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Reflections: New Orleans 2010

Reflection by Steve Mason

mason photoI tried making gumbo for some friends before leaving to New Orleans on the Race, Religion and Poverty class, sponsored, in-part by the Cal turner program. It was a difficult mess. I was over concerned with instructions and exact portions, the temperature on the oven burners was too hot and my roux went quickly from a beautiful peanut butter color to something that resembled what I imagine the sludge at the bottom of the Mississippi banks must be. It didn't taste much better than muddy water, either. I knew that in New Orleans I wanted to get a better grip on how to cook Louisiana cuisine.

Little would I have guessed that the place where I would learn the transformative art of New Orleans cooking than in a café in the heart of Central City - the neighborhood with the highest murder rate in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the city. It was there that our group visited Café Reconcile, a neighborhood joint that has achieved national status, not only because the crawfish bisque may be the best euphoric-inducing culinary treat I've ever had (especially when pair with the house-made jalapeño cornbread); but their claim to fame comes from the fact that the entire service and culinary staff are at-risk youth whose tenure at the café provides them with training for skills to be used for the rest of their life.

Groups of fifteen young people (between the ages of 15 and 22) from the Central City neighborhood learn and work for eight weeks in the program where they receive life skills alongside their culinary training—spending the first three weeks learning etiquette, brushing up on manners, cooking terms and safety techniques, money-handling techniques and other basics of the service world before spending the next five weeks rotating between waiting tables and cooking the food. For the 70% of students who graduate from this program, 100% of them have been placed in quality food industry jobs. This is all done in a way so that the in the 10 years that the Café has been running, over 500 young people have developed the skills necessary to achieve success in a world that might otherwise be beyond their reach.

Cafe Reconcile

The work those program directors, students and graduates of Café Reconcile have done and continue to do transform ingredients into beautiful meals, people who have been forgotten by systems into those who direct the systems and communities that were considered dead by governmental agencies into thriving communities with cultural outpourings. This is a story of resurrection and, as the café's name implies, reconciliation…and it is a story that must be told and re-told until our communities echo this message that I learned in New Orleans and brought back with me to Nashville. I came to see from their example that by slowing down food, taking time to care for the individuals that make up the whole and that by turning down the judgmental heat that collaborations can take root and create beautiful products that no one might have expected. The roux is ready, it is time to invite others to join in the feast.

Reflection by Elizabeth Coyle


As we crossed back over the drawbridge leaving the Lower Ninth Ward, our group drove through a neighborhood that would never be. On the upper stories of brightly colored public housing units, abandoned immediately after Hurricane Katrina and now trapped in litigations, young residents had tagged their self-assertion with graffiti. Somehow this sign of youth culture looked more at home than the imitation beach homes, crumbling from the ground up. It seemed that the youth of New Orleans could discern failing, hollow promises, embodied in the shell of homes, from meaningful partnership that just might bring real change – partnerships that might make it right.

The Cal Turner Leadership Program's Immersion Trip to New Orleans was neither a hollow promise of help or much of a meaningful partnership to affect change. As the week went on, I began to discern that we were inquiring guests, benefiting from the gracious hospitality and life experience of the residents of post-Katrina New Orleans. As students, faculty, and staff, our role was not to serve, to assist, or to re-make a broken city. Instead, our privileged role was to watch the dry bones of New Orleans enflesh themselves with enduring hope and begin to dance again.

I take away from this experience tools of hope. For example, I now have a working knowledge of government programs like HOPE VI and large-scale implementation of charter schools. I understand practical solutions to government corruption and the role of religion in rebuilding. Yet more lasting is the image of the trombone that will not be silenced, the high school student that cannot help but keep drawing, and the non-profit director who returned with hope to a city in need. The waters of injustice are beginning to recede in New Orleans, and it was our privilege to wade in the new waters of hope.

Reflection by Professor Trudy Stringer

group photoThree vans full - students, faculty, staff - Divinity, Law, Peabody, Owen - made our way to New Orleans, Louisiana - NOLA - The Big Easy - for spring break. We depended on the hospitality of the Desire Street Ministries and the large heart of its Executive Director, Marcia Peterson. While we did spend some time at Cafe Du Monde, we spent more time in "monde" of New Orleans. We came to learn.

Ms Adeline, Ms Bonnie, and Ms Margaret, leaders for the Residence Council for Abundance Square in the upper Ninth Ward, talked about their lives, their hopes and fears, dreams and despair. They talked about the loss of their community; about the nearest grocery store being two miles away - with no public transportation.

Those of us born into a home owned by our family and into a car parked in the driveway might ask, "Why don't they move?" Ms Adeline, Ms. Bonnie, and Ms Margaret helped us understand the entrenched and interwoven structural issues that are largely invisible to those of us born into families with a property deeds and vehicle registrations. We came to learn what no text can teach. "But you didn't do anything," some might say. If they mean by "doing" wielding a hammer or distributing goods, no, we did not.

But sometimes listening is the surest way to deep learning - especially listening to the stories of those on the ground, those whose daily existence is very different from our own. And sometimes we need to learn - deeply - before we dare to "do." Our hope is this: that this immersion learning seminar helps to inform and form religious, educational, legal, and business leaders practiced in deep listening and in courageous boundary crossing, leaders able to help us in our search for better ways of living together.