Rochelle VanderHelm—Staff Writer
New Orleans doesn’t feel like America. Looking out from the Café Beignet, there is the cobblestone street that barely makes room for two cars before it juts straight up into the French architecture, with Spanish-style wrought iron and a live jazz band bouncing in the corner.
They put chicory in the coffee here, and Sarah Goyne reflects on how strong it is. She’ll be bouncing off the walls late into the night. When the New Orleans team leaves downtown, they reach the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world. It’s 23.83 miles long. Reach Global Crisis Response is on the other side of that bridge, in the town of Covington.
Every day, the team drove about an hour to reach their job site. There, the task of rebuilding a home destroyed by hurricane Katrina awaited them. A subfloor needed to be built, the windows replaced, doorframes put in and holes filled with cement.
“It was hard to walk in and see the house like that,” said Mika de Vin, a Junior Education major on the team. It had been 13 years since Katrina, and Shirley Rose Leonard had not lived in her own home since then.
Although rebuilding homes was a priority for the team, the greatest focus was to rebuild lives. Part of this was doing “prayer walks,” where a group of three to five people would walk around the community and pray for it. They talked to people and prayed together.
“It isn’t so much about the work as it is the relationships,” sophomore Hailey Pullman said. She describes talking with locals, hearing their stories about life in New Orleans and praying for them.
The team had stayed in a warehouse, tucked away behind a church and a grove of trees. One night, everyone was sleeping soundly except leader Sarah Goyne, who lay awake. The door to the girls’ bedroom opened slowly and three hooded figures appeared in the entry. They were whispering.
“What are the boys doing up here?” Goyne thought.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
The figures pitched around and scrambled down the stairs, letting the door swing shut in the dark. Goyne began to shake.
“Hailey, I need you to wake up. There were three men in our room,” she whispered.
Pullman began to shake. What was happening?
Called the boys. They didn’t answer. Were they okay? Call 911. Were the men still here?
“Hailey, check the window, see if anyone is here,”
Pullman crept over to the window, heart thudding in her ears, her shaking hands gripping a muffled light. There was a vehicle down there. The door was open.
Pullman and Goyne whispered together.
“Okay we need to pray.”
“I heard voices in our room and I wasn’t imagining it,” whispered Goyne.
Another of the girls woke up.
“Dear God, keep us safe, keep the boys safe,” she prayed.
Pullman crept back to the window.
“They’re still here. The men are still here.”
“We need to wake the other girls. Grab something hard. We need to be ready if they come back,” whispered the other team member.
“You need to wake up. The police are coming, but there were men in our room. They are still here. They are downstairs somewhere. You need to get up.”
Goyne frantically whispered to the 911 operator. “There are five girls upstairs, please come quick… They’re still here…When will you be here? Please come quick… We don’t know if the boys are okay… When will you be here?”
Silence. Huddled in a corner, they prayed. “God keep us safe. Change their hearts, God. Keep the officers safe.”
It was so quiet. Where were they? Were they downstairs? Would they come back up? What did they want?
“The police are here,” Goyne said.
The police came and cleared all the rooms. The boys were sleeping soundly in their beds downstairs. Two hours later, three teenagers were caught with a stolen car. They had taken nothing from the warehouse. They had only clipped the wires in one of the pickups and broken the back window of another.
“The girls’ room looked kind of like an office, and we think they came up to look for car keys,” said one of the team members.
The break-in was a defining moment for the team.
“I kept thinking, ‘Okay Hailey, you’ve learned so much this past week. This is when the rubber meets the road,’” Pullman said. It was a growing experience, and God was faithful. He comforted the nerves of the girls as they sat trembling in the corner, and he granted protection over the whole team. PLIA New Orleans will never forget the people they met, the relationships and homes they built and the never-ending love of God.