Archive | January, 2012

SEND in Ecuador

28 Jan

Nick and new friends in Ecuador

I began this blog with the hope of it being a place where others could share their own stories of community service – whether they be inspiring or disturbing, sad or funny. I suspect that the more memorable service experiences are some combination of the above, if the people involved just take the time to observe.

Such a keen observer is one Nick Frazier, who is on the verge of completing a double-major of Writing/Mass Communications and Graphic Arts. He’s excelled in the latter despite a considerable obstacle – Nick is color blind. But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his artistic interests – just as strange terrains don’t stop him from serving others. Last spring he was part of the Paul Belsito-led SEND trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; less than a month ago, he left the country altogether, following Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques and classmates to Ecuador.

Below is an excerpt from one of Nick’s Ecuador entries; to read Nick’s blog, “Young and Just a Little Reckless,” try http://youngandjustalittlereckless.wordpress.com/

It’s a terrific combination of visual art and story-telling, informed by the social conscientiousness and bold spirit of Nick himself.

Here is one of my favorite passages from Nick’s work:

     It was a sad realization when it dawned on us that these little kids don’t receive this kind of love or attention at home, so we agreed to pick every single one up. BIG MISTAKE. When you lift them up once they want it again. And again…and again. Nonetheless when we got inside the gate of the school a little boy named Leontel ran over to me and jumped. Luckily I had put the crate of bananas down because it was so unexpected that I was glad I caught him.

            He was small but a tough kid. He had a revolver belt buckle which made him awesome in my book. He pointed and shouted something I didn’t understand but I just decided to follow in the direction he pointed and it seemed to please him. When we walked into the stadium area, there were kids, EVERYWHERE. They all just starred at us. Pointing and whispering as if they had little secrets about the aliens that just walked into the room. We were asked to line up so they would follow our example and they did. Then we had to introduce ourselves, our favorite color and our favorite food. When it got to me I said,

            “Me llamo Nicholas, yo favorita colore es rojo y yo favorito food es burrito.”

            I immediately realized that again, I sounded like an idiot, and it was really stereotypical of me to think that since I am in South America saying burrito would make me sound cool…it didn’t it made me look like an ass. Regardless, we finished and the man running the program whose name was Ricardo, who would end up being awesome, released everyone to the big kid’s activity, the little kid’s activity or the homework room. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area. She had us all sit on the bleacher where the little kids were assigned to go to and the second I sat down I had Leontel on my shoulders and two other little ones in my lap. The kids were beyond the cutest little beings I had every seen.

 

            What we didn’t know when we would walk in was that each of the kids would watch us walk in and immediately choose a favorite without knowing anything about us. So when we all started getting split up into groups, the little kids would chase after their favorites or cry out in desire to be with them. When the other Rostro volunteer began splitting the kids up to get into groups with each of us, the little kids clutched on to the arms of the Gringos that they wanted to stay with. When she got to Leontel he literally attempted to tackle my upper body. I guess this was body language for wanting to stay with me because when she allowed him to stay next to me he put out his fist for a bump.  This kid was awesome.

            Our group had about 10 little ones in it. It was the leader of our trip and me. We were given a book to read to the kids and have them pick out little fun facts in it. Finally my 3 years of Spanish started to kick in when I was able to read to them. After which we gave out paper and crayons. They begged for more crayons but we had to restrict them to 4 each. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a small child that you know has nothing in their life and all they want in that moment is one extra crayon? It is impossible. Sorry Rostro volunteers if I left the kids wanting extra crayons, but I gave them the entire bag and watched their smiles burst and their little hands fight for the ones they wanted.

            What happened next was one of I think 3 major moments during the whole trip which will forever be imprinted in my mind. The volunteer Molly came over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and seemingly doing well. She smiled and said “good”. All the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny. He had an adorable little striped shirt, a tiny had and tiny little shorts. Neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

            My first thought, “shit, here it comes”. She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

            I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. We asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two adjacent houses. The 7 year old got out.

            The 4 year old did not.

            Three weeks before I was at a Christmas party eating cookies and opening presents. Puts quite a few things in perspective. This 7 year old was now homeless and without a brother. I never got the chance to meet him. But I wish I could have.

Frazier exhibiting some of his work.
Link

Young and Just A Little Reckless, by Nick Frazier

28 Jan

Young and Just A Little Reckless, by Nick Frazier

http://youngandjustalittlereckless.wordpress.com/

Link

More tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa County

28 Jan

More tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa County

Fortunately, the system that spawned eight tornadoes early last week did nowhere near the damage of the storms of April 27th, 2011. But two people in central Alabama were killed by the latest round of tornadoes. See the link.

 

Following through

22 Jan

Dewayne with gift from SEND crew

Tuesday Assumption College started its spring semester in typical fashion: With snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and students and faculty alike bundled up as they trod through sub-freezing weather. All of which is usually made easier to bear by the sheer adrenaline surge this extrovert feels when it’s time to throw himself into the mix of colleagues and students; after several weeks of being on my own, it’s usually a sweet relief to be back.

This past week, however, stacked up to be a different challenge. Instead of being away from Assumption students over the break, I’d spent a week with 13 of them, down in my hometown. I wasn’t the escort of the trip – official escort Paul Belsito was with them 24 hours a day; I’m guessing my average was closer to eight. But, of course, that was still more hours with students than the 48-50 I spend teaching any single three credit-hour-a-week course – and in the latter case, the students aren’t wandering my hometown, hanging at my mother’s house, or breaking out my four-decade old game of Battleship.

So how, I wondered, was this first week going to feel different from the first weeks of past semesters? Would I just ride the high of being with some of our most motivated students into a similarly fulfilling semester? Would the grim business of education – all that required reading, police work and grading – make my normal pedagogy a joyless business?

And, above all, how would bonds formed down in Alabama carry over into the semester, let alone translate into future service?

Our group, after all, was succeeded by other college crews, and there will be thousands more in the long rebuilding process in Tuscaloosa. As for the students, while part of a SEND trip’s appeal is the chance to throw one’s self wholeheartedly into a single intensive task with a single group in a single community, we all come back to scattered demands of our multiple communities, ranging from courses and committees to family and friends. And for our seniors, add to that the machinery of applying for post-graduate jobs.

Even though a week is too short a time to measure, I saw encouraging signs. One student managed to catch me at the office amid the turmoil; Nick DiAntonio talked for 20 minutes before my 1 p.m. class, and told me he still planned to take up a volunteer’s offer of tickets to an Alabama game next season. Other students stopped me around campus for handshakes and a few half-hugs; students who didn’t even go on the trip brought up rumors they’d heard about the Tuscaloosa adventure. On Friday afternoon, at the Living Learning Center Interest Circle initial gathering in Hagan, Erin and Kate showed up sporting their Crimson Tide hooded sweatshirts – of course, anyone actually from Alabama would have found them far too thin for the New England cold – and the three of us talked enthusiastically. They gave me the news that Dewayne Searcy, our foreman in Tuscaloosa, and his friend James Shackelford, who got us the reservation at Bob Baumhower’s restaurant for the title game, were still talking about a road trip north when things get a bit warmer.

They also serve who laugh: Dewayne renders yet another touching moment into hilarity.

But even more important than the relationships themselves is the inspiration and information the bonds continue to convey. Example: Erin and Kate showed me a text from Dewayne – which included a picture from the house on which we worked. It turned out Dewayne is texting daily photos of the house into which 82-year-old Appie Jones will move. (Never having texted Dewayne directly, I hadn’t seen them, although I got numerous Facebook messages from the man.) Dewayne taking the time to keep groups updated, letting them know they are remembered, is a classic example of how to meet the challenge that comes after the mountaintop experience has ended – the challenge of following through.

In some ways this is an individual task, which each person has to engage in his or her own way. Those ways might include individual volunteer work, keeping the communication lines open, and/or making donations, modest as they might seem, to an agency’s continued work. But Assumption also works hard to follow through on a communal level. As part of that,  Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques – the architect behind all these SEND trips – and I invite all the SEND students (and their escorts) to share their own service stories. Those stories need not be polished; they might be as simple as a single humorous or moving incident on a single day, or the story of a trip and what it meant to the writer. I do recommend you send some our way sooner rather than later, while the details are still fresh in your mind – but at the same time, I figure that every student who has engaged in service has come back with a few memories that will stick for a long time to come. (We’d also love selected photos, particularly ones that come with place and people identified.)

We may have left the geographic locales in which we first merged in the act of serving, but, despite all the distractions of our busy springs, we can find places in our lives to share memories, and build on the same.

This space is one of them.

Come by any time.

Tuscaloosa SEND crew, plus Dewayne and, yes, Mom

The Challenge of Change

16 Jan

I lingered on a sidewalk that cut diagonally across Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, looking back at where we’d come from. I regarded the back of a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., himself looking back at 16th Street Baptist Church, the plain, red brick church where, on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, a white supremacist bomb had killed four African-American girls. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley had died not for being part of a protest, but simply for being among the children filing into the basement to prepare for the sermon, titled “The Love That Forgives.”

How could anyone forgive that? Let alone the scenes depicted by the other statues at the park, from a policeman commanding a dog to lunge into the face of a protestor to a canyon of other-worldly canine jaws, designed to threaten pedestrians into at least an echo of the fear protestors felt. The sidewalks also led us to pass between a fire hose and protestors leaning against a wall, bracing against an imagined impact – and between two children and the bars of their jail cell. Beneath the standing figures reads the inscription: “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Jail.”

But what exactly were our students feeling?

Assumption’s SEND volunteers were mostly quiet as they wandered in clumps. We’d been riding four days of good feelings, born of spirited work building the Habitat for Humanity house in Tuscaloosa, and this was our off day, a time to cut loose. But there were no goofy poses here, not in this spot, especially after touring the building across the street – the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The museum opened in 1992. Birmingham had changed dramatically since 1963 – the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington had been mayor for 13 years; he would serve for seven more before stepping down. Still, the Civil Rights Institute faced opposition from those who, remembering the horrors of the past, thought it better not to bring up the past.

But if some Birmingham residents resisted the Civil Rights Institute because of profoundly painful feelings, this day I was more worried about the opposite problem. How would our Assumption College students – all white, all from the Northeast, all born within a year or two of the institute itself, respond? How deeply would it register, even among students so idealistic, they’d decided to spend their winter break serving others? How would I feel if I weren’t from here?

The Institute certainly does everything it can to reach across the gap of half a century. It shares an intersection with 16th Street Baptist and Kelly Ingram Park, but it’s so smartly designed, it would pack a punch anywhere it was placed. we were greeted at the base of the steps; we ascended only after a guide asked to respect the reverence of the exhibits by not taking photos or using cell phones. While the tour was self-guided, the space imposed the same sense of progression on all of us: A short documentary lay the groundwork the city’s post-Civil War history, industrial and racial, that led to segregation; the theater screen then rose, revealing the first of several rooms which contrasted “white only” and “black only” facilities. We’d wound past photos and videos, statues and artifacts; we’d heard the impassioned voices of both Wallace and King ringing with seemingly equal passion, and lingered long in front of the exhibit dedicated to the four girls who died in that horrific blast just across the street. We’d walked across to the church itself – the group reflexively, but wanly, smiled for a group photo – then, of course, the park itself, where many confrontations went down. One seasoned war correspondent covering the protests said he’d never seen anything as disturbing, and the statues did their best to remind us.

Still, time passes – and I don’t just mean the almost half-century since the bombings. There’s also the mere half hour after the exhibit. Our paying of respects to the past gave way to a request for designer coffee and fru-fru yogurt, and from there, a drive up the mountain to the statue of Vulcan, symbol of Birmingham’s steel mill legacy. We went  up into the top of the statue – some giggling over their fear of heights, multiplied by the see-through metal grate floor. The ride back to Tuscaloosa evolved into spirited singing of country music standards and smart-phone updates of how Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos were doing against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  We watched the first half of the game at Dreamland Barbecue, a world famous black-owned ribs joint which made its reputation serving simply ribs, sauce, and a loaf of sandwich bread; white customers would flock to the gravel rural roads of Jerusalem Heights, then, and probably still, a mostly black neighborhood on the edge of town.

I was glad to have these positive examples of race relations, like our experience on the work site, to prop against the images of hatred. But as we headed home for the nightly reflection required for Assumption SEND trips, it all had me wondering what students absorbed from the day.

Once we settled down to talk, though, I was relieved to see that these issues registered far more than they let on. I had scribbled questions to pose, but they beat me to almost every one of them – including the troubling one of how they would’ve responded had they been born into the same culture in the same moment of history. Would they have been among those with the critical detachment to see the bigger picture – and the mind-blowing courage to act on it? No one seemed to imagine they would be a pathologically violent fomenters of hatred – one of the small minority who committed acts of violence – but some did have that uneasy feeling that they might’ve been on the wrong side of the issue … or, being on the right side, failed to act with the appropriate sense of outrage. Without being asked, they volunteered analogous issues facing us today, ones that went far beyond race itself.

When I asked them how their experience would influence their perception of Martin Luther King Day – at our college, a time of hustle and bustle, when students settle into their dorms before the first day of classes – a couple said they would think of the courage King and thousands of others showed in transforming a world deeply set in its racist ways. They also agreed the work was far from done.

After more than an hour of social critique and self-questioning reflection, it was time to wind them down  – they had a 7 a.m. shift on the work site Monday, followed by an evening of rooting for the mostly African-American stars of the University of Alabama football team. Searching for an upbeat benediction, I asked them what, if anything, was redemptive about this day of exploring the legacy of King, as well as the brave thousands who followed him.

“That,” one student said, her eyes moist, “people can … change!

Transformations

13 Jan

Tiny shack in ruins less than 100 yards from Habitat project

Thursday afternoon I weaved through the wasteland once packed with homes and businesses – razed by 1-2 punch of the April 27 tornado and eight months of debris removal – and pulled up at 118 29th Street, the future home of storm survivor Appie Jones.

The Habitat for Humanity sign proclaims the house is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church and Nick’s Kids – but I’ll always think of this as the Assumption College house, where 13 big-hearted, hard-working students and escort Paul Belsito put in five vigorous work days. They caulked and sanded and puttied and painted, inside and out; they sawed and installed woodwork beneath the eaves, sheathed the porch columns, installed and stained doors.

Compared to that joyful commotion, the house seems lonely now, in the late afternoon light. The students flew out early Wednesday morning, on their way back to the frozen north while I lingered behind, getting in some quality time with family and friends. They had as productive and inspiring a week as anyone could expect from an immersion experience: Tuscaloosa isn’t known for its breathtaking peaks, but the students obviously had a mountaintop experience. I imagine a few of them might be wondering how to hold onto the high, perhaps even how much they have contributed in the grand scheme of things.

Out of sight, out of mind?

I wish they could see what I saw after they left – and what I’ll keep seeing, and feeling, every visit home, for the rest of my life.

Start with the house. It seemed quiet and modest enough when I cruised by, Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy either done for the day or working elsewhere, leaving only two guys pouring the sidewalk. But this single-story home stands tall against the backdrop – ravaged shacks a few hundred yards away, then a flat void where the tornado destroyed about 100 lower-income homes and killed six of the people who lived in them, then, still farther away, the gash that continued for miles to my right, exposing landmarks once unseen from this street.

The house, even amid the irrecoverable loss of 52 people and thousands of homes, has me thinking about something hopeful.

"Roll Tide Roll": My game-night uniform.

Something called transformation.

Transformation that is slow, transformation that is arduous, transformation made possible in large part by the fresh energy and enthusiasm of volunteers such as the ones who came to my home from Assumption.

Or perhaps I should say transformations, as some are conspicuously public – this particular house is easily seen from the thoroughfare of Greensboro Avenue –and profoundly intimate. It’s the latter that has me continuing to write this, on my mother’s kitchen counter, when I really should be packing for my own flight back to Massachusetts.

Bear in mind that while I am a native Tuscaloosan, for all practical purposes, I haven’t lived here since 1981. Three decades erode both the strength of emotional connections and the vividness of memories, paved over by newer experience that, I have told myself, are more relevant to who I am today.

But for the last 24 hours, I’ve felt a change. Yesterday I drove by a patch of campus I normally attach no personal significance to whatsoever – only now it’s the path we walked our first afternoon in town, when, despite exhaustion, the students were eager to see the University of Alabama campus, gawk at the massive stadium, and flood the bookstore – intent on buying shirts that would declare their allegiance to Alabama football and Tuscaloosa as a whole. While this might be dismissed as a typical souvenir-gathering impulse, it turned to predict a wholehearted investment on the work site, where they were anything but tourists. Meanwhile, the trip led me to places I’d never been myself. One example was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – barely built back when I left Alabama – which I will write more about in this space come Monday. Another was the restaurant where owner (and former Alabama and Miami Dolphin star Bob Baumhower) went against policy to provide reserve our students a table, allowing them to watch Alabama’s 21-0 crushing of LSU in an appropriate setting.

Other places transformed include the very kitchen in which I now sit. It’s a relatively new home – miles from the house in which I grew up – but behind the stool on which I sit, what was once a nice but unremarkable dining table is now the place where, on their last night in town, our students abandoned more comfortable seating to huddle around Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy and his wife Heather. I won’t visit this space in the future without feeling a bit of the deep warmth, humor, and appreciation shared by Alabamians and Tuscaloosans.

Students, along with Mom, listen to point made by Dewayne, bottom left

On that night Dewayne told how his friend James, a coach and construction supervisor who set up the Bauhower restaurant experience, had told Dewayne on Assumption’s first day that while most groups who come in have one or two stars, he could look into the eyes of “each and every person” and tell early they were all fully engaged. Dewayne said it more eloquently than this, but at that point in the proceedings, I was too moved to take notes.

Fortunately I do have the notes of students, a whole paper bag full of them, left over the course the week by students as the spirit moved them. The first night student leader Marissa Reis taped up a small paper bag for each group member, plus a bag marked “Land family.

I saved the reading of mine until two hours ago – spreading them on this counter so my mother and I could experience them together. We marveled for a good half hour, feeling some of that warmth come back all over again; Mom also allowed as how this gave her that much more insight on why I loved working at Assumption, what makes all that snow and ice worthwhile.

I suppose this week’s experience is just a moving reminder of something true all along – that our past always informs our present. In this case, it took a group of students less than half my age to help me see my hometown, and my life, in a fresh and affirming light. But what I hope the students take from this is that I’m just one local, in the loosest sense of the word; who knows how many thousands the SEND students impact over the years.

They may not get to come back to see the lasting impact, and even if they did, the subtler changes I feel this morning give no outward sign. But they have all done their bit to transform lives – including, this morning, my own.

Link

Telegram chronicles Assumption visit

10 Jan

Telegram chronicles Assumption visit

Pre-game Calisthenics

9 Jan

 

Tornado survivor Dowling (right) with (L-R) Brittany Wilson, Paul Belsito, Rev. Charlie Durham, and Marissa Reis.

As work on the Rosedale Court home of Appie Jones continued, the group received encouragement from a series of intriguing visitors – most importantly, Appie Jones herself.

The 82-year-old tornado survivor walked about her future home – including the window-less “safe room” installed in the center of every Habitat home during this recovery – and talked with the crew (an event I missed).

I was there, however, for another Habitat home owner – Dana Dowling, the recipient of the first post-tornado home here in Tuscaloosa. She shared with a few students her harrowing story – that of surviving the riding out of a storm in one of the worst places to be, a trailer park.

If I was inclined to project an evil consciousness on a climatological entity, the tornado would be a prime candidate – it knocked out the emergency center on its way into towns, taking out the alarm system in the process (as well as all of the trucks needed to rebuild). Combine that with the power going out in the Dowlings’ neighborhood more than an hour before, and they were left with no idea the storm had turned their way. When they did figure it out, the funnel cloud blocked their way to the nearest shelter.

Before hiding in a utility room, they looked outside and saw the funnel cloud. Her daughter asked if she was seeing a car in the cloud, and Dana looked. “There was a minivan 250 feet up in the air,” she said.

Most of their trailer was gone when the cloud passed, as well as most of the trailer park. Strangely, Dana noted, no one was killed in the trailer park – since they knew to evacuate – but five were killed in traditional houses nearby.

The silver lining for the Dowlings was that they became recipients of the Habitat home on which they were volunteering, and moved in months ago, even as friends are still on hold, waiting for insurance, or mortgage companies, or FEMA, or some combination of the three. “It’ll take five years to rebuild,” she said.

She was more optimistic about the major event to come on this particular cloudy afternoon – the Alabama-LSU game. She received a call Monday from a Sporting News reporter, following up on the tornado angle. “They asked who I thought was going to win,” she said. “Is that even a question?”

Pointing out that she erred by wearing a purple shirt, a few purple-clad volunteers nearby quickly came to her rescue. “She’s wearing Kenyon colors,” offered one of the crew, newly arrived for their own service stint.

Dowling was soon joined by Rev. Charlie Durham, pastor of Tuscaloosa’s First Presbyterian Church – which has sponsored the building of this house. The church is also where my father attends. “I should’ve known you were a Land,” he joked, “since you have a camera hanging around your neck.”

Durham was with the inspiring Karolina Lingyte, who volunteers for Habitat despite being bound to a wheelchair. That’s nothing particularly challenging for Lingyte, leading scorer on Alabama’s championship women’s wheelchair basketball team; she’d scored 30 in her last game before Christmas break.

Meanwhile, the sign for this Habitat house mentions one other major sponsor – Nick’s Kids, football coach Nick Saban’s charity, which has set the goal of building one new home for each of Alabama’s 13 championships.

“Let’s hope,” my father told me today, “they make it 14.”

Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy checks paint job while sporting Saints cap autographed by New Orleans head coach Sean Payton

Sport as Service

8 Jan

SEND students careful not to tread on sacred circle in Bama locker room

Friday morning I was standing on the Habitat construction site, chatting with Assumption football captain Nick DiAntonio, when my father, Charlie, sidled up, his camera hanging from his neck.

When I started to mention Nick’s name, my father grinned; he’s already read the article about the Greyhound in the Boston Globe.

“Linebacker, math major, 3.8 GPA,” my father quipped, surprising Nick, and even me – although I shouldn’t have been. Of course Dad would’ve absorbed the key identifying information. Once a sports writer, always a sports writer.

My father knew Paul “Bear” Bryant from his arrival at Alabama through the glorious decade of the 1960s, and sports a national championship ring Bryant gave him after the 1961 season. Even more of a sign of how football pervades every part of life in Tuscaloosa, my father was the second person the students had met with a national championship ring – construction volunteer James Shackelford earned his as a safety on the 1992 team that upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl. “I saw Nick and I could tell he played,” James told me.

Working in a neighborhood where a tornado killed six people, is it frivolous to care so much about a game – or, in the face of such tragedy, is it spiritually healing to embrace whatever unites people in a sense of transcendent joy?

Tuscaloosa tends to suggest the latter – which is saying in a city still bearing the six-mile-long scar from last April’s tornado, which killed 52. As trivial as sports seems against such a backdrop, the normalcy of such diversions helped people keep their bearings: On April 28th, a little more than 24 hours after the tornado knocked out cable and internet at my father’s place, I called from a Worcester sports bar, reading the ESPN crawl summary of which Tide players went where, sure to note that with Mark Ingram going to New Orleans and Julio Jones to Atlanta, he’d get to see plenty of both in regional TV coverage.

As the weeks unfolded, University of Alabama athletes took earnestly their responsibility for helping with cleanup – after former Crimson Tide star Javier Arenas barely survived the tornado, he drove to Kansas City (where he plays for the Chiefs) and promptly returned with a vehicle filled with bottles of water and other supplies. Even Alabama’s opponents got into the action: Kent State football players helped clear debris last summer, earning an improbable ovation when they ran out onto the field to play Alabama that fall.  One unusual result: When Kent State ran out onto Bryant-Denny Stadium field that fall, Alabama fans gave the squad an ovation. (Gratitude couldn’t bridge the difference in talent; Alabama won 48-7.)

For this Tuscaloosan, the above is old news. The surprise, however, has been the ease with which Assumption students, New Englanders all, have adopted the Crimson Tide cause. What Assumption students have shown this week is how, once one learns to give one’s self over emotionally to being a fan, it’s easy enough to shift those sympathies to other teams and other regions – putting themselves into the shoes of others, if not their actual cleats. To this, add the outward-turned nature of students who choose to spend college breaks on service immersion trips – they’re eager to throw themselves into both the work and the culture.

Margaux Finan sports helmet in locker room

I saw this more clearly Saturday, when Jared Patterson, project coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa, gave Assumption students something any Tide fan would covet – a tour of the Alabama locker room and a run across the field of the 100,000-plus Bryant-Denny Stadium. Our students wandered through players lockers, posed by portraits, even made a giggling incursion into the showers.

Being our students, of course, they adhered to the one cardinal rule – not stepping on the large circular Alabama logo in the locker room. They wrote Assumption’s name on a dry-erase board – next to that of a Habitat group from the Midwest – and gawked at what a student called the “mind-boggling” scope.

But if the culture here – or anywhere in America – inevitably leads to sports, the reverse is also true. As Jared spoke to us in the north end zone, he pointed toward the opposite end, where he was standing when he saw the tornado. “When I was watching, it was probably right where you’re working now,” he said. Beyond that, though, it underscored that, as much a cliché as it is, Southern hospitality can really be a force – particularly when extended to a group of college students who have journeyed from Massachusetts to help rebuild a town. While we were busy working, Shackelford was working angles to get us coveted seating for Monday night’s game in Wings Sports Grill, owned by Bob Baumhower, former Bama and Dolphin defensive lineman.

Nick DiAntonio mimics Alabama running back Trent Richardson

Someone asked where Patterson was watching Monday night’s game.

“Well …” he said, grinning.

“Oh,” I said.

Of course. Patterson would be watching the showdown at a little hangout called The Superdome. That’s right: The game against Louisiana State University unfolds in New Orleans, itself site of a greater but similar catastrophe. Despite the hoopla about Monday’s football rematch, these days Alabama and Louisiana share a similar sense of loss – and a sense of what it means to rally against obstacles that aren’t going away any time soon. The very organization that’s hosting us this week has only one other location – New Orleans.

Of course, the agency’s name, United Saints, yokes moral virtue and football. If getting back to the business of Mardi Gras was spiritually important, the night the once-lowly Saints won the Super Bowl was downright miraculous.

By sheer coincidence, my father and his wife were in New Orleans that night, seeing people run up and down the hotel hallways screaming in joy, then wandering into the packed streets in search of the action.

“Everyone,” my father told me later, repeatedly, “was so happy.”

AC students trying spelling Alabama literally, as well as figuratively.

Stories one tells, and stories one can’t

6 Jan

Nick DiAntonio hits porch floor to do touch-up work

Thursday morning I stood in the front lawn of a Habitat for Humanity house in Rosedale Court, talking with a local volunteer.

My new acquaintance, it turned out, put in 10 years in Army artillery, and while he seems to have adjusted well to civilian life, he told me that the biggest adjustment in coming home was the sheer silence of the night.

That sense of quiet was disrupted on April 27th, when the tornado that took 43 lives here destroyed his home. He said he’d be willing to discuss his experience with Assumption’s students, but his girlfriend had other ideas, and for a very good reason: She was in the house when the tornado hit

“I’ll show them pictures I took,” she said, gesturing to the cell phone in her hand, “but I don’t talk about it.”

This is a common tension here, or, I suspect, any community where a large-scale traumatic event has occurred. Some people need to share their stories – and others need not to. Despite the narrative theme of this blog, I deeply respect both responses. The Royal Wedding, of all things, paved over the national story within 24 hours, footage of human suffering replaced by images of pomp and circumstance, but here the victims who need to share their stories have found compassionate audiences. Open meetings were held at local churches where people could do just that.

Even the night of the storm, amid the chaos of blocked streets, blaring sirens, and power outages, one rescue worker described, in the documentary Faces of the Storm, the need to set aside his sense of urgency just to hold a stranger and listen – and, he said, “why wouldn’t you?”

Meanwhile, we stand on the opposite end of the city from where the tornado destroyed his home. This is clear, open land stretching behind the Habitat home to the right, but that’s only due to the razing of wreckage after the tornado flattened 100 out of 188 units of Rosedale Courts, killing six – and when people saw more than dozen blocks of destroyed homes in this neighborhood, everyone was shocked the count wasn’t higher.

As a low-income housing development, Rosedale speaks to another story line here – in many areas of the city, affordable old housing likely will be replaced by stronger, newer structures that will be more expensive. Even if the insurance and/or FEMA money comes through, where do folks relocate after a tornado destroys 12 percent of a city?

But some stories are positive: My new friends – including their dog who also survived the storm – move into their new Habitat home in a matter of weeks; the dedication has been delayed by their schedules at work (and work, in this economy, is also a good thing). Meanwhile, here in Rosedale, the debris here has been removed, the sun has come out, and as students settle into the groove of their construction tasks – from spackling cracks and touching up the paint job to some earnest ladder-top carpentry and learning to use large power saws – there is good cheer.

The energy and optimism of youth  is a blessing, particularly when it’s youth guided by conscience. That night, when Marissa Reis asks her fellow students their hopes and fears during the nightly prayer and reflection, it’s clear they know there’s much more to be done – and understand, if, indeed, any of us ever can.

As one student stated, “I hope we get a real understanding of what happened down here, even though in the north we don’t get many storms like this … and I hope people here know that people in the North remember them.”

Brittany Wilson braves the scaffolding to spackle the carport ceiling.

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