A Gospel and Granola Bond

  • Two radically different sets of volunteers arrived in post-Katrina Mississippi to feed the hungry, and their lives were changed forever.

  • By Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer

    WAVELAND, Miss. — Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, they began cooking together in a grocery store parking lot: evangelical Christians from Texas and Rainbow Family flower children from all over.

    Soon they were serving 1,000 free meals a day at their cafe housed in a domed tent. Side by side, members of this improbable alliance worked nonstop, helping the people of what was once a scenic beach town.

    Gradually, barriers melted. The evangelicals overlooked the hippies' unusual attire, outlandish humor and persistent habit of hugging total strangers. The hippies nodded politely when the church people cited Scripture. The bonds formed at Waveland Village have surprised both groups.

    "We are Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists, along with various and sundry other Christian groups," said Fay Jones, an organizer of the Bastrop (Texas) Ministerial Alliance. "Did we ever think we would have such a wonderful relationship with hippies? No."

    Brad Stone, an emergency medical technician from the Rainbow Family, called the Christian-hippie coalition his new community. He explained: "It has been unbelievable. We are all so close. I am actually dreading leaving."

    But about three months after they got here, the Rainbow Family volunteers and the Texas church delegation are preparing to head home. They will serve a grand banquet on Thanksgiving Day — turkey with all the trimmings, which at the Waveland Village Cafe includes steamed seaweed. Over the holiday weekends they will hold a parade.

    Then the church folks will hop in their pickup trucks and the hippies will climb into their psychedelic school buses. Both groups say they have been forever changed by the experience.

    "They are as amazed as we are," said Pete Jones, who with his wife organized the ministerial group. "We have all learned so much."

    The Christians from about a dozen churches near Austin arrived first, four days after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, when the roads to Waveland were barely passable. Pete Jones, 67, said they were drawn by God to the asphalt in front of a demolished supermarket.

    When the volunteers began cooking, famished storm victims emerged out of nowhere. Some were naked, having lost every stitch of clothing to Katrina. All were so hungry that the Texans began running out of food. They decided to pray.

    "We thought we'd better be specific, so we prayed for hot dogs, because they could be cut up to feed a lot of people," Fay Jones said. "About the time we said 'Amen,' a guy drives up with a truck filled with 2,600 hot dogs. That was the beginning of the miracles around here."

    The next wondrous event occurred when the Rainbow Family appeared. The ministerial group was exhausted from nonstop cooking for a crowd that multiplied with every meal. Hippies with dreadlocks and body piercings poured out of a bus painted like a Crayola box.

    "We set up two 10-by-10 pop-up tents and started cooking," said 25-year-old Clovis Siemon, an organic farmer and filmmaker from Wisconsin. "We were trying to find someplace to fit in, somewhere to be useful."

    Aaron Funk, an Arthur Murray dance instructor from Berkeley, also was among the first Rainbow Family volunteers here. Funk, 33, said his group was well prepared for the effort after decades of Rainbow Family gatherings on mountaintops and in national forests.

    With tens of thousands of "brothers and sisters" scattered around the world, the Rainbow Family calls itself the largest "non-organization" of "nonmembers" on the planet. There are no rules, no dues and no officers — just a website (strictly unofficial, the group emphasizes) that promotes the belief that "peace and love are a great thing, and there isn't enough of that in this world."

    Funk said the Katrina disaster response marked the Rainbow Family's first major volunteer effort. The call for help went out on cellphones and the Internet.

    "We figured it was a social obligation," he said. "We already had the working knowledge of feeding large numbers of people. We got here, and the sense of desperation and urgency was off the charts. There was no time to talk about it. It was just service, time to do what we came here to do."

    But Funk did find time for something other than cooking. He became the village dance coach, leading conga lines and salsa sessions from a makeshift stage framed by plastic palm trees and shimmery streamers.

    Over the months, volunteers for both groups rotated in and out, about 40 at any one time for the Rainbow Family and 50 for the ministerial alliance.

    As the village mushroomed, the health tent Stone launched became a full-scale clinic, featuring massage and herbal remedies along with a well-stocked pharmacy. Nearby, the evangelicals set up a "store" to provide free supplies and clothing for storm victims. Everything was donated — another miracle, the Texas volunteers say.

    Each day, to keep up the giddy buzz inside the geodesic dome cafe, a Rainbow Family volunteer known as Sister Soup had the whole tent sing "Happy Birthday" to some nonexistent person.

    Impromptu concerts occurred most evenings, sometimes when someone just felt like singing. Movie nights focused on comedies, or escapist fare like "Star Wars."

    On "Freaky Fridays," Rainbow Family volunteers raided the clothing donation bins and donned the weirdest outfits they could create. That meant burly men in billowing dresses and women in maybe six skirts at once.

    "You feel relaxed here," said Betty Celino, who lost almost everything when Katrina swept five feet of water through her house. "Everybody is nice and friendly. Strangers hug you and ask you how your day is and if you need anything."

    Celino, 38, looked down at a plate filled with pulled pork, coleslaw, potatoes and something decidedly green. "Plus," Celino said cheerfully, "you get seaweed."

    The seaweed made its way to Waveland via Ramona Rubin of the Rainbow Family. When she left Santa Cruz, a woman at the farmers' market there handed her a suitcase to take to Mississippi, filled with lustrous green kelp. Rubin, 28, is now known as Sister Seaweed.

    "Very nutritious, helps you to detoxify," she said, spooning a hearty helping onto a diner's plate. She looked up and admitted: "I'm absolutely amazed that people are eating this. There is just this real openness."

    With a graduate degree in public health, Rubin also has gathered epidemiological data on hurricane victims, and presented her preliminary findings to a council that included a U.S. Army officer.

    "Pretty amazing," she said. "Me and a colonel."

    Standing next to her in the lunch service line, Siemon reminded her of another unlikely encounter at Waveland Village.

    "The first week we were here," he said, "we had a guy from the Pentagon sitting in a circle with us, chanting 'Om.' It was pretty cool."

    Still, the organizers of Waveland Village say it is time to move on. Traditional stores and restaurants are reopening here, and though the landscape remains decimated, a shaky new normality is taking hold.

    "Our purpose is not to detract from the local economy," Pete Jones said.

    Siemon said he would be returning to his organic farm with far more than he brought to Waveland.

    "What have I gained from this? Everything," he said. "I've gained the experience of working with other humans in a wall-less, prejudice-less environment where the sole purpose is to help other humanity.

    "That's something not many people get to do."