New Orleans Placement

Jenny Dawkins is studying The Bachelor of Theology for Ministry degree (BTh) at Wolfson. Support from the Wolfson Travel Fund enabled Jenny to spend four weeks this summer in New Orleans, Louisiana, with St Anna’s Episcopal Church. Here she tells us about her experiences:

"This was my first extended stay in the States, and first ever trip to the fascinating, unique city of New Orleans – NOLA to residents.  I had much to look forward to:  the promise of a warm, Southern States welcome (yes ma’am!), a menu of fine food, influenced by the many cultures who find a home in NOLA, an opportunity to get to know a great mix of people in this fascinatingly diverse place.  Through my placement, I had a chance to reflect on the differences between churches and cultures in the UK and the US, to see how the crisis of Hurricane Katrina had impacted on the community, and to bring to bear some of my academic studies in theology on situations faced by a varied, sometimes struggling, sometimes joyful congregation at St Anna’s.   And, of course, the music – jazz was born in New Orleans, out of a community emerging from slavery and bringing together rhythms and harmonies from Africa, Europe, Latin America and the US.

My learning curve was steep.  It seems true what they say – the UK and the US are two countries divided by a common language – and this may be particularly true in the churches, where language can be so nuanced.  St Anna’s enjoys a ‘high’ church tradition, which means it celebrates with incense, bells, robes, and a lot of formality.  This is very different from my own experience and it was good to talk through some of these decisions with the Minister – how the incense represents prayers rising, and the holy and pervasive presence of God;  how prayers are written for Ministers to use as they dress in each different garment, drawing on the language of clothing in faith used in the Bible.  It was interesting to talk to other people about why they found this way of worship compelling – here it became important to listen very carefully as there were many differences in the ways people expressed their spirituality, and many differences behind those differences – cultural, theological, experiential, psychological.   I needed to think carefully about the language I used when I presented a sermon to the Congregation at the end of my stay, as different images, pictures and even words would be heard differently at St Anna’s from the way they may be heard at churches I’m familiar with in the UK. 

The church had three key ‘missions’ or charities associated with it – Oportunidades NOLA, which enabled Latin American immigrants to learn English; Anna’s Arts for Kids, a summer camp for disadvantaged children from the neighbourhood; and St Anna’s Medical Mission, which provided medical care for people who had no other access to medical provision.  Each had been established following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.  I spent some time with each mission and enjoyed the chance to see another side of the city than that which the Lonely Planet Guidebook points out!

I have a background in the voluntary sector and a Master’s degree in Violence, Conflict and Development, and I found these interests exercised as I heard many people tell of their experiences of the injustices that Katrina exposed, and the ways that these charities had responded.  Seven years on, the Minister of the church was entering a period of reflecting on how these charities related to the church and served the community, after the disaster phase, and I was able to contribute a paper and discuss this with him. 

And finally, what of the music?  Jazz is a personal interest of mine and it was wonderful to spend time in a city which lived and breathed music, where good live music was a normal, everyday activity for everyone, where there seemed to be so few barriers to everyone enjoying, dancing and singing along.  I had the enormous privilege of joining a jazz funeral parade, involving dancing through the streets for two hours, alongside many hundreds of others, defying death and celebrating the life of a very influential musician, ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste.  This provided perhaps my most enduring and – perhaps ironically – joyful memories of a fascinating and beautiful place.  I return to the UK and further studies with much to reflect on, stories and people and tunes in my head, and I am very grateful to Wolfson for enabling me to experience such an enriching placement".