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Wholly Spirited

Katrina relief efforts are being led by an unlikely alliance: evangelical Christians and the Rainbow Tribe.

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Photography and interviews by Renee Rosensteel
Text and additional interviews by
Marty Levine

Nearly four months after Hurricane Katrina, widespread destruction remains along the Gulf Coast. In some of the hardest-hit areas -- Waveland, Miss., and New Orleans -- the aid effort is being undertaken jointly by two groups who have formed an unlikely alliance: evangelical Christian churches, often of the most fundamental kind, and the Rainbow Tribe, a loose-knit, leaderless group described on one unofficial Rainbow Web site (welcomehome.org) as "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world. ... We're into intentional community building, non-violence, and alternative lifestyles. We also believe that Peace and Love are a great thing." They brought their experience -- and tents and other equipment -- from many a large, outdoor Rainbow gathering.

In late November, a small delegation from Pittsburgh traveled south to chronicle this surprising confluence, and to lend a hand themselves. South Side photojournalist Renee Rosensteel, long-time Manchester activist Vincent Scotti Eirene and Duquesne University graduate student Alison Roth witnessed New Age healers working side-by-side with students on missions, Rainbow cooks and retired church members -- all of whom were serving long lines of Katrina victims as the federal government could not. On Dec. 1, federal authorities forced the Waveland relief effort to move on. Some set up a new operation in Chalmette, St. Bernard's Parish, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, perhaps the most damaged area of New Orleans. Others are still active in Waveland's Hancock County.

Jimmie Jones of Knoxville, Tenn., helped establish the New Waveland Café and Market relief site in the parking lot of a Waveland Wal-Mart. His Sept. 9 arrival in Mississippi allowed the free-spirited and the spiritual to join forces. Jones had been working a construction project in Bastrop, Texas, and attending the Bastrop Christian Outreach Center on Sundays. When Katrina hit, a Bastrop woman asked four congregants to track down her daughter in Waveland on Sept. 2 -- 500 miles away. Jimmie Jones tells the story:

They had to take back roads and talk their way past National Guard roadblocks. They came here because it was across the street from the police station and the water tower. Police said, "You're the first people we've seen. Do you have any water?"

The police had their families with them. They had gone to the police station for the storm and they had to swim out, all 27 of them, and grab trees and power lines and whatever they could to survive. [Bastrop volunteers] helped pick up some bodies. The parking lot was a mess. People came out of the woods. They were sleeping under pieces of tin and plywood. They were muddy, and a lot of people didn't have any clothes -- the 130-mile-an-hour winds rip your clothes off. Most of them hadn't seen anybody else from outside in four days. So you can imagine how they were feeling. I talked to a man who stayed in a tree for two and a half days, was snakebit three times, watched alligators pull bodies out of the brush.

These four [Bastrop] guys immediately called back to Bastrop and said, "Send more trucks, food, water, clothes." I came the following Friday. I've spent every night on the parking lot since. I intended to stay till Sunday. It smelled very bad. There was sewage everywhere, debris everywhere, no water or electricity. There were no facilities of any kind. That Saturday morning [Sept. 10], we were going to cook breakfast. We thought 60 or 70 people would show up. Before we knew it, there were hundreds of people in line. And we didn't have enough stuff or food or people to feed them.

There were 10 of us here. Billy Helms said, "Jim, let's drive around town and see if we can get people to help us here." And every church we visited was either destroyed or the people had left or they were at their church working and they were in no shape to help.

We went to Hammond [Louisiana] and found this Harvest Church. They already had 180 people sleeping in their auditorium from New Orleans. All of their volunteers were very busy. [The pastor] said, "Let me take your number and if I hear of anything, I'll call you." So we drove to the next church and as soon as we drove up in the parking lot I got a call from Eddie Robinson, assistant pastor [at Harvest], and he says "Jim, you just left here, right? Turn around and come back. There's somebody that just drove up that said they want to help feed people from the disaster area."

In the empty gravel parking lot in Hammond we found a bus and van, and in the bus and van were Felipe Chavez, Richard Rawski and David Sanotovich, all [Rainbow members] from Wisconsin, and they said 'We've been sent down here by some co-op farmers to set up a food kitchen.'

And I said, "That's great. How many people a day can you feed?"

And Felipe said, "Two thousand."

And I said something like, "Not in a week, in a day."

And Felipe said, "Jim, I said 2,000."

And they just followed us, just like that. The meeting was that short. Felipe and Richard and David did say they felt like God brought us together. They spoke that, and we've talked about that since, and what a God moment that was.

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