Asking God to "Pass Over" a Special House in New Orleans
My family recently took a vacation to New Orleans. After some research on AirBnB, we found what looked to be a beautiful home in the Bywater neighborhood that was recently renovated and had the space for us at the price point we were looking for. The Bywater neighborhood seemed to be very close to the French Quarter, so we booked the house and made the long drive from Chicago to New Orleans.
Pulling into the Bywater neighborhood, we eagerly anticipated seeing ornate, New Orleans-style fences surrounding finely manicured lawns and beautiful houses – but all we saw were cracked streets, homes badly in need of restoration, and graffiti and garbage. Even our AirBnB house had graffiti on its front porch! Although the inside of the house was as beautifully renovated as marketed, we felt disappointed and a little concerned at the condition of the neighborhood where we would be spending the next week.
Soon, though, our stay became a fascinating time of learning and enlightenment for the entire family, and we are so glad we stayed where we did.
Exploring our neighborhood and the greater New Orleans area, we soon realized that our street was representative of an entire city still working to rebuild itself after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Abandoned houses sit next door to renovated houses. Main thoroughfares are still being repaired, while side streets remain riddled with cracks and potholes. People of different races and income levels live amongst each other in ways that just don’t happen in other cities.
We learned from our AirBnB host, Calvin, that the graffiti on our house was, in fact, the markings authorities made immediately after Hurricane Katrina; it indicated, amongst other things, that there were two dogs living in the house. Calvin told us, “When restoring the house, I decided to leave that graffiti there. If there was ever another bad storm, I want to be sure God knows to pass over this house. It’s already suffered enough.”
As it turns out, Calvin, an African-American New Orleans native of just over 50 years old, has learned a bit about Judaism when speaking to local Jewish groups. We learned that he spent 28 years of his life behind bars, most of them in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for a crime he did not commit. With just a ninth-grade education, Calvin learned all he could about the law, and as he successfully worked to secure the release of other wrongfully accused prisoners from death row, he continued to work on his own case.
Finally, after years of hard work and with help from the Innocence Project, Calvin was released from prison on January 7th, 2011. Upon his release, Calvin furthered his education and continued to help other wrongfully accused inmates secure their freedom. Calvin is now the president of the board of directors of The First 72+, a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping the “cycle of incarceration by fostering independence and self-sustainability through education, stable and secure housing and employment, health care, and community engagement.” Calvin enrolled at Tulane University to earn his bachelor’s degree, and he works as a paralegal with the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project.
And, through the help and support of friends and local New Orleans post-Katrina reconstruction organizations, Calvin made himself a house. The house at 1317 Feliciana Street is more than 120 years old, and it had been abandoned for 40 years before it was bought for Calvin at auction. Calvin showed us pictures of the house when he began renovations, and we were surprised that anyone would try to fix this house at all. The property was completely dilapidated: Most of the walls had deteriorated away, vines covered the roof, and wild animals had taken up residence inside.
But to Calvin, this was more than a house. This was a new beginning, a way to pay forward the kindnesses that friends and associates extended to him. The main part of the house would be the primary residence (where we stayed), and there would also be a separate entrance and rooms intended as a place for recently exonerated prisoners to stay, free of charge, while they put back together the pieces of their lives. Calvin learned how make repairs by watching YouTube videos. He got grants to help him with the larger projects, and he got the house done – and it is beautiful.
It is almost Passover, when we remember our 40-year journey through the desert after generations of bondage. The Jewish people found freedom, and we have since become a people dedicated to creating a world of justice, compassion, wholeness and joy. Calvin is not Jewish, but he is creating a world of justice himself by providing freedom to people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Calvin is creating a world of compassion by helping people usually forgotten about behind bars. Calvin is making his community a little more whole and a little more joyful by bringing people home to their families, to their friends, and to their new lives.
We enjoyed the music we heard and the good food we ate in New Orleans, but for us, the real highlight was meeting Calvin and learning about his life and work. We returned home with more insight, more hope and more inspiration – and we are so glad we stayed at 1317 Feliciana Street.