Ashley Kottemann and her son Gabriel, 6, have a big change to be thankful for this holiday season: They’ll soon be moving into a new three-bedroom Habitat for Humanity home.
As per Habitat requirements, Kottemann put sweat equity into the house, helping to lay floors, build walls and paint rooms. The interior colors are standard-issue neutrals, but she did get to add a few personal touches, choosing dark hardwood for the floor and a smoky blue for the home’s exterior.
The overarching color scheme for the building project as a whole, though, was a mixture of black and white.
The blitz build, completed in 10 days between Oct. 6 and Oct. 21, brought together volunteers from the mostly white Trinity Episcopal Church, 1329 Jackson Ave., and Household of Faith, the African-American church just blocks away at 630 Jackson Ave., New Orleans.
Though the construction was fast-paced, the cornerstone for the cooperative project was laid about two years ago, said Household of Faith pastor the Rev. Antoine M. Barriere, when as a Habitat board member, he realized that getting churches to work together on the organization’s building projects would benefit all involved.
“Me and Henry (Hudson, Trinity’s pastor) got together and started realizing that we were on the same street and didn’t know one another. That was one of the things that hit very hard, and let us see how divided we are. … blocks away and had no relationship at all.
“I challenged Henry, ‘let’s do this.’ They (Trinity parishioners) were talking about racial reconciliation. They wanted to do something boots on the ground.”
To Hudson, coming together with Household of Faith a decade after Hurricane Katrina to build a home carried extra significance.
“The 29th of August was the storm, but the more important day was Oct. 11, the day the church reopened,” he said. “We made a commitment to come back and to rebuild and to be part of the transformation of this community. That’s a happy and powerful anniversary to talk about and to celebrate.” That anniversary fell during the construction project.
“When Pastor Barriere called and challenged us to build a Habitat house, I thought, ‘this is a great way to continue a commitment to rebuilding the city also across racial and denomination of faith lines,” Hudson said.
If a Habitat build was a perfect project for the two churches, it was a godsend for Kottemann, who is white.
“On my own, I would never have thought in a million years I’d ever be able to afford a house,” said the 29-year-old New Orleans native. “Or even a down-payment.
“Now it’s check-to-check — you struggle. With this program, instead of renting and paying someone else, you pay yourself. The mortgage is significantly cheaper than rent. I can save money for my child to go to college.”
While the financial advantages are substantial, they aren’t the only reasons she’s excited. She expects quality of life to improve as well. “My son … thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world. He can’t wait to have his room and a yard — he’s never had a yard to play in.” It will be easier for them both to have friends over, as opposed to the apartment they’re leaving.
The positive effects extend beyond Kottemann and her son. At Household of Faith, Barriere talked about the impact of coming together across racial lines.
“Our building this home will forever be a memorial. ... I invited her (Kottemann, along with Gabriel) to church, and everybody showed them so much love. I said to the congregation, ‘as far as little Gabriel is concerned, what are going to be his thoughts toward black people? … All he will think is that these people helped build me a house. Those individuals helped our family,’ and it will change forever how he sees black people.”
While the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has set up a year-long initiative to establish racial reconciliation groups in every parish, including Trinity, Hudson described the project in terms of Christianity rather than race. “I’m not a person of grand schemes or designs. It feels natural for Christian brothers and sisters to come together and learn each others’ names and hear each others’ stories and see how God can use us in a very personal way to make a commitment to helping each other.”
He noted the number of other projects around the city bringing races together.
“You know, peace is breaking out among us, and we’re getting an opportunity to do ministry that the Gospel gives us, and I’m delighted with that.”
As for lasting impressions from working with Household of Faith, “First of all, it was fun,” he said. “A lot of good food and a lot of joy in meeting each other and having that time doing something good together. Some real friendships were formed as folks discovered those at Household of Faith who had the same profession and shared stories about children and grandchildren and laughed and worked together.”
For Kottemann, the coming together of the two churches was a reminder of the good in humanity.
“I had been struggling with faith for a really long time. To see these two churches come together and welcome me … it made me think there are so many good people out there. You forget that sometimes and lose faith. I just sat and cried and cried it was so beautiful.”