via https://religionnews.com.