In the summer heat the cicadas sing in harmony, their collective voices rise and fall… rise and fall. As if the Bayou breathes. And of course it does. And they are matched in the distance by the pounding of hammers that rise and fall. Rise and fall. Six houses in a clearing… and one small story in the resurrection of New Orleans.
This past week, Anne and I lent our voices to the cicadas and our arms to the six houses. The habitats.
Habitat for Humanity is an amazing organization on so many different levels: but especially the mission. And the people.
We continue to find models and metaphors for leadership in the strangest of places and this time in New Orleans we found Terry Cooney. He was sent from New Jersey to New Orleans by the Red Cross 18 hours before Katrina came to shore. He fought his way into a hurricane… upstream, against the long lines of citizens fleeing their doomed city. Then he fought against the storm itself, staying on his feet when the buildings shook. Then he fought against the rising waters and pulled bodies from the canal. Then he fought against the bureaucracy and incompetence of state and federal organizations to create food lines for people who had otherwise been abandoned. Then he fought against a police force in chaos– marauding officers that looted the Red Cross food supplies so they could stock their own hunting lodges. Then he fought against the mounting anarchy– that moment in a crisis when good people bet the strength of their own resiliency against whatever force is trying to assure their destruction.
Then he fought against the corruption that rendered Katrina “catastrophic”.
In time the flood waters receded and the city was left in ruins. But Terry Cooney stayed. He could have returned to New Jersey, but he decided to do what he could to help in the long, long process of salvaging one of our nation’s most sacred treasures. Eventually, that meant working with Habitat For Humanity and the many volunteers that come from across the country to help rebuild a community– one house at a time.
This was our second opportunity to build for Habitat. Last April we worked in Musician’s Village with a team of Anne’s co-workers from Intuit. After two full days of work, we managed to hang only the facia on the front and side of one house. That’s it. But volunteers do what they can do and having never hung a facia, or worked on a roof, or swung a hammer clinging to the top level of an extension ladder– that was the contribution we could make.
This time we arrived on a site already buzzing with multiple teams of volunteers and Americorps workers and high school kids earning their way in this world by building houses and good karma. And this time the six houses were on the other side of the river on the West Bank. They were in a more advanced phase of construction and so our role was to hang the siding.
Habitat for Humanity provides some basic tools and building materials for their volunteers. And they provide a site foreman like Terry Cooney who has to take a very diverse group of people with different work ethics and skills and physical fitness and preparation and experience and lead them to some level of productivity. He has had all kinds of volunteers from celebrities to church groups to not-so-motivated teenagers to company CEO’s and corporate superstars that haven’t done a day of physical labor in 20 years– if ever.
Somehow, even with all the disparate daily tasks and oddball day laborers, Terry Cooney gets his houses built. And they are strong enough to withstand hurricanes.
Fortunately for the mission of Habitat for Humanity and all their volunteers– fortunately for the City of New Orleans– Terry Cooney possesses a few skills that prepare him for the job. And not just construction skills. Those of us who study organizations and group dynamics noticed his style of leadership.
Here is the Terry Cooney Way:
• Keep the mission crystal clear for every volunteer;
• Make sure that every volunteer has a healthy regard for site safety;
• Quickly assess the volunteers to determine if there are any experienced builders and who has skills with power tools and who hates climbing up ladders– then turn them lose on whatever stage of the project they can do;
• Provide enough basic instruction to get groups started on their projects for the day;
• Encourage and support every effort– but don’t do their work for them;
• Never ask people to do anything that would compromise their safety or the safety of others;
• Never ask anything of your volunteers that you wouldn’t do yourself;
• When it is steaming hot outside and the morning hours drag on, tell ’em about “the giraffe that walks into the bar”;
• Demonstrate a genuine appreciation for every individual’s contribution, no matter how large or small;
• Honor their service.
On Tuesday morning one of the high school groups was packing up to leave. They were exhausted. They gathered for their group meeting along side the circular saw and waited for Terry to release them. Then a sudden piercing hum rose well above the cicadas and construction sounds. And around the corner came their leader, with bagpipes wailing the Marine Corps Hymn. All other sound and activity momentarily ceased.
And when he played the last note, Terry rested his bagpipes under his arm and gave the workers a send-off speech fit for William Wallace:
“You should be proud of your work here,” he told them. “I know your parents would be very proud of you too. On behalf of the Habitat for Humanity organization and the people of New Orleans, I want to thank you for your service. You made a difference here. I want to play another song that is dedicated to each and every one of you.”
And then he played “Amazing Grace” in tribute to a group of kids that would have likely found lots of better things to do this summer than swinging hammers in 98% temperatures and 90% humidity!
I think when a city floods a lot of stuff gets shifted around and some gets left behind and some gets washed away altogether. Sometimes the waters bring reconciliation and sometimes they bring the likes of Terry Cooney.
There is healing in this stifling heat. Each nail, each river of sweat, each silent tear shed for one man’s Amazing Grace, each hammer swing– a labor of love.
In that instant of stillness after the bagpipe drones go silent, we hear the eerie cicada rhythm resume again. Back at work… they serenade the habitats. It is as if, like Terry Cooney, their song is never done.