The members of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church from Pacifica, Calif., opened their arms and hearts wide to the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — managing to sweep up many other people in the embrace.
Since 2007, the 200-member church just south of San Francisco has sent a group every February to the Gulf Coast. But it’s not just St. Andrew members who go on the rebuilding mission trips — the group has expanded to include people from other denominations, as well as those who don’t attend church.
“It’s nice St. Andrew collects people and brings them along,” said Ann Mason, who attends a Bay Area Unitarian church. After talking up the New Orleans trips at her own church, it is sending a youth group to work in New Orleans in June.
In addition, New Orleans mission trip participants reach out to their own spheres of influence —friends, co-workers and others — to raise money for the annual trips as well as awareness that help is still needed in New Orleans.
Two elementary school teachers who go on the trips raise money from their students at affluent schools in the Bay Area, collecting “Change for Change” that totals hundreds of dollars. One teacher even found a class in New Orleans for her students to become pen pals with; they also got to talk on Skype together.
This outward focus toward New Orleans has also spurred the church into becoming more of a “doing” church in their hometown, according to members.
“While there was great compassion and care, we weren’t going out into the community to do outreach and mission,” said Berni Schuhmann, who has been on all five trips to the Gulf.
Lisa Angelot, who convinced her fellow St. Andrew members to start coming after two of her own trips with another church in the San Francisco Presbytery, said the annual mission trips have excited the larger congregation about doing more work close to home.
“It’s been really good for our church … this mission stuff, it just seems to open the door to more,” Angelot said. “It’s made people excited that our little church in Pacifica is reaching out into other (ministry).”
The two women point to the church’s growing involvement in a group called Rebuilding Together that rehabilitates homes in the Bay Area, as well as other local community projects and ministries.
Schuhmann and Angelot were in New Orleans with 21 other members of their work group the third week of February. Working through the Presbytery of South Louisiana’s Project Homecoming, the group was able to help with the rebuilding of three homes that after more than five years were still severely damaged from Katrina.
Most of the members of the group this year had made the trip multiple times. Ask why they keep coming back, and many say they have fallen in love with the people of New Orleans.
“Our people have just been captivated by individual stories … and the story of the city,” said St. Andrew’s pastor, the Rev. Penny Newall, who was on this year’s trip. “It’s been more than just going down and working for a week. It’s been a connection and a passion that is much deeper for many of the people who have gone.”
Group members also said that the fact that there’s still so much work needed to be done more than five years after the storm — nearly 50,000 of the city’s estimated 200,000 housing units remain blighted — inspires them to keep coming back.
The annual tradition started in 2007 when a group from St. Andrew traveled to Houma, La., to work out of a PDA volunteer camp. During their week in Houma, the group toured New Orleans to see the devastation there; they decided to work in New Orleans the next year.
After a positive experience working with Project Homecoming in 2008, the St. Andrew volunteers were hooked. Not only did they plan on returning the following year, the group agreed they should invite friends and other small Bay Area churches.
“They’re a fabulous group of people,” said Ellen Rankin, a pastoral associate at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. On her third trip with St. Andrew, Rankin called the group, dedicated, hard working and “hard-laughing.”
The annual trip has also attracted professional contractors and subcontractors, who now spend a week of vacation every year working in New Orleans because of the need for skilled people on job sites.
“It’s fun … doing good things like this is a no brainer,” said contractor Mark Huff, a member of Seventh Avenue. Despite working year-round remodeling San Francisco homes, Huff spends his vacations — this year was his third — rebuilding homes in New Orleans.
Last year, 43 people were able to take the February trip. Angelot said the economy has made it harder for people to get away this year, especially contractors who own their own businesses. While the church does some fundraising to help subsidize the trip, individuals are responsible for most of their own expenses.
For Schuhmann, the trip has become a true family affair. Schuhmann’s two grown children, Aron and Gillian Parkhurst, come each year, as well as Schuhmann’s sister, Taryn Tewksbury, a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz.
A few years ago, Tewksbury met St. Andrew member Dave Bier on a New Orleans trip; the two fell in love and continued a long-distance relationship, until Bier relocated to Phoenix to be closer to Tewksbury. Both were on the trip in February.
Said Aron Schuhmann, who now lives in Southern California, “It’s a good opportunity to spend a lot of time together.” They celebrated Aron’s 27th birthday on this year’s trip.
For Linda Barnes, her annual treks to New Orleans led to joining the St. Andrew church family. She started coming on the trips in 2008 as a non-member, formally joining the church last year. She said the trips bring a closer to her church, but it also brings a much broader connection.
“You’re bringing it to the world, instead of keeping it within the four walls of your church.”