Over Spring Break, from March 11 to March 18, a group of four chemical engineering sophomores painted and repaired damaged houses in New Orleans as part of the ServeUP InterVarsity Christian Fellowship program, a ministry of campuses in New England committed to exposing students to the intersection of faith and service. The four ChE students joined two teams of 14 students from UMass Amherst and about 66 students from the Five College area in the annual service program. The four ChE students were Bryan Chua, Navin Sundaramurthy, Ricardo Valdes, and Kyaw Htet Paing.
“Students of diverse racial, religious, and sociopolitical backgrounds come together to explore the intersection of faith, social justice, and racial reconciliation while rebuilding neglected parts of the city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the lasting effects of corruption, misuse of power, or lack of care,” explained a write-up composed by the ChE team.
The ServeUp program has been operating for the last decade. “ServeUP will help you understand the racial and ethnic issues we’re dealing with through the context of the cities we have been serving in for the last 10 years,” said an explanation on ServeUp’s website. “We are a diverse learning community stepping into a journey of discovery to explore Jesus and race and justice. But IF WE ONLY JUST TALK, what’s the point? Let’s actually do something as we talk. Be a part of a community of students walking alongside those we are serving, hearing their stories, and exploring reconciliation; to others, ourselves, and to God.”
As part of the InterVarsity ServeUp coalition, over 6,000 students from more than 65 New England campuses have rebuilt homes, joined in rebuilding lives, developed deep friendships with one another, and considered challenging issues of faith and justice while serving the people of New Orleans. “We seek to provide unique opportunities for students to care for those in real need, build community with other students with similar passions on campus, and provide a safe place to consider the implications of their beliefs and world view,” the InterVarsity website observed.
The four ChE undergrads explained that “Many of us who went for the second time for ServeUP New Orleans were actually disappointed that we did not get to build houses from the ground up as we did with Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps last year.” But their comment was also a cause for continued optimism, as they added that “Interestingly, every year, some projects get easier and easier as the city gets more and more rebuilt. However, in other parts of the city there is still plenty of rebuilding to do.”
Along with physical work in the city, participants also engaged with the locals, many of whom lived in a part of the city where shootings, killings, and burglaries happened rather often. Some of their work was aimed at helping a couple named Deacon Brown and his wife, Pam, who have lived in New Orleans since 1999.
“Their house survived Katrina but they did not return for six months until circumstances had improved,” the students related. “Deacon Brown is an amputee and his wife has diabetes and needs daily dialysis treatments at home. His situation prevented him from maintaining his house without the help of volunteers like us. We made sure that the house would survive another hurricane by replacing old boards, fixing a rooftop leak, and repainting the entire house.”
Another highlight of the trip was having engaging discussions on racial reconciliation. The entire team of 66 students from the Five College area were from different racial, religious, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political beliefs.
“On the last night,” recalled Chua, “I joked with my UMass teammates, asking them if all the world leaders were in this room, could they do a better job? Some laughed and said no. For me, I am just blessed for this opportunity to work together to serve others. I sincerely hope that communities in America and around the world would grow closer together as we put aside differences and strive towards a better tomorrow.”
When Hurricane Katrina first hit, 81 percent of the New Orleans went underwater, causing 1,800 deaths in the region, and leaving behind $75 billion in destruction. As the ServeUp website noted: “If you give your spring break to help the people of New Orleans, you will be joining a grand tradition of volunteer work of which is said: ‘Without it, there would be no recovery on the Gulf Coast!’ You will also learn about the complex issues facing their recovery and explore how to pursue justice and service in your own life. This week could change your life!” (April 2017)
Detailed photo captions:
Figure 1: Photo taken at the French Quarter on our orientation day. Chemical Engineering students William Paing (Class of 2019), Bryan Chua (Class of 2019) top left. Navin Sundaramurthy (Class of 2019) on the floor. Ricardo Valdes (Class of 2019) on the bottom right.
Figure 2: Photo of one of the UMass teams who spent five days with Deacon Brown and his wife repainting the house and making important repairs like fixing a rooftop leak, broken wall boards, and plumbing issues.