In the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, there is a wide open space where a house had been. Only the front steps are left. On the top step, there is a Bible--an open Bible. I don't know how or why the Bible survived. You can see it had been submerged in water. As the water dried it out, you can see the Bible is open to Psalm 42:
As the deer hungers for streams of water,
So my soul hungers for you, my God.
Rev. Ramos-Gallardo uses this image of a water-soaked Bible to express the longing for God that a steady stream of rebuilders have felt as they've come to the city of New Orleans.
Rev. Ramos-Gallardo estimates that 90,000 United Methodists have come to New Orleans to rebuild since the hurricane of 2005. "The love is practical. People feel something and they want to do something. They put their love into practice.... Without the UMC, we would not have the city of New Orleans," he said confidently.
"It takes incredible commitment to build a house. I feel proud to be United Methodist. Even people from other countries, like Mexico, have come here to volunteer," Rev. Ramos-Gallardo said, noting that such global volunteerism is "the fruit of the Volunteers in Mission. The tree planted is now giving fruits."
"Without the churches and the Latinos, there would be no moving forward. Latinos came to work in the reconstruction of the city when 30 percent of the population never returned. The demographics changed radically. The profile of the city changed completely," explained Rev. Ramos-Gallardo. "The Latino workers did the hard work--when they didn't have electricity or water or normal systems for a city to survive. The city should be thankful to the Latino workers. And especially thankful to the Church."
Rev. Ramos-Gallardo came with his family to New Orleans as a missionary in 2007 from pastoring a church in Indiana. He ministers to and with newly-arrived workers from North and Central America to provide education and spiritual support to sojourners. Rev. Ramos-Gallardo is a missionary with the National Plan for Hispanic-Latino ministries. He is one of 23 such US-based United Methodist missionaries who work in the US in connection with the United Methodist annual conferences or regional offices. "We have been trying to respond to the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of the city." As the demographics of the city have changed, so, too have the new ministries to the people.
One ministry is La Semilla, which means, the Seed. Subtitled the "Hispanic/Latino Center for Educational Development" it aims to help Hispanic/Latino families achieve and continue education and support a culture of education. One such avenue through ESL (English as a Second Language) classes draws more than 100 people every Tuesday and Thursday nights. Rev. Ramos-Gallardo hopes that some of the students will go on to college. The majority of Hispanic students would like to attend higher education; a minority actually do.
"We are working with college fairs and more possibilities in colleges. Many colleges will now accept a person if they can pay but don't have the proper documents," said Rev. Ramos-Gallardo. He calls on "Church people to get involved in state laws so that the doors of college will be open." He celebrates the kind of partnership La Semilla has forged with Southern University at New Orleans that has given students from La Semilla the opportunity to attend college.
The newly released statistics from Pew Research this week unveiled findings that Hispanic children are the largest group of children living in poverty in the US, displacing other races or ethnicities. This does not surprise Rev. Ramos-Gallardo, who sees advocacy for education and work as a way out of poverty.
He would like non-Latinos to be aware of the struggles of immigrant laborers. He shares a story to explain a common situation. "With a wife who was nine months pregnant, a man worked with a contractor on a verbal contract for six weeks. He was owed four thousand dollars. He was never paid. We (the church) gave the family a crib and some other stuff. The worker needed the money, planned for it. This is one of the hundreds and thousands of cases that we see." When he asked one of the ESL classes, "Who here has been struggling with getting paid from contractors?" sixty percent raised their hands.
The stories that Rev. Ramos-Gallardo tells--of a worker denied compensation or of a water-logged Bible after a hurricane--do not appear on the front page, yet the stories inspire volunteers, workers, and students to continue to seek New Orleans' revival through educating and advocating for local people.
"No other church has brought so many to revive a city. The UMC has given a testimony of love and compassion. It is a practical love," Rev. Ramos-Gallardo.