“We’re Just Overwhelmed”
On Wednesday, I called several people in the Diocese of Baton Rouge to ask what the rest of us can do to help them help those refugees. Each person I spoke to wept in response to my question. The director of communications for the diocese, the chancellor for the diocese, the campus minister at LSU they’re pretty tough folks, and they all wept at the enormity of the tragedies they are facing.
Laura Deavers is Director of Communications for the Diocese. I asked her what those of us in the rest of the country can do to help the Diocese of Baton Rouge. “You have to forgive me,” she said, as she began to cry. “You have to understand; just as the people from New Orleans have been displaced, so have the churches, the priests, the nuns all of us who are trying to help them, we’ve all been displaced. We’re just overwhelmed.” She suggested the best way to help with immediate needs would be to contact the parishes.
The first parish I contacted was Christ the King Parish and Catholic Center at Louisiana State University. LSU is receiving large numbers of refugees, including many of the most needy. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC), normally home to LSU basketball, is now functioning as a temporary hospital. The Carl Maddox Field House next to the Assembly Center is now a special needs shelter and a triage unit.
There are as yet no shelters available for the families of those being treated in the PMAC and Field House. They are fending for themselves, along with the many thousands of other refugees pouring into Baton Rouge. The Catholic Center at LSU is striving to respond to this onslaught of suffering and of need. I spoke to Rebecca East, who is one of the chaplains there.
She told me that though classes are not yet in session, students have been showing up all day asking her what they can do to help. She tells them to go the PMAC, or the Field House, and find someone who looks troubled, and just introduce themselves, and ask if they can help.
Rebecca offered me an example of one such encounter of her own.
“I saw a woman standing up against the back of her car with her head in her hands, and I went up and just said, ‘I’m Rebecca East and I’m with the Catholic Center here. Is there anything I can do to help?’
“She just started bawling and telling me all about everything that had happened. More than anything I think she just wanted to have someone listen to her, and to know that someone cared. So that’s what I’ve been telling the students to do, to listen to people, and find out what’s going on with them, and then do whatever they can to help them.
“One student found a woman who spoke little English, and she just seemed lost and frantic. She had a prescription, and it turned out that she just needed a ride to a drugstore. So the student gave her a ride. That’s probably the biggest need of all, just to have someone there who cares about what happens to these people.”
“They Need Everything”
I asked Rebecca what the rest of us can do to help, those of us who can’t be in Baton Rouge giving people rides and listening to their needs. Then she started crying and trying to tell me the answer to that question.
“They ask me for jobs,” she said. “That’s the number one thing they ask me for. They tell me they’re down to thirty-six dollars and they have no home to go back to and no job to go back to and they have a family to take care of. They ask me who will give them a job. Many of them especially the single men I know they would go anywhere, wherever the job is, they would go there just to find work, because they have nothing to go back to.
“And the woman who was leaning on her car she is living in that car with her husband and her four sons, and they’re pretty big boys. And it isn’t a big car. At night one of them can sleep in the Field House with her parents who are ill. They will let one loved one in per family. But the rest of them are living in that car. During the day we welcome them, them and anyone, here in the Catholic Center, and we feed them and give them coffee and a place to relax and use the phone, but we’re not allowed to use this facility as an overnight shelter.
“They need everything. They don’t have enough clothes, enough underwear. Many of them need shoes. Some brought their pets with them and have no place to keep their pets. They just need everything.”
“How many of them are there,” I asked Rebecca. “How many refugees are the in the LSU campus area?”
“I don’t know. The Pete Maravich Center holds thousands. There are thousands, and still they keep coming. And they have almost nothing.”
“I Am Proud to Be Catholic”
I also spoke with Fr. Than Vu, who is pastor of the Christ the King Parish and Catholic Center at LSU, as well as chancellor of the diocese. He said that while the diocese is working to formulate an integrated long-term response to the crisis, the parishes are responding to the best of their abilities to the immediate needs before them. Fr. Than has spent a lot of time the last two days at the PMAC and Field House, ministering those who have been evacuated from hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices in New Orleans.
“It’s emotional for me. My family is from there. The hardest thing for them is that they don’t know how long it’s going to be, or if there is anything for them to go home to. Some ask me if they should resettle here. One woman this morning told me that she has lost her family; she doesn’t know if they’re alive or not. But she said, ‘I will go home. I know God is with us and I will go home.’”
“I’m sorry,” Fr. Than said to me, as he wept.
“Yesterday,” he continued, “I spent two hours with one lady whose father is very sick, dying. She was so upset, so emotional about her family not being able to be with her father, that finally the doctors and nurses and social workers just gave up on trying to help her because she was so mad. But I finally convinced her that I was different, because I was a priest, and it was okay for her to talk to me. And we got her father moved to a local hospice here and the family can be together with him while he dies.
“At Mass this morning we had four times as many people as usual, and we just spontaneously sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ During the prayers of the faithful I invited people to pray and there was an overwhelming sense of trust in God. Everyone is so unsure of everything the future holds. I’m unsure in the middle of all of my responsibilities as chancellor, and yet there is an overwhelming sense here of trust in God.
“Many of our parishioners will be here tomorrow at the Activities Center just to be with the people, to share with them, to have the sense of being together as one. And right now, so many of our students are down at the PMAC or the Field House. In moments like this I am proud to be Catholic.”
I told Father Than that in moments like this I am proud to have priests like him whom I can claim as my own father. I thanked him for saying yes to God, and for living his vocation.
And I asked him if it would be OK for people to send donations directly to the Catholic Center there at LSU, so that he and Rebecca and the staff there who are interacting directly with the refugees can be in a better position to help them, and so that we can know we are with them as well.
According to Fr. Than and Rebecca the greatest needs are for gift cards from Wal-Mart or Target or Albertsons, or for checks, which can be made out to: Christ the King Catholic Student Center.
All donations may be mailed to:
Christ the King Catholic Student Center
Baton Rouge, LA 70894-5131.
The theological term “subsidiarity,” referring to the value of working at the local level whenever feasible, has become more and more common in recent years, and sometimes people debate about exactly what it means.
I believe this is what it means. I believe subsidiarity is when Fr. Than and Rebecca and the students from LSU’s Catholic Center reach out in love to their neighbors who are lost and wounded, and we then we reach out in love to our fellow Christians at the Catholic Center, sustaining them with our prayers and our gifts, so that they may continue bearing witness where they are that Christ is alive, and His Church is one.
The website for the LSU Catholic Center is www.ctk-lsu.org.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Dave Sloan, an Atlanta resident, writes and speaks on dating and courtship. Visit his website at http://www.godofdesire.com/.