Happy St. Patrick's Day! Last weekend I experienced the most joyful St. Patrick's experience, I have to share it.
I was in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana - one of the most devastated areas in the state. You've seen the Lower 9th Ward on TV - well St. Bernard Parish is right next to it, and every single person there lost his home in the flood.
But here's the amazing thing. Last Sunday they celebrated their annual St. Patrick's Parade. It's a big deal there. I went there with my sister and her friend to do some volunteer work, but everyone we met asked, "Did you come for the parade?"
On Sunday we drove down the main street in the Parish, on our way to visit some neighborhoods to see what we could do to help. But it turned out that we were driving down the parade route right before the parade started. There were hundreds (possibly thousands) of people lined up 3 people thick on the sides of the road waiting for the parade. They were laughing and smiling, most wearing green of course. They looked so happy you almost didn't notice all the collapsed buildings right behind them. But when you did notice, it was the most surreal scene you could ever imagine. Joy in the presence of devastation. In that moment they were so happy to be reunited and have their parade that they were able to forget the horrendous scene that stretched for miles in all directions around them.
Just a few miles away in New Orleans the people throw beads to the crowd during Mardi Gras. In the St. Bernard Parish St. Patrick's Parade they throw beads too. They also throw carrots, potatoes and cabbage! All the main ingredients for a good corned beef and cabbage stew, minus the corned beef, which I imagine would present a huge health hazard if it were thrown! It's an annual tradition, and these resilient people weren't going to let anything (not even hell or high water) get in the way of an annual tradition.
We were still out in the neighborhoods talking with a few people who stayed behind to gut their houses when the parade ended. The people who'd been to the parade came home to their trailers parked in front of their flood-damaged homes with trunks full of beads and vegetables. They all had huge smiles. They told us to take whatever we wanted from their trunks. They offered us food they'd barbequed for the celebration. Here we'd come to help them, and they were doing everything they could to help us. One woman gave us her phone number and told us we could stay with her family the next time we were in the area. Everyone hugged us and welcomed us and thanked us for being there. And these words kept coming into my head: nothing but love. Everything else was gone, but the love was still there.
I told some of the women I was amazed at how resilient they all were. One of them said this was an especially good day because of the parade. "But believe me, we still have our days of crying, too".
If you drive through St. Bernard Parish you understand the crying part. I saw things I never thought I'd see. A brick house, still attached to it's foundation, that popped out of the ground and floated past 7 houses until it crashed into another one. And I met a sweet teenage girl who lived in the house it crashed into. When I asked her about her house, her voice cracked and she fought back tears. But when I asked her about the parade she beamed.
People around the country keep asking why those affected by Katrina don't just move away. And in St. Bernard they say, "Because this is where my people are". And now I understand what they mean. They reminded me of the Whos in Whoville who celebrated even when the Grinch took everything away. Katrina hadn't stopped St. Patrick's from coming, it came! Somehow or other, it came just the same.
So if you're walking around today and someone pelts you with a potato or a cabbage, don't be offended. It's probably just someone from St. Bernard Parish just sharing the love.