The Power of Presence

A Post-Katrina New Orleans Reflection

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A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest ... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
                                                 —Albert Einstein

I step out of our cockroach-infested, termite-lovin', double-shotgun home, set atop a gutted out and mold-ridden lower apartment to walk the streets of my neighborhood. Looking around at the ever-present piles of trash, boarded up entryways, shattered stained glass windows, teetering homes and stray dogs, I try to allow the images and the encounters of this journey to work their way into my being. More often than not, however, I find myself, sometimes unconsciously, shutting my eyes and ears to the destruction and despair, the stories of immeasurable loss and suffering. There are days when I ride my bike down the streets of New Orleans and barely flinch at the devastation that surrounds me; sometimes I become wholly desensitized to the violence and destruction that is so prevalent in this city. Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of need, I retreat, shut down a piece of my self, all in hopes of retaining some semblance of functionality.

I, like many other volunteers, came to New Orleans with a mission. Conditioned to think that my success was solely measured by how much I could do, what I could accomplish with my hands, and what results I would achieve, I set off to rebuild the city. Through offering such tangibles as clothing and hygiene kits, meals and shelter, energy and rental assistance, I believed that I could help this city and its people rebuild. All too often, however, the closet of supplies was empty, the shelters were at full occupancy, or the utility and rental assistance money had run dry. I was left empty-handed with nothing to give, nothing to provide. These moments forced me to recognize that the one and possibly only thing I could truly offer was the ability to listen, to be fully present, and then to bear testimony to the truths being shared with me.

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Alisa Bright

Alisa Bright (2007 Krista Colleague) graduated with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. She served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at The Harry Thompson Center in New Orleans, providing aid to homeless and displaced persons directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. In her spare time, Alisa enjoys Bhangra, Afro-Haitian, and Hip Hop dance classes.

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