By Kevin Wilson: PNT Staff Writer
Though he’s been a preacher throughout New Mexico for nearly 20 years, Portales’ Don Holladay decidedly has a past, a present and a future in New Orleans.
Holladay, an assistant professor of religion at Eastern New Mexico University, recently returned from a five-day trip to help one family in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, and the longtime Methodist pastor came back with the feeling that so much is left to do.
Seeing the damage was a challenge to Holladay’s philosophy, which is that God does most work through building communities.
“It’s really easy to talk about helping the poor, but once you’re there it’s a different kind of deal.”
The visit was Holladay’s second trip to New Orleans in 2005. The first was for a conference in January, and since that point he kept in touch through e-mail on with a man named Craig Gilliam. Gilliam directs The Center for Pastoral Effectiveness in New Orleans for the United Methodist Church.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other cities, the communication kept up.
“‘Craig, I’m just devastated,” Holladay said, recollecting the e-mail. ‘We’re concerned. Let me know if there’s anything we can do.’
“Basically, I just made a (statement) that if there was anything I could do, I would.”
That opportunity came for Holladay just after Christmas, when St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Odessa, Texas, planned a trip to help a family in Slidell, Louisiana, a city about 30 miles north of New Orleans.
Holladay found out about the trip and asked St. Luke’s pastor Kevin Bushart if he could tag along. Bushart, who was a pastor in Melrose from 1996 through 1999, was familiar with Holladay and said Holladay was more than welcome to come. With Holladay aboard, the group of 18 included seven adults and 11 members of the church’s youth group.
“Our youth group usually goes skiing on the week after Christmas,” said Bushart. “After the hurricane, I went to the youth group and asked them how they felt about forgoing the ski trip and helping people out (in New Orleans).”
From Dec. 26 until Dec. 31, the group made its trip to and from Slidell. While there, the group members did what they could to rebuild a house for a single mother taking care of her two children and a niece.
Holladay said that the group was able to use its three days of work to complete all of the house’s outside walls and half of the interior walls.
While there, Holladay saw a lot of work, enough work to completely wear out the work gloves he had purchased for the trip. What he also saw were people who needed help and cities that were nothing close to their former selves.
“One afternoon, we did go into New Orleans,” Holladay said. “The French Quarter had a lot of people, but really New Orleans is just like a ghost town.”
Bushart said the trip gave those in attendance a chance to see just how devastated the area was, rather than view it through a medium (television or newspaper) they could ignore a few minutes later.
“You see things on the news and that’s one thing,” Bushart said, “but when you’ve been there up close it changes your perspective.”
With so many homes left to be rebuilt and so many people gone, the impact is felt throughout the cities. Holladay said that fast-food restaurants and the Wal-Mart Supercenter closed down before 8 p.m. nightly because neither had enough employees to stay open.
Bushart added that one of the volunteers in the Odessa group made an afternoon trip to Lowe’s for supplies. The volunteer found everything he needed, but the giant home supply store had just three employees on shift.
“I think what we saw … is such a need for help,” Bushart said. “You think the storm’s over and four months later, they’re going to be cleaned up. They’re years away.”
For that reason — and for the thousands of homes that still need similar renovations — Holladay said he plans to make a future stop to New Orleans as well. Holladay said there is still much work to be done, and he also never had a chance to get together with Gilliam.
If Bushart and Holladay could get one message across, it is that so much work is still left to be done.
“It would be like waking up and telling people in New Mexico that Albuquerque’s gone,” Holladay said.