When filmmaker Jonathan Demme and I arrived in New Orleans to document its post-Katrina recovery, we never considered we might end up producing films and a book infused with religious faith. That’s probably because neither one of us was particularly infused that way. But the documentary that resulted, “I’m Carolyn Parker,” which airs nationally Thursday on the acclaimed POV series on PBS, turned out to be the portrait of a woman – and by extension a city – that managed to survive one of our country’s worst disasters partly through a deep belief in higher powers.
Carolyn didn’t leave her beloved double-shotgun home in the Lower Ninth Ward until the last possible moment before the hurricane struck. And she returned as soon as she could – sooner, actually, defying the mayor’s “look and leave” curfew by establishing her own policy, which she called Look and Stay.
Carolyn had been reported dead in the flooding, and she found that somehow appropriate. “When I came to see my house, there was a deep breath I had to take. ‘Cause everything down here was, like, dead. It was like I was walking into death….” The way to bring back life was to stay, to occupy her ruined house and neighborhood, to believe -- despite the fact that she had little money and few resources.
Carolyn, her teenage daughter, and her local priest gutted her home as best she could, then went to work on their neighborhood church, St. David. After the double-shotgun’s walls and ceilings (and almost all her family’s possessions) had been carted away, Carolyn settled into a six month stay in the hollow house: using battery power because there was no electricity, washing with and drinking water from the fire hydrant. As the city tried to pull itself together, she and her grown daughter moved into a 10 x 24’ FEMA trailer in her backyard. They hoped – Jonathan and I hoped – this was a temporary situation, that in a few months they’d be home. But they lived in those conditions for over three years. When Carolyn finally did get some relief money and paid it out to a contractor, he ripped her off. She ended up dependent on volunteers. Or as she put it, laughing, “God sent me a bunch of angels.”
It wasn’t just Carolyn; much of the city faced the same kinds of obstacles. As the months and years dragged on, her neighbors came to the reluctant conclusion, as several put it, “They don’t want us back.” And like Carolyn, they leaned on faith, partly because there wasn’t much else left standing. So Mel, an ex-crack addict, sang hymns in the remains of his wrecked home. A homeless man spending his nights under a thruway overpass told us “[there] had to be a solution somewhere” and then joined in a small, impromptu prayer circle. Even a radical left-wing organizer – who saw religion as the opiate of the people -- referred to the Whirlwind: “Some people call it God. As long as the Whirlwind can use me in any capacity, I will continue to fight.” Faith seemed to be the one component that neither the flood nor the authorities could take away.
Until they tried to.
A year and a half after the floods, the New Orleans Catholic archdiocese announced it would be closing one of its two local churches in the Lower Ninth Ward: not enough residents had returned to keep both open. Either Carolyn’s smaller, primarily-black St. David would stay, or it would be the older, more ornate and primarily-white St. Maurice. As a child, she tried to attend St. Maurice a few times. “Blacks had to go upstairs,” she recalled. “To the balcony. And to the back…” That’s the reason, she explained, St. David was built: “Because of St. Maurice’s attitude. They didn’t want us there.” It looked like a done deal: the fancier if less well-attended St. Maurice would stay open, “bringing us back to a place,” Carolyn said, “… that I really don’t want to revisit… Nobody wants to revisit segregation.”
Months later, inexplicably (some would say miraculously), St. David emerged the survivor. Carolyn seemed unsurprised, as if she knew justice would prevail – the same way she knew she’d get back in her home. If she waited. And prayed.
More than five years after the flood, Carolyn and her family did move back into the double shotgun. To us non-believing visitors, it seemed like an impossible victory. Carolyn’s response was to thank the Lord, look around her still half-empty neighborhood, and announce: “I’m gonna keep fighting.”
Daniel Wolff, author “The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back,” is one of the producers of Jonathan Demme’s documentary, “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful,” which screens nationally on Sept. 20 on public education’s POV series.