Faith and Interfaith in New Orleans
One of the people they introduced me to on my recent trip to New Orleans was Dr. Kyshun Webster, CEO of Operation REACH, Inc. Kyshun grew up in one of the toughest housing projects in New Orleans. He saw his uncle killed when he was in first grade. That was the year that one of his teachers said he was “slow”, and held him back.
That was the beginnings of Operation REACH. Kyshun added a few more programs when he was in college in New Orleans, went off to get his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where he dreamed up additional programs. Operation REACH is now a sophisticated, multi-dimensional agency and is starting to export its model to other cities in the South.
Like many people who rise out of tough circumstances into success, Kyshun credits a faith community with being both a physical and spiritual lifeline for him – in his case, the Baptist Church. He told me, “My work with youth and dedication to the mission of Operation REACH is simply evidence of one yielding to a spiritual vocational calling, one that orders my steps and fuels my passion.”
And while Operation REACH is not a faith-based organization in the narrow sense, Kyshun recognizes the powerful and inspiring role that faith plays in the lives of many young people, and the huge amounts of social capital that religious communities have.
In addition to his remarkable personal story, I was struck by Kyshun’s sophisticated understanding of why and how religious communities should work together, particularly African American Christians and Muslims and Jews. In part, this is based on the historic alliance between those African Americans and Jews during the Civil Rights Movement. One of my favorite images in American history is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching next to the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama. And in part, it is based on how the Jewish community has cultivated the ethos of philanthropy within its institutions, including its youth programs. Kyshun wants to do the same within the African-American community, and understands both the faith-based and interfaith dimensions of this.
Operation REACH has begun a youth-to-youth foundation with a board of middle-school through high-schoolers. They raise and manage funds, currently amounting to some $100,000, and then award and track grants to other young people running social action projects. REACH has worked closely with Interfaith Works to bring together young leaders from Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Hindu and other backgrounds. They are now exploring a highly creative project with the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (which already had a youth philanthropy program called B’nai Maimonides): a task force of young people to do social-venture capital investing in youth-driven interfaith service projects.
My organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, did a training for some of these youth and the adults who work with them, to make sure that the connection between faith and philanthropy was made explicit in their conversations, and that the idea of philanthropy was viewed as a universal value that different faith communities “speak to” in their own unique voices.
It’s one of the most innovative interfaith youth efforts I know of in the country, and I’m eager to see where it goes.
Later that evening, another staff member of Interfaith Works, Alycia, drove me around the lower 9th ward. (See my piece from Monday for a fuller description of my experience). We stopped to talk to a group of young women journaling outside of a Methodist Church. They were on an Alternative Spring Break trip (I LOVE the ASB program – it’s another example of the pragmatic idealism of this generation) from the University of North Carolina.
While the trip wasn’t organized by any specific religious organization, it was this particular Methodist Church in the lower 9th ward that was hosting this group (there were thirty-one students in all from UNC, and as that group was shipping back to school, a group of Princeton students were on their way in). Alycia told me that that was a pattern repeated across New Orleans – faith communities providing much of the infrastructure for volunteer and reconstruction efforts.
And the young women, all Christian, were eager to talk about the role that their faith played in this work.
One said, “As someone who professes to want to be like Christ, to love people like him, it’s not enough to just say it. It’s about action. Just words leave me feeling empty. But after a week of working here, I feel full.”
Another said, “We all worship something. In our society, there is a danger in worshipping ourselves. We worship God better when we serve others.”
The 31 UNC students had broken up into about five groups and gone out to different sites in the lower 9th ward to clean and rebuild. Several of the groups did hard physical labor most of the time, putting up brand new homes for families. But the story that struck me most was the story of the connection between a group of UNC students and a woman they called “Ms. Virginia”.
Ms. Virginia had a physical disability, and her daughter had a mental disability. The students were charged with cleaning her house from top to bottom. The relations were awkward at first, but gradually became warm and affectionate. Soon, the students and Ms. Virginia were talking and laughing regularly (this is one of the most important parts about volunteering – the relationships built across traditional divides of race, class, faith, geography, language, whatever).
Towards the end of the week, as Ms. Virginia was admiring the grooming her house was getting, she wondered aloud if somebody could help her with the same. She hadn’t had a hair cut or had her nails cleaned and clipped for months.
And so a group of young college women did exactly that for a lonely, elderly woman from New Orleans who had a hard time moving around and a daughter without the ability to fully care for her. They showed me some of the pictures of them cutting Ms. Virginia’s hair. The smile on Ms. Virginia’s face … she looked, well, like she was enjoying being loved.
“What was it like to clip her toenails?” I asked, a thin layer of disgust creeping into my voice. It was a juvenile reaction on my part.
But the response from one of the UNC students was deeply spiritual: that this is what Jesus had done for his disciples.
Think about this: A group of young college women who could have been worshipping themselves in Cancun or Daytona Beach during this Spring Break season, instead choosing to worship God by cleaning the feet of an elderly woman from New Orleans.
On this Holy Thursday, the day in the Christian tradition that Jesus did the same, I leave you with the image of a bit of his spirit on Earth.