The Coliseum Baptist Church as it burned early Thursday. Photo by Steve Majors.
Sirens wailing throughout our house at 2 a.m. Flashing lights flickering across the bedroom ceiling. My oldest daughter crying herself awake. It's only three weeks into our year-long stint here in New Orleans, and for the first time, we're scared.
Our first instinct was that perhaps it was crime; another murder or shooting that have brought national attention and the National Guard to this city. It actually was something potentially more dangerous to us: A fire, a massive one.
It was the Baptist Church just steps from our home, in leafy Coliseum Park. And burning embers were raining down on the neighborhood.
I joined hundreds of people in the park, watching flames engulf the towering church. It was built in 1854 and locals remember it took a big hit from Hurricane Betsy in 1965. It had been vacant for some time, but it was still a beautiful old church and something that seemed old, solid and immovable. After all, it still stood despite more than 150 years of storms, and a neighborhood that had probably seen several cycles of economic ruin and rebound. The church being there gave the park and the neighborhood a sense of time-tested strength.
As we watched the flames and smoke leap higher, I looked around the park and saw familiar faces. In less than a month, my family and I are on chatting or at least "how ya'll doin'" acquaintance with a lot of people.
It struck me that the destruction of Coliseum Baptist Church had ironically brought my neighbors together in mourning. I hadn't been here for Katrina, but I could imagine this was in some minor, minor way the same kind of feeling they felt after the storm as they saw familiar parts of the city, landmarks, and favorite haunts destroyed.
The next morning, I took my daughters for their daily walk around the park. I wanted to see how they'd react to the black scar in the middle of their green park. "Uh-oh" is all my two-year-old kept exclaiming. I said, "yes, uh-oh." And I said a silent prayer that this year, they and New Orleanians wouldn't have to say goodbye to any more of this city.