Jazz ministry plays an upbeat note for New Orleans

Published November 1, 2007

Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins plays at a “mission to musicians” jam session at St. Anna’s Episcopal church, New Orleans.

New Orleans
On a recent steamy September evening, St. Anna’s Episcopal Church did what it has been doing every Wednesday night for nearly two years, since the great storm raked the city: it fed people and it opened its doors to jazz.

There was an extra buzz and extra visitors at St. Anna’s since the Episcopal Church’s bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury were arriving in the city for a crucial meeting on the future of the worldwide Anglican Communion (please see Schism, p. 1).

A PBS television crew filmed a worship service as the exuberant rector, Rev. Bill Terry, talked of healing the wounds of Hurricane Katrina, the August, 2005 disaster that flooded the Gulf coast.

After a pay-what-you-can supper of jambalaya and cornbread, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins led a jam session in the sanctuary, where the blue walls are decorated with gold fleurs-de-lys, a French symbol that denotes New Orleans’ roots.

Mr. Terry, a 56-year-old former insurance broker, wears his long white hair in a ponytail and talks easily about the “Mission to Musicians” at St. Anna’s. Music plays a significant role in the culture of New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and such great musicians as Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis. With visitors slow to return to New Orleans, many musicians have found their livelihood endangered.

“In October or November of 2005, I had a conversation about the plight of musicians (after the disaster) and how we are in cultural peril in the city if we lose our musicians,” Mr. Terry recalled.

As part of the diocese of Louisiana’s disaster relief program, St. Anna’s is the base for a huge rolling mobile medical unit that makes daily neighborhood rounds. “We thought, why couldn’t this be a resource centre for musicians?” said Mr. Terry, noting that the church is located in the Treme section not far from the French Quarter. While clinic services such as diabetes screening, psychological counseling and blood pressure reading are open to all, there is a special effort to attract musicians, who are paid $100 for the jam sessions.

The church also offers legal aid and help in navigating the forest of paperwork and bureaucracy that has developed as components of various government and private recovery programs.

The church did not flood during the storm – “the water stopped at our doorstep” – nor was it looted, he said. Mr. Terry and his family and several church members safely rode out the storm at a cottage in the nearby town of Abita Springs. “We called it St. Anna’s In Exile and we held services in the car port. We never missed a Sunday,” he said.

But the city’s evacuation meant that “we lost two-thirds of our congregation … We had a number of older people. They have all died since Katrina,” he said. Life for the survivors has been a physical and mental challenge.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans shows different faces. Neighbourhoods that did not flood – the beautiful Garden District, the French Quarter – look normal, while areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward still bear signs of devastation.

Mr. Terry says the city also bears deep psychological scars.

“Our entire culture has been disrupted. Post-World War II Germany experienced that. Our networks, our patterns of movement during the day have been destroyed. A lot of stores haven’t reopened. I’ve got to drive two-and-a-half miles to get my groceries. It is a neighborhood celebration if a major chain store opens. There is a lot broken here,” he said.

His parish is as diverse as the city. “It’s mostly African-American, mostly poor or entrepreneurs or artists. But there are also some extremely wealthy people in the French Quarter. And there is a large gay community. I love walking down Bourbon Street and saying, ‘This is my parish,'” he said.

His congregation is slowly rebuilding its numbers. “Our first priority was locating our parishioners. We spent hundreds of hours on the Internet and we located 60 to 70 per cent.”

St. Anna’s is also taking a stand on another feature of post-Katrina life: increased violence in what was already a city struggling with crime. A huge board outside the church lists the name of every murder victim in 2007; it has more than 150 names to date. “Each week, we and other church groups send a rose for each victim to the mayor, the chief of police and the city council. We pray for the victims and the perpetrators. It is a sign that these are human beings, not numbers. No one is born a killer. I’ve had calls from the parents of kids on that board who say, ‘Thank you for not forgetting my son,'” he said.


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