Drape your fences with gold, green and purple beads and turn the music up loud: Mardi Gras is coming.
I’m attached to the churches of Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams as part of my training at Ridley Hall for ministry in the Church of England, and as part of that training, I spent 5 weeks of the summer with a parish in New Orleans.
The reputation of the city – "the Big Easy" – includes the riotous parades of Mardi Gras – what we’d call Shrove Tuesday. Costumes, masks, beads flying through the air, rich food and plenty to drink. The city is marked all year round – beads hang from gates, telephone cables and trees along the streets, and next door to one house I stayed in, neighbours housed a giant carnival horse.
So, New Orleans has a reputation as a partying town – great food, GREAT music, festivals, and beauty. It celebrates this reputation and it needs it – its economy is built on tourism.
But this doesn’t actually make it a happy city, as such. This is a city with high levels of poverty and the highest murder rate in the country. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is still marked by the disaster, psychologically and physically.
The music which New Orleans is famous for is a response to challenge, struggle and oppression. Jazz was birthed as slaves met on a Sunday in Congo Square, and their drums came into contact with brass instruments and marching bands. Mardi Gras Indian ‘tribes’ and groups that lead ‘second line’ parades often grew out of social support clubs, coming together out of poverty, need, and mutual support. Jazz funerals – dancing in the face of death and sadness – perhaps epitomise this.
This grittiness, in many ways, is what makes New Orleans a compelling and wonderful place to be. I wrote this in my blog:
being aware of injustices and brokennesses – in a way, I think this is part of the fullness - the abundance – of life which is promised us in Christ. Jesus says in John 10.10: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full". Life without at least an awareness of the rough stuff – how can that be full? I don’t say that, however, without the sure and certain hope – in fact, having seen it – that that same Christ works as a healer for that broken-ness and gives us His spirit to address that injustice.
On reflection, my 40 days in New Orleans was a sort of Lent in itself. I gave up familiarity – and in return, I gained the joy of noticing. In an unfamiliar place, I looked for God and found him. Even – perhaps particularly – in the sadness and difficulty of the city.
If being a stranger in a strange land gave me eyes to look out for God and a hunger to meet him, that’s something I’ll be looking to recreate here in Cambridgeshire this Lent. And if that means I have to wear gold, green and purple beads as I eat my Mardi Gras – Shrove Tuesday pancakes – well, so be it.
This was the Editorial for the February edition of The Mill.
Former Ordinand, St Vigor's