I fell in love with a broken city. Like all love, it is impractical, ridiculous, and difficult to explain. It makes me look like a fool. I could describe her to you: her beauty, her history of abuse, her spirit and her ways. But you wouldn't understand unless you love her too. I met New Orleans about a year after Katrina: it was casual, I was a tourist. Then something rose up around me from the steamy streets, and I was engulfed. I wandered for days, talking to people, hearing suffering and pride. Someone said to me: "I lost everything." Someone else said: "We are the forgotten city." (Melodramatic, I know: that's love.) I was ashamed. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what I was getting into. By my second visit, I had connected with local activists who knew the city and shared my love, and was introduced to their equally irrational, besotted vision: why couldn't the city be healed? Why couldn't we all?
They asked questions I had never considered: What does healing mean? What would it feel like to be healthy? What would it take to get there? The attempt to answer those questions has taken the form of the New Orleans Healing Center.
Perched on a crossroads of the cityscape, the Healing Center is the lovechild of Sallie Ann Glassman, a local Voodoo priestess, writer and activist, and Pres Kabacoff, a sometimes controversial real estate developer and, after seeing his dedication this project, I am going to go ahead and call him an activist too. Did I say lovechild? It usually takes a village. It took a city to raise this one up.
The Healing Center brings together components of sustainability as described by Michael Ben-Eli, a leading expert on sustainability who has worked with R. Buckminster Fuller and the U.N. "Sustainability" is a buzzword, but we wanted to understand and apply it seriously. Ben-Eli identified five core principle of sustainability, encompassing the material, economic, life, societal and spiritual domains. The Healing Center brings in partner-tenants, called "silos," that provide access, encouragement and healing in these crucial domains. The Healing Center includes Affordable Healing Arts, The New Orleans Food Coop, ASI Credit Union, Wild Lotus Yoga, Movement Room Dance Studio, Performance Arts Space, Organic Restaurant, Women's Collective, Art Gallery, Interfaith Spiritual Space, and a Street University where anyone can teach, and take, a class. (This is a huge project that generates lots of questions, please check out the website and FAQs for more information.)
These "silos" operate synergisticly. For example, the Interfaith Space works with Wild Lotus Yoga on cooperative events; faith adherents may teach a class on their traditions at the Street University; the Art Gallery can sponsor shows that feature the arts of a particular faith or cultural group, and so on. Any group that has an event that is free and open to the public can use the Healing Center space, free of charge, to host their gathering. Some healing happens in human-to-human contact. It happens by crossing lines and reaching out. It also happens by reaching in.
The first time I went to New Orleans, I was recovering from a catastrophic horseback-riding injury; after a year of surgery and physical therapy, I was at loose ends. The wounded city inspired me to heal my own life. I went back to school to work on a languishing undergraduate degree. I started writing again. I found a spiritual and ethical community that challenged and empowered me. I faced my fear of being a leader. I didn't know how much I knew, or what I could do. Today, my (tiny, nascent) organization, Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advises the Healing Center on faith and spirituality issues and runs the Interfaith Spiritual Space. For four years we've brought together leaders from the Christian, Humanist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Wicca, Sikh, Vodou and other communities to talk about healing; we work with local, national and international organizations including the tireless team at Interfaith Works in New Orleans. Under these leaders' guidance we've developed an Interfaith Spiritual Space on the top floor of the Healing Center, a necessarily ascetic room where groups and individuals of any or no faith can find a sanctuary. A place to heal.
Communication is an essential component of both spiritual work and healing, so Headwaters/Delta Interfaith also runs the social media for the Healing Center. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you're in New Orleans, please come by the Grand Opening of the New Orleans Healing Center on Aug. 28. It's serious, with a panel discussion on Healing and Spirituality (I'm a speaker), and fun, with food and lots of live music. Our community has made this all possible, so the least we could do is throw a party. We're all looking forward to the Grand Opening. It's amazing to me that it is actually happening. It's meaningful that it's happening on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's sixth anniversary.
When we respond to a cry for healing, we realize, in the end, that both the call and the answer come from within. This is not easy work. We don't do everything right. Some people think this is a terrible idea, that it does more harm than good, that we're in it for the money, that it's pointless to try and change anything. Going forward requires faith in humanity, in the city, in community. It requires faith in ourselves. It is work that will never be done -- healing is not an event. It's a process, and one that never stops. It's painful. The city is still broken. So are we all. We stay, we work through the doubts, because we love.
It might be irrational, but I believe in people's goodness. I believe that, regardless of where we call home, we are all wounded and want healing. I have no rights to New Orleans. I am not from there and there is much I do not, and will never, understand. My involvement has made me deeply examine my own life and my own motives. There is no money in it: my husband and I finance Headwaters/Delta, the trips to NOLA, the photocopies, pretty much everything. We get aid for hosting our meetings from the equally tiny KHEL Charities International (an organization started by my mother), where I got my interfaith and non-profit management training. The Healing Center has been generous in recognizing the value of our service and while we have a lease, they've written in that we can pay what we're able. That's faith. That is the irrational faith necessary for healing.
The Healing Center is a vision that rose out of disaster. It's an innovative idea with no map to show the way. It's an attempt to answer a question: What is healing? There have been numerous times we were discouraged, times we thought this would never work. Many people said we were crazy. They were right: we're crazy in love. As wounded as the city is, she's ours, and we will never forget her again.
Follow Saumya Arya Haas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nsomniasaum