Amid ruin, `a beautiful thing' - Chicago Tribune - 11-20-2005

Posted on Sun, Nov. 20, 2005
Amid ruin, `a beautiful thing'


Chicago Tribune

WAVELAND, Miss. - The New Waveland Cafe seems like the kind of place one
might find near Madison or Berkeley, or perhaps in the parking lot of a
Phish concert.

Located inside a cavernous geodesic dome, the cafe offers three meals a
day that are served by the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a scruffy
assortment of dreadlocked, tattooed and pierced crew members, most of
whom are in their 20s. Guitar and drum music wafts from nearby tents,
and the Center for Alternative Living Medicine offers condoms and massages.

A few yards away, the scene at the Waveland Market is quite different.
An open-air market (a misnomer since everything is free) that offers
everything from laundry detergent and clothing to potato chips, it is
manned by a neatly groomed staff of evangelical Christians in bright
green t-shirts. They are considerably older, and as one might expect,
more conservative than the cafe staff.

The New Waveland Cafe and Market is one of the most curious yet
inspiring stories to emerge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Located in a devastated town that took the brunt of the storm's fury,
the cafe and marketplace are the combined effort of two groups from
radically different backgrounds who have come together to help the
residents of the beleaguered Mississippi coastline.

In the process, the Rainbow Family and the church volunteers have found
common ground - for one thing, they both like to dance - and mutual respect.

"It's a marriage of cultures," said Fay Jones, 56, who along with her
husband Pete oversees the marketplace. "We have thoroughly enjoyed
working with these Rainbow people. I think it's expanded our hearts."

Said Aaron Funk, a 33-year-old member of the Rainbow Family, "They have
been our best friends and allies throughout this entire thing. ...
There's no reason that anyone's personal opinion or politics entered
into this. The needs are so huge that to try to wave your flag at these
people would be extremely disrespectful.

"The main story here is cooperation," he added. "It's a beautiful thing."

The two groups found each other amid Katrina's devastation because of
the determination of several volunteers, who hit the road after the
storm looking to help, and a fluke meeting in a Louisiana church parking

In the days after the eye of the Aug. 29 hurricane came ashore near New
Orleans and evacuees flooded into Texas, emergency officials in Bastrop
County near Austin, Texas, held a meeting to coordinate the fledgling
relief efforts of local churches that were eager to help in the
devastated communities along the Gulf Coast. A woman at the meeting said
that her daughter had survived the storm in her attic in Waveland,
Miss., that the town had been destroyed and that no one was there to help.

Afterwards, four men from evangelical churches in Bastrop headed to a
Wal-Mart and filled a van, a pickup truck and a horse trailer with
supplies, said the Rev. Max Bricka, associate pastor of Celebration
Community Church, who was one of the four. They then headed to Waveland,
arriving Sept. 2, four days after the storm struck.

They immediately set up a propane oven and a tent and started cooking,
and before long, "there were people coming out of the woods covered in
mud who hadn't eaten in days," Bricka said. "As soon as they heard we
were from Texas, they just started crying. We were the first people that
weren't involved in the disaster that they had been involved with. They
needed someone to hug them and love them."

The crowds grew so large in the next two days, Bricka said, that they
called Bastrop for reinforcements; after that, volunteers and food
arrived on a daily basis. It was during one of those trips between Texas
and Mississippi that the church volunteers ran into a Rainbow member in
a church parking lot in Hammond, La., and invited them along.

The Rainbow Family members are self-described "hippies" who believe in
decision-making by consensus and who participate in the annual Rainbow
Gathering, held each Fourth of July in a different national park. The
purpose of the gathering is to meditate for world peace, Funk said, but
it's also a chance to cook, share food and play music.

Clovis Siemon, 25, who has participated in the gatherings since he was a
child and has cooked at them in recent years, headed south from
Wisconsin with the blessing of his employer, Organic Valley, a dairy
cooperative run by his father, George. Organic Valley provided a
brightly colored bus, kitchen equipment and organic food. Rainbow
members from around the country joined along the way.

Siemon said he and his colleagues called "a million and one"
organizations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the
Red Cross, offering to help, but he described these efforts as "like
treading water." By contrast, he said the church volunteers were
thrilled for the help because the situation in Waveland was so dire.

The Rainbow volunteers started by cooking breakfast, and eventually took
over all the cooking at the cafe, allowing the church volunteers to
focus on the "windowless Wal-Mart" that offered free supplies to
evacuees. The barbecuing is handled by a group of Rainbows who have
named themselves the "Smoke Pit Pirates," and the rest of the cooking is
divided up among other Rainbow members.

The volunteers live in campers, tents, buses and the back of a
semi-trailer. While members of the Rainbow Family generally stay up
later than the church volunteers, Jones said that after she asked them
once to stop playing music after 10 p.m., she's never had to ask again.

"They've been very respectful of our requests," she said.

The geodesic dome was donated by Burning Man, the annual festival of
"radical self expression" held in the Nevada desert. Besides regular
donations from Organic Valley, local companies, churches, relief
organizations, the government and private citizens have donated food,
money and other supplies.

At its peak, the market was serving 2,500 meals per day, though the
number has now tapered off to about 1,000 meals a day as more and more
residents find permanent housing.

"This place works so good that I quit Red Cross to work here," said
Shaun Clark, 43, who described himself as a "Pirate apprentice."

Finishing lunch, Earl and Janet Ladner, who returned to Waveland more
than 3 weeks ago after their new temporary home, a FEMA-provided
trailer, arrived, had nothing but praise for the New Waveland Cafe.

"I think they've done a fine job," said Earl Ladner, 75. "If people
wouldn't have come in here to help, I don't know what we would have done."

At the market nearby, Lisa Jones, 45, from Kiln, Miss., said the free
food and supplies are critical for people returning to the area because
even though some stores are reopening, many residents don't have jobs or
money to pay.

"Without this here, they have nothing to depend on," said Jones, who has
11 people living in four FEMA trailers parked on her lawn. "It's a

Besides the relief supplies, the New Waveland Cafe and Market has tried
to offer occasional entertainment as well, both for the volunteers and
the victims of the hurricane. Funk, a dance instructor from California,
has provided dance instruction at least once a week, and several of the
church volunteers now know how to rumba.

There was a Halloween party that included costumes and plenty of treats
for the local children, and the volunteers are planning an extravaganza
for Thanksgiving. The cafe and marketplace is scheduled to close around
that time, and the Rainbow Family and the church volunteers will go
their separate ways.

Shawn Mikeska, 41, a church volunteer from Texas, said his nine days of
working alongside hurricane victims and the Rainbow Family was life

"I was always somebody who was caught up in the differences between
people - they are right or they are wrong," he said, adding that now, "I
take a different view of what we can accomplish in the world if we just
set those ideas aside."

Said Funk, the Rainbow dance instructor, "The thing that we've all
learned is that we all want the same thing but the rhetoric and words
got in the way. So we took out the words and got to work."