August 29, 2015 will mark the tenth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States. The retrospectives have been pouring into my newsfeed for weeks. In a way, too much has already been said–too much, because there is no way to ever say enough. Neither statistics nor memoirs, videos nor photographs, can ever fully describe the ways in which Katrina permanently altered the lives of everyone in its path. But I think my church community–St. Jean Vianney Parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana–may be unique in that Hurricane Katrina permanently altered the way we celebrate our liturgy. For that reason, I dare to add my voice to the cacophony.
Our national memory of Hurricane Katrina centers on images of horrific flooding, primarily in and around New Orleans. However, the people who fled New Orleans had to go somewhere, and for many of them, “somewhere” was Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge is the closest city of any size to New Orleans. It is also further inland and above sea level, which makes it an appealing place of refuge in a storm. In August of 2005, the population of Baton Rouge doubled overnight. Double the traffic. Double the demand for gasoline and groceries. Double the demand for real estate.
And double the number of people attending our churches.
I had been music director at St. Jean Vianney Parish for just over a year at the time Katrina hit. There have been many moments in my career when I have seen evidence that it is the Holy Spirit who chooses our music and I am only His vessel, but the weekend after Katrina was my first, most solid proof. August 29 was a Monday; the following Sunday, we worshipped in a building packed to overflowing with people who either did not know whether their homes were still standing, or who knew for a fact that their homes were gone. The songs I had selected for that weekend–chosen weeks in advance, before the hurricane ever formed–included titles like “Stand Firm” and “Love One Another.” There were many moist eyes as our congregation sang those words together, and many people who told me how much it gave them strength. But the Holy Spirit’s work of healing our community through music was only just beginning.
Our pastor, Tom Ranzino–who had just joined St. Jean Vianney on July 1 of that year–welcomed into residence Fr. Doug Doussan, pastor of St. Gabriel parish in New Orleans. St. Gabriel stood in Gentilly, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New Orleans. Virtually everyone in Fr. Doug’s congregation, including Fr. Doug himself, became homeless after the storm. Because Fr. Doug was with us, dozens of members of St. Gabriel began attending Mass regularly at St. Jean Vianney. St. Jean Vianney is a predominantly white, suburban parish; St. Gabriel is a predominantly black, urban one. But far from allowing our differences to cause friction, the two communities found strength in diversity. In the coming months and even years, St. Jean Vianney sent teams of volunteers to aid in the clean up and rebuilding of St. Gabriel. In return, St. Gabriel gave us something even more beautiful: a witness to the power of community, and a song.
There was no sheet music. That would have been too easy. Instead, Fr. Doug handed me a CD and said, “This is a song that is special in our parish. Could you please play it here?” Our music ministers listened, put our talents together, and arrived at a rendition that reasonably resembled the CD. For our efforts, we received a “Thank you,” and further vague instruction to please play it more meditatively next time.
In the beginning, we only played it at Masses when Fr. Doug presided. His parishioners would call ahead to find out which Mass he was saying and adjust their schedules so they could all be together at prayer. Imagine–a community of people whose world had been devastated, all of them scrambling to create a new life even while they worked to rebuild the old one, who nevertheless made a special effort to come together to worship. Then, between the reading of the Gospel and the homily, they would sing with one voice:
Holy Spirit, come and fill this place,
Bring us healing and your warm embrace.
Show your power, make your presence known.
Holy Spirit, come fill this place…
It was not long before St. Jean Vianney began singing St. Gabriel’s anthem at all of our weekend Masses–even at the early morning Mass that otherwise has no music. Five months later, when Fr. Doug finally returned to his rectory in New Orleans, we tried for a week or two to let the song go with him, but it had taken root too deeply. For ten years now, at every weekend Mass, between the reading of the Gospel and the homily, we have sung:
Breath of God, we need a touch from you.
Shine down on us with the light of truth.
Stir our hearts and set our spirits free,
Holy Spirit, come fill this place.
Holy Spirit, come fill this place.
During those ten years, we have heard many complaints that our Masses are too long, but not a single person has dared to suggest removing this song as a way to solve the problem. Our congregation sings it with a variety of instrumentations, and a cappella during Lent. Though the Creed or the Gloria may occasionally be omitted in favor of some special rite, “The Holy Spirit Song” (as we call it) never is. Visitors to the parish frequently beg me for copies of the music. Parishioners often request it for weddings and funerals. Some of our ministries sing it at their meetings. It has truly become St. Jean Vianney’s own anthem. I will not be surprised if it lasts through many pastors, many music directors, and even many generations.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed a great many things that can never be rebuilt, including many human lives. But the winds that sheared away whole towns also carried the renewing breath of the Spirit, filled with brotherhood and beauty. “Holy Spirit Come and Fill This Place” by Marty Hennis and Babbie Mason has been recorded by many top Gospel artists, and I’m sure it is a staple of worship in many Christian churches. It stands on its own merit as a work of art. But in my parish, it will forever be the song that Katrina blew in, a song that binds our community in prayer even while it testifies that in the midst of death, there is always resurrection.