I was in El Salvador when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I received frequent e-mails from Janet telling me how devastating the situation was in New Orleans and along the coast. Not until I got home did I begin to comprehend the extent of the devastating tragedy unfolding along the Gulf.
I arrived home about a week after Katrina. I was shocked by what I saw and heard about the plight of the evacuees. The news was filled with reports of the chaos and destruction and the bumbling efforts of FEMA and the Federal Government to respond to the horror unfolding along the Gulf Coast. Janet and I turned to one another at one point after hearing yet another horror and said: “Let’s go do some magic in the shelters.” We had no idea what we would do, we just knew we had to do something.
We packed up a tent, sleeping bags, twenty gallons of water, our clothes and props and headed South. We had a contact in Tuscaloosa, Alabama –Kathy, the sister of a magician friend. Our friend told us Kathy was a serious Christian and a very active member of a church there in Tuscaloosa. We had been hearing on the news that the churches were responding in more effective and efficient ways to the suffering of the people fleeing the destruction and loss. Seemed like Kathy would be a good contact.
We arrived in Tuscaloosa in two days, getting to Kathy’s house late afternoon. We had a delightful meal together and Kathy headed off to bed early, having had a long day helping out Katrina victims at her church. After twelve hours in a car we were ready for a walk before bed. Janet had been drawing and painting rivers and what she calls the “language of water” for the last few years so we headed for the banks of the Black Warrior River running through Tuscaloosa. The river walk was just what we needed. Stars were appearing in the late summer sky and the soft mist rising off the river created swirling halos around the beautiful wrought iron street lamps. Making it almost too post card perfect, the Bama Belle Paddlewheeler, luminous with lights, was slowly churning through the black water, dance music drifting in its wake. We were no longer in Kansas, Toto.
We talked a bit about our hopes and fears, of what we had jumped into. At dinner Kathy had told us about a church, The Skylar Blvd Baptist Church that had become a center of activity for the Hurricane victims. She suggested we head over there in the morning. Little did we know what awaited us at the Skylar Blvd Baptist Church.
As we drove up Skylar Blvd late the next morning, almost a block away, the Baptist Church was obvious. There were four hundred people, mostly African Americans in a long line winding out of the church and down the sidewalk. Some of the people who had been there since five that morning were fainting in the almost one hundred degree heat. Ambulances were taking some of them away. We pulled into the parking lot. We said hello to a woman named Xavier coming through the parking lot. She was carrying a plastic container of food she had picked up in the Church hall. She told us what was going on, where the people were, where we might do a performance. As Xavier walked away it began, the fear and questioning. What are we doing? These people have lost everything and we are going to do a magic show for them? All of a sudden it seemed strange, even obscene. I looked at Janet who was putting on her costume and filling her colorful suitcase with props and gags. I was having a serious crisis of faith about this whole magic and hope business. This show felt different than any show we had done in the five previous years. We had performed in Sudanese refugee camps, leper colonies in India, for children living in Salvadoran garbage dumps. Why was this making me so scared and filling with so many questions?
Janet and I usually pause for a moment before a show and prayerfully dedicate the performance to someone or something. We took each other’s hands and dedicated this show to all these people who had lost everything, “May they find peace and comfort and may they some day go home again.” We headed for the church hall still feeling afraid, a bit silly and very white.
There was a man sitting in a chair by the door regulating the flow of people going into the church hall. When he saw us, he said “You’re from the Red Cross?” I don’t know why but I just said “Yes” and he opened the door and said go ahead in. We found ourselves in a long corridor with about seventy people sitting in folding chairs along both sides. The people were sad, sullen, and silent. What are we doing here? I saw a little boy about six years old and I immediately went over to him. “Hi, my name’s Tom, what’s your name?.” “Jesse.” “Can I show you some magic?” and I held up a small red ball. “Would you check this ball out, pull on it, make sure there is only one ball there.” Jesse pulled on the ball and said “Just one ball.” I took the ball back from Jesse and ask him if he would hold it in his hand for a moment. I put the ball in his hand and he closed his fingers around it. “I think you can do magic! Do you know any magic words?” “Alakazam.” “Okay. Wave your hand over your hand and say ‘Alakazam.” Jesse waved his fingers over the closed fist and said “Alakazam,” with all the heart and belief he could.
“Slowly open your hand.” Jesse opened his hand very slowly, finger by finger and out popped two red balls. Jesse squealed with delight and tugged on his mom’s arm, ”Look what I did, I made two balls out of one!”
I stepped back a bit and now I was performing for about four people. After each trick I moved back a bit more and soon I was performing for the whole room. Janet was working the room with her “meet and greet” routines and doing her hilarious hand shakes and mime routines. Refugee and orphan children in every part of the world have found LaFleur irresistible, why had I ever doubted that these people would be any different. Her part of the room was alive and laughing. The whole room was coming more and more alive. People were smiling and laughing and making funny remarks about a person I might have used as a volunteer. This was a different room than half an hour ago.
I finished by standing in the middle of the room holding up a strip of paper about a foot and a half long. Everyone was looking at that piece of paper.
“Imagine this piece of paper was your life. It was a good life. You had a home, work, school, a church, friends and family. And then Katrina came and some of you lost friends.” As I say this I rip off a piece of the paper. And with each thing I name I tear off another piece of the paper. “Some of you lost family. All of you lost work, school. All of you lost your homes and now you may loose months and months, maybe years living in shelters and trailers. Your lives feel torn to pieces like this paper here in my hand.“ I show the shredded paper and put it back in my closed fist. “ But maybe, with hope and courage, imagination and love your lives will come back together.” Everybody concentrates on these torn bits of paper and says “Oooooooo,” making a ghost like sound. Everyone is looking at my hand holding the shreds of paper. They are looking at my hand as if it matters and are all saying “Oooooooo” then I open my hand and one by one remove the still torn bits of paper. “It will not happen quickly, Let’s try it again” “Oooooooo” fills the room. Again I open my hand and still there are only shredded bits of paper. “Ah, I forgot something. In the Book of Psalms it says, “There suffering was like bread and it made them stronger.” A few people in the room say “Yes!” Now all of a sudden it feels like a church and I am some kind of preacher. “It says, their suffering was like bread and it made them stronger,” this time I take one of the pieces of torn paper and put it into my mouth and begin to chew it and then one by one I put all the pieces in my mouth. People are looking at me wondering what is going on, what is going to happen. “With courage, hope, imagination and love, perhaps your lives will come back together and your suffering as it says in the Book of Psalms will make you stronger and more beautiful like this” At this moment I begin to pull a forty foot rainbow streamer of colored paper from my mouth. The room erupts in laughter and applause. People are on their feet clapping and shouting. There was one elderly woman, full of dignity and grace sitting near me and I turned to her and said, “May you and everyone who has suffered so much from Katrina find their way home, May you be an inspiration to everyone,” and I put the colorful streamer around her neck like a beautiful Hawaiian lei.
Janet and I shook everyone’s hands telling them “Thank you,” and wishing them the best of luck. Everyone was saying thank you and God bless you as we headed out the door into the noonday sun.
My faith was restored in the power of magic to bring hope to people caught in hopeless, impossible situations.