Today Gerald, Kiva and Lisa worked alongside us at the Habitat Build. It was their first time putting in “sweat equity” hours. Habitat is not a giveaway program. In addition to a down payment and monthly mortgage payments, homeowners invest hundreds of hours of their own labor (sweat equity) into building their Habitat house and the houses of others. Once a family qualifies to receive a Habitat for Humanity house, they put in 30 hours, then are able to choose a site for their new home. Kiva and Gerald have been partners for 35 years, since he was 19 and she was 16. Lisa is their 19 year old daughter.
In the morning, all three were pretty quiet. Lisa escaped into her headphones, Gerald answered questions with one or two words, Kiva mostly smiled or nodded. This was our fourth day building, so we’d mostly hit a stride and went right to work pulling out tools, ladders, and setting up projects. How strange it must have felt to start working on a house with these young students from across the country. Once things got going, Gerald worked with a few of us under the house. He still said little, but after Kiva came to check on him, he mentioned that he’d had three heart attacks. The most recent was just three weeks ago. I also heard that Kiva had knee problems. Work like this was hard for them, but I heard no complaints.
Hours went by. After lunch, all three worked with a few of us on a project. It was frustrating. The ladders were beat up and uneven, the ground was too hilly or too holey, the tape we were trying to remove was baked on the window frames and the screws we were trying to re-install just wouldn’t line up. But suddenly, something magical happened. I asked the family where a movie theater was. It got them chatting and laughing about the aquarium and IMax. Then I asked for a recommendation for good crawfish. More laughing, debating and chatting. Then we were chatting about Portland and our Civil Rights trip. Hearing about our volunteer work, Gerald asked if anyone had been to Haiti and I told him only me, but before the earthquake. Then, they asked where we were when Katrina hit. We said, “watching it all on the news…where were you.” And the story poured out…
Kiva was working at Charity Hospital. Before Katrina, Charity Hospital was the public option for the families who lacked insurance and for those who needed health care. It also trained doctors for war situations and had emergency trauma centers for treatment of the many gunshot victims who too regularly end up in the city. When the flood happened, Kiva told us that the generators were in the basement and stopped working once water took over. Many people were depending on machines and electricity for their lives. Many lives were lost. She talked about being a short woman who couldn’t walk through the water to safer ground. Lisa told us about being trapped on a roof and water being dropped from helicopters, only to have it burst and be wasted when it hit the roof. She and Gerald also talked about their experience in the Super Dome and their trek to rescue Kiva from the hospital. When they returned to New Orleans after evacuation, they found that wasn’t ruined by water in their home, was looted.
These are the families that Habitat for Humanity, NOLA is helping to rebuild, restart and recover. We are startled that five years later, so many neighborhoods still look like a war zone. We are moved by the creativity and community we have found. We are disturbed by encounters with overwhelming poverty and institutional segregation. We are invigorated by citizens who give of their time, energy and money to love their neighbor. We are constantly furrowing our brow to say, “this is complicated.”