Ruby Ancar picks up a teddy bear mailed to her by a Mennonite child a few months after Hurricane Katrina devastated Grand Bayou, located in the southernmost region of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.
“She was only four years old then,” said Ancar, who lives in a home repaired by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers. One of those volunteers was the girl’s father. When he returned home after spending a week helping to rebuild homes on the bayou, he told his daughter about the remote village that is home to indigenous people who have lived here for more than a thousand years.
“I still have this bear, and I still have the little notes that her Sunday School class sent to me,” said Ancar. “I like to think of the little hands that wrote those notes.”
She cradles the bear in her arms and pauses: “Strange to think that girl must be 14 years old now.”
For people who can trace their roots in the Delta region back 5,000 years, what is the passing of a decade? The remote village, accessible only by water, is tied to the Chawasha Tribe, the Atakapa-Ishak Tribe, and many others. They have lived on the Plaquemines peninsula for 1,500 years, and on Grand Bayou for 300 years.
After Katrina, Ancar’s house was the first repaired by MDS, and every day for the next four years, she ferried MDS volunteers and supplies back and forth as they began the painstaking process of rebuilding a community it seemed everyone else had forgotten.
MDS volunteers rebuilt eight homes and repaired three others. They pulled logs for the foundations up the Grand Bayou channel to begin a repair process that inched along on its own timeline in rhythm with what the water and weather would allow.
Today there are 14 families living in Grand Bayou — down from the 40 families that lived here before Hurricane Katrina. But it’s certainly a busier village from the days when Ancar was the sole resident urging her people to come home.
Now — in spite of bearing the effects of the largest marine oil spill in history in 2010 and a deluge worse than Katrina from Hurricane Isaac in 2012 — people in Grand Bayou believe their community has grown wings to take it into the future.
“Well, you have to get here by boat unless you have wings,” laughs Pastor Benny Ancar, standing in the newly constructed Grand Bayou Light Tabernacle, which will be dedicated Oct. 17.
The church — which modestly fits in with the houses along the water — will be attended not just by the 14 families living in the village but by those still waiting to come home.
“We’d build this church if we only had two people left here,” said Rosina Philippe, a Bayou resident and a member of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe. “This is a house especially built for God.”
Philippe, who is determined to preserve the tribe’s old ways of living even while bringing back residents who have left, believes MDS was a blessing from God. “Let’s face it, this is harsh,” said said, pointing at the houses perched at the water’s edge, where people live off the land by shrimping, hunting and gardening. “After Katrina, we had no power. It was hot, like it is now. The ground is wet.”
She recalled going to a public meeting a year and a half after Katrina to ask when some assessment would be done for Grand Bayou. “Our own government had forgotten we were here,” she said. “For MDS to find us when the local people had forgotten about us — talk about God. We’re not technologically advanced. But God has sustained us.”
She believes God’s grace has kept the community intact for hundreds of years. “We’re still here,” she said. “God’s grace never changes. It doesn’t matter if people change. We’re going to be here for the tomorrows. We’re just following God’s plan.”
Time and time again, the population of Grand Bayou appears to be on the brink of disappearing. Decades before Katrina struck, oil and gas companies dug canals that let in saltwater that killed the marsh grasses – then hurricanes washed away the soil left behind. The levees — which don’t protect the homes in Grand Bayou — keep the nearby Mississippi River from replenishing the soil.
But, after each encroachment, after each disaster, the native population quietly insists: “We’re back.”
The new church has been built with donations, tithes and offerings from the local community and beyond, said Phillipe. “We won’t owe anybody any money. The church is the heart of the community. You can lose family and friends and stuff, and you feel that loss and that hurt. But through everything, your faith sustains you. Your strength and your will to persevere — that comes from your faith.”