For the last three years in a row I have had the incredible opportunity to spend some time in New Orleans, LA through a school-sponsored trip. Each year as I have walked down the beautiful, soul-filled streets and experienced the most amazing food, culture, and history, I am reminded of the expressions of joy and Spirit that are ever-present.
Each of the three trips I have been on have demonstrated new lessons and experiences that have pushed me to learn and grow in unique ways. The service-learning based trip exposed me to wonderful groups and organizations that are working to improve community across New Orleans. Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit, my college made a commitment to the city of New Orleans for ten years of re-building service, and here we are two years after that commitment expired with the same passion and desire to experience and learn from the city and its people. Now, we spend a few days continuing to re-build, and the rest of the week is spent in different study groups pertaining to each group of student’s interests. One of the most amazing parts of this trip to me is the diversity of students from different backgrounds and majors with a shared desire to travel, learn, and serve.
This past year’s trip was particularly special for me, because I was able to experience it as a student teacher. This meant that instead of being a part of one specific study group, I was able to work with all of the students and faculty on the trip and gain an even richer perspective of the beauty that is New Orleans. The service that the groups were working on ranged from volunteering in schools and conducting writing workshops to canvassing neighborhoods to lobby for various causes. We would come together each night to reflect on the experiences of the day, and each group would bring back inspiring stories of their experiences and the people they had met along the way.
This brings me to my favorite part about New Orleans- the people you meet. Over the years I have been able to engage with the people of the city in a way that feels so unique and special to me. Unlike the usual hustle and bustle of most cities, where everyone seems to either be on their phone or walking with their heads down, New Orleans offers a refreshing change. There is always opportunity to engage in conversation with people and learn more about the city and its history through them. One of my favorite places to go in New Orleans is the Community Book Store. The bookstore is owned and run by a woman who the community lovingly refers to as ‘Mama Jen.’
Mama Jen opened the Community Book Store years ago because she saw a need for a place in her neighborhood where people could come together to learn, engage in conversation, and, well, read. I have gotten to know Mama Jen pretty well over the last few years, and each time I talk with her she is full of wisdom and insight, and she always spreads a message of overwhelming love. One of my favorite conversations with Mama Jen happened on my most recent trip. She spoke with me and a group of students about the importance of having meaningful conversations with the people around us. I know that her words and positivity are a radiant light that will continue to burn with the other students and myself for the rest of our lives.
We spend some time every year to take in the art of the city. The character and creativity that exist in New Orleans are unlike any other place I’ve ever been. As you walk through the streets you can find art nearly everywhere you look- whether it is street art on the walls of buildings, an independently owned art gallery, or simply the art in the architecture of the French and Spanish inspired buildings that wrap themselves around the streets that sound with jazz and smell of the best homemade jambalaya you’ll ever have. Art is all around you in New Orleans. My favorite spot in New Orleans for art is called StudioBE. The story of the gallery is really amazing. After Katrina, an incredible artist who goes by MikeBE started making art in an abandoned building. That building became a place of sanctuary for the community as the walls became more and more filled with Mike’s inspiring artwork. Eventually, the building was torn down, but not before Mike and his followers could remove the art. This is how StudioBE came to exist, and it is now filled with the walls from that building and dozens of other motivational, beautiful pieces. A trip to this spot will never disappoint, and I know it always leaves me feeling inspired and enlightened.
As I reflect on my experiences in New Orleans over the last few years, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the amazing fried chicken I have eaten (Willie Mae’s is the best spot for it!), and the lasting lessons of community, Love, and engagement. From my very first trip to the city to this past trip as my last with my college (but I will certainly be back), I am reminded of the ever-present, omnipotent Love and Spirit that exists all over the world. More than anything, New Orleans has given me yet another place to experience home, and I am infinitely grateful for God’s proof of Soul and Spirit in New Orleans.
— Tatianna Plefka is from Pennsylvania and is a senior at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts graduating this spring