Seattle Times: Rainbow Family Gatherings

After Katrina, amazing grace
By Elizabeth Mehren

Los Angeles Times


Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, they began cooking together in a parking lot: evangelical Christians from Texas and Rainbow Family flower children from all over.

Soon they were serving up to 2,500 free meals a day at their cafe, housed in a domed tent. Side by side, this improbable alliance worked nonstop, helping the people of Waveland, once a scenic beach town.

Gradually, barriers melted. The evangelicals overlooked the hippies' unusual attire, outlandish humor and persistent habit of hugging strangers. The hippies nodded politely when the church people cited Scripture. The bonds formed at Waveland Village have surprised both groups. The Rainbow Family and the church volunteers found common ground — for one thing, they both like to dance — and mutual respect.

"We are Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists, along with various and sundry other Christian groups," said Fay Jones, 56, an organizer of the Bastrop (Texas) Ministerial Alliance. "Did we ever think we would have such a wonderful relationship with hippies? No."

Brad Stone, an emergency medical technician from the Rainbow Family of Living Light, the group's formal name, called the Christian-hippie coalition his new community. "It has been unbelievable. We are all so close. I am actually dreading leaving," he said.

But nearly three months after they got to Waveland, the Rainbow Family volunteers and the Texas church delegation are preparing to head home.

They will serve a grand banquet today for Thanksgiving: turkey with the trimmings, which at the Waveland Village's cafe includes steamed seaweed. This weekend they will hold a parade.

Then the church folks will hop into their pickups and the hippies will climb into their school buses. Both sides say they have been changed by the experience.

"They are as amazed as we are," said Pete Jones, who with his wife organized the ministerial group. "We have all learned so much."

Hot dogs and miracles

The Christians from about 12 churches near Austin arrived first, four days after the hurricane, when the roads to Waveland were barely passable. Pete Jones, 67, said they were drawn by God to the asphalt in front of a demolished supermarket.

When the volunteers began cooking, famished storm victims emerged. Some were naked, having lost every stitch of clothing to Katrina. All were so hungry that the Texans began running out of food. So they prayed.

"We thought we'd better be specific, so we prayed for hot dogs, because they could be cut up to feed a lot of people," Fay Jones said. "About the time we said 'Amen,' a guy drives up with a truck filled with 2,600 hot dogs. That was the beginning of the miracles around here."

The next wondrous event occurred when the Rainbow Family appeared. The ministerial group was exhausted from nonstop cooking for a crowd that multiplied with every parking-lot meal. Hippies with dreadlocks and body piercings poured out of a bus painted like a Crayola box.

"We set up two 10-by-10 pop-up tents and started cooking," said Clovis Siemon, 25, an organic farmer and filmmaker from Wisconsin. "We were trying to find someplace to fit in, somewhere to be useful."

Aaron Funk, an Arthur Murray dance instructor from Berkeley, Calif., was among the first Rainbow Family volunteers in Waveland. Funk, 33, said his group was well-prepared for the effort after decades of Rainbow Family "gatherings" on mountaintops and in national forests.

With tens of thousands of "brothers and sisters" throughout the world, the Rainbow Family calls itself the largest "non-organization" of "non-members" on the planet. There are no rules, no dues and no officers, just a Web site that promotes the belief that "Peace and Love are a great thing, and there isn't enough of that in this world."

Funk said the Katrina disaster response marked the Rainbow Family's first major volunteer effort. The call for help went out on cellphones and on the Internet. "We figured it was a social obligation," he said.

Of his newfound church friends, he said, "They have been our best friends and allies throughout this entire thing. ... There's no reason that anyone's personal opinion or politics entered into this."

He added, "the main story here is cooperation. It's a beautiful thing."

Learning to rumba

As the village mushroomed, the health tent Stone started became a full-scale clinic, featuring massage and herbal remedies and a well-stocked pharmacy. Nearby, the evangelicals set up a "store" to provide free supplies and clothing. Everything was donated: another miracle, the Texas volunteers maintain.

Besides aid, the village volunteers offered occasional entertainment. Funk provided dance instruction at least once a week, and several church volunteers now know how to rumba.

Each day, to keep up the giddy buzz inside the cafe, a Rainbow Family volunteer known as Sister Soup had the whole tent sing "Happy Birthday" to some nonexistent person. Impromptu concerts occurred most evenings.

The volunteers live in campers, tents, buses and the back of a semitrailer. While members of the Rainbow Family generally stay up later than the church volunteers, Fay Jones said that after she asked them once to stop playing music after 10 p.m., she never had to ask again.

The geodesic dome was donated by Burning Man, the annual festival of "radical self-expression" held in the Nevada desert. Besides donations from Organic Valley, local companies, churches, relief organizations, the government and citizens donated food, money and other supplies.

At its peak, the cafe was serving 2,500 meals a day, though the number has tapered off to about 1,000 meals a day as more residents find permanent housing.

After nearly three months, the organizers of Waveland Village say it is time to move on. Traditional stores and restaurants are reopening, and a shaky new normalcy is taking hold.

Shawn Mikeska, 41, a church volunteer from Texas, said working alongside hurricane victims and the Rainbow Family was life changing.

"I was always somebody who was caught up in the differences between people, they are right or they are wrong," he said, adding that now, "I take a different view of what we can accomplish in the world if we just set those ideas aside."

Said Funk, the dance instructor, "The thing that we've all learned is that we all want the same thing but the rhetoric and words got in the way. So we took out the words and got to work."

Material from the Chicago Tribune

is included in this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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