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Posted on Wed, Dec. 07, 2005

Rainbow Family creates community

By Laura Williams

of the Indiana University School of Journalism

WAVELAND, Miss. -- There was never such a happy family reunion, never a family so outwardly different with members from so many backgrounds.

And certainly never one so happy to be in the midst of a disaster area.

But then, there's no group of relations quite like the Rainbow Family, a loosely knit collection of countercultural folks who have been holding annual gatherings around the country since the early 1970s.

Just days after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, several Rainbow Family brothers and sisters found themselves in Waveland, Miss., with customized, kitchen-equipped buses.

They came from Oregon, New York and places in between.

There was no formal plan in place, other than to use skills honed at the annual gatherings to serve hot meals to residents.

Three months later, more than 60 family members have gathered, and the kitchen, serving nearly 1,000 meals a day regularly, is taking up the better part of a circus-sized tent.

"I just want to make sure people are fed," said Leviticus Clark, a trained chef and one of the first on the scene.

If not for the devastating reason for the cafe's existence, the scene could easily be mistaken for a carnival. A giant, hand-painted (in rainbow hues) sign beckoned to visitors from the median of Highway 90: "Welcome to the New Waveland Cafe'!" At least three more promoted the free meals and medical care as cars turned into the parking lot of Fred's Discount Store.

Local residents milled about the 20 or so colorful tents butted up against a giant geodesic dome as Bob Marley tunes and savory smells wafted through the compound.

Not long after arriving, the Rainbow Family joined forces with a group of volunteers from the Bastron Christian Outreach Center, which helped to run a free market and day care at the site in addition to the café and medical clinic.

"It's a bunch of hippies and evangelical Christians - the most unlikely match, but it's working out," said Stone, director of the medical clinic and a member of the Rainbow Family. (Rainbow Family members often go by a single name.)

But despite their success, or perhaps because of it, the family began packing things up just after Thanksgiving.

"Now a lot people are afraid that we're leaving, but we have to go," said Leviticus. "It's not the community that's telling us to leave, it's pretty much the state because they want to make sure that people can do it on their own. And I think we should be able to leave by Christmas and not Thanksgiving, that's my own personal aspect."

Mississippi officials were unavailable to comment on the matter, but local residents were sad to see the group go.

"We came to town 11 days after storm and said, ‘What is this?'" said one. "Now we come every day for lunch when we're not working on the house. The food, the people — the food is cooked with love, we've learned that. Plenty of veggies, too. And we like the people — it's like our social life, now."

It was a social life not like any before seen in Waveland. Three times each day, the music, often Vietnam-era protest songs, was turned up in the giant dome as residents and volunteers lined up for a plateful of the day's specials.

Diners crowded around the long tables and chatted until there was a pleasant din. Sometimes, there were guest performers on the makeshift stage, which was decorated with silver streamers and fake palm trees.

At the end of each week, family members dressed up for Freaky Friday, donning ball gowns and fairy wings and scarves, and partied long into the night.

But now the tents are being loaded back onto the colorfully painted customized buses. Bob Marley no longer shouts messages of love and acceptance from the cafe's speakers.

The end is welcome for some of the family. Many, like Leviticus, have been feeding Waveland since the beginning.

"I'm taking a vacation. I've been here for over two months now," he said. But, he will be back.