Advice from the last chaplain in New Orleans

I talked to the last remaining police department chaplain in New Orleans this weekend, asking him for advice. The gist of Joe Cull's cellphone sermon from the Second District Station on Magazine and Upton streets in New Orleans was now that Katrina victims have been led beside still waters, it's time to restore their souls.

I sought his advice because I began volunteering at the Red Cross last week here in Norfolk where nobody ever thought they'd see hundreds of Katrina's survivors.

The mother of four little boys and survivor of hurricane Isabelle, I wanted to help the displaced children sitting in the multipurpose room while their parents filed paperwork to try to get their lives on track while bunking with friends or relatives here. Adults were exhausted and empty - some were angry, others just swept away in silent tears that wouldn't stop rolling down dark cheeks. But they were determined not to fold. The children needed entertaining. But the adults needed something I couldn't pull out of my bag of tricks.

So I called a friend in Tennessee whose brother is a chaplain still in New Orleans. I asked if he'd given her any clue about how to help people cope. My friend Edna Kennon said she thought we could help each other because her brother wanted to talk about the short shrift being given in the press to the uncommonly brave deeds of the police officers.

When Mr. Cull called me that night, he said he'd been "out sightseeing" and wanted to tell people about what he'd seen - the city's soul, still intact.

He was relieved to hear so many people were still soldiering on, even in Virginia. He wasn't surprised.

Cull is one of three chaplains contracted to the police force by Christian Health Ministries, a part of the McFarland Institute based in New Orleans. The ministry offices are destroyed. All other chaplains assigned to New Orleans left Friday before the hurricane hit.

"I'm on my own until the ministry can get back on its feet," explained the chaplain who spends his waking hours with the police, saving lives and listening to hopes and fury while ferrying victims to shelters in an unending cycle of rescue and spiritual recovery.

His first advice was: "Don't try too hard. You can't make them feel different. But you can listen."

He told the story of NOPD Officer Troy Lyles, a young mother who sent her children to safety before Katrina hit and remained behind to do her job, but found herself trapped in her own attic.

"She sat on her roof two days waving at helicopter after helicopter and none stopped for her," he says. "Then a guy floating by on a door - a door! - paddled over and rescued her. "Without having any way to contact her children and know if they had remained safe, Officer Lyles went straight to work - alongside Cull and others who'd rescued themselves - saving others. At a prayer service one night she sang a hymn she'd learned in childhood. One clear voice in the dark.

Cull said the storm swept away barriers to faith: "It used to be that I almost never said a prayer at roll call and now it's expected. What was an intrusion is now a necessity, a desire, a source of comfort and hope."

Asked what he would tell a survivor who said the hurricane has destroyed their faith in God, the chaplain answered, "You only get angry at ones you care about. More of these people need to articulate that kind of feeling. I respect that and take it as a sign of their healing. You have to respect someone's space at a time like that and know it's good to let that out because that lets them heal faster."

The images of Katrina have been so graphic, there is the urge to shut our eyes. Knowing what I do now, I think we should close our eyes and see that the soul of the matter is what really matters. Let's find ways to give to that wherever we can.

Lisa Suhay is a children's book author who is donating the next six months' royalties from her books - 'There Goes a Mermaid' and 'Our Fantasy Island' - to Red Cross Katrina relief efforts.

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