Finding community amid the cracklins

By Frank Michael McCormack

In November 2008, en route from New Orleans to a Coldplay concert in Oklahoma City, Jennifer and I took a “short cut” down Highway 190 through Central Louisiana, east of Baton Rouge.

As we approached the small town of Port Barre, we came upon a roadside sign that caught our eye. It read, “Port Barre Cracklin Festival.”

That’s right. We were passing through Port Barre on the day of the Cracklin Festival.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What is a cracklin?” Well, it involves hog belly, lard, a skillet or boiling pot and some heat. Check out this for more information.

Jennifer and I turned left toward Port Barre’s fairgrounds, parked on a side street and walked over to the festival. Once inside, we found a cracklin-frying, boudin-eating, Cajun-two-stepping, people watching wonderland.

On stage was Lil Kenny and the Heartbreakers – a Cracklin Festival regular – playing some sweet Zydeco music. Apparently, Tom Petty was on holiday and the Heartbreakers were free to play the festival.

As we ate a lunch of red beans, cracklins and boudin balls, we stood and soaked in the sights. Lil Kenny and the band played song after song while the cramped dance floor moved to the Cajun beat (See a clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpS72FkHO5k).

Well, two years passed, and Jen and I took my parents to the 25th annual Cracklin Festival on November 13. When we walked into the Cracklin Festival in Port Barre last Saturday, I felt like I’d stepped back in time to November 2008.

Some of the same people were taking cash at the gate and the same booths dotted the fairgrounds (including Bourque’s Supermarket’s boudin ball booth). This time, though, we discovered a booth selling fried Oreos. And there on the stage was, you guessed it, Lil Kenny and the Heartbreakers.

For Jennifer and me, this was just our second trip to Port Barre and the Cracklin Festival, but it seemed at every turn there was someone that we’d seen two years prior (See a clip from this year’s festival: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccmHRnSk1z4.

It turns out Louisiana is perfect for those types of encounters. Though Louisiana consistently ranks near the bottom for people moving into the state, it ranks near the top of “sticky states” where native-born citizens remain instate their entire lives.

For example, the Pew Research Center found that in 2005-2007, in spite of Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita in 2005, close to 65 percent of people born in Louisiana still lived in their home state (Texas ranked number one with 76 percent). See the Pew Center study here: http://pewsocialtrends.org/2008/12/17/u-s-migration-flows/.

And that’s music to the ears of anyone – especially the Louisiana newcomer – who wants to make inroads into his or her community.

It means the people at your favorite po-boy shop have probably been going there for years. It means your elderly neighbor probably can tell you the history of most everyone on your street. It means you’ll see more than just transient college students at your favorite coffee shop. It means you’re likely to see some of the same people at the grocery that you also see at the coffee shop and the book store.

So how do you get connected with some people in your tiny corner of New Orleans? It’s simple. Just walk out your door.

Spend some time outside your house. Work in the garden. Wash your car. Go for a walk. Let your dog escape into the neighborhood (Well… maybe that’s not the best strategy).

Pick a restaurant. Find a locally-owned restaurant that has good food that you can afford and go there several times a month. You’ll get to know the staff and they’ll get to know you.

Go to community events. Farmers Markets, festivals, jazz clubs, neighborhood work days. Attending these will help you become more familiar with your community – and faster.

Become a specialist. You may like jazz music, a local sports team, food, photography, theater or the local writing scene. Pick one of these and become an expert. And don’t be afraid to spend money and time. The relationships you’ll gain will be well worth it.

Find a safe place. Everyone needs a safe place away from home to go to when you need to rest and relax. New Orleans has tons of parks and cafes, and there’s always the Lakefront. You can bet that you’ll find others who enjoy the same safe place as you.

Keep your eyes open. As you go about daily life around your community, keep your eyes open for people you know. Despite its size, the New Orleans metro area really has the feel of a small town. If you watch out, you’ll see familiar faces wherever you go.

Geaux with a purpose. People long for community and togetherness. And you’ll find that if you just walk out your door into your community. But as you go, you also take something with you – the good news of God’s love. So go with purpose and with the confidence that, as God brings people into your life, he’s also bringing your into theirs – and for a reason.

Geauxing therefore

At the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus hands his followers a radical mission statement. That mission – and the mission of all Christ-followers to come – begins, simply, “Go therefore.”

“Therefore” points back to Jesus, who he is and what he does in the lives of believers.

“Go” points to his followers’ daily lives, where they go and who they meet along the way.

The “Go” of the Gospel calls Christ-followers to action and interaction.

Jesus told us to go throughout the world, telling others about Jesus and teaching others to follow him. And that starts right where we live.

But how can we make disciples without first knowing others? And how can we truly know other people without understanding, at least in part, the culture in which they live?

For those of us living in South Louisiana, that’s where “Geaux Therefore” comes in.

Whether you’re a student, a business owner, an attorney or a teacher, you know that life in New Orleans and South Louisiana follows a unique rhythm. It’s in the language, the food, the music and the people. New Orleans can sometimes feel more like a foreign country – the Caribbean or Europe – and less like the Southeast. And for newcomers, that can be a little overwhelming.

But as Saints quarterback Drew Brees sometimes says, “If you love New Orleans, New Orleans will love you back.”

So “Geaux Therefore” is about learning, understanding and loving this place we call home. Let this site encourage and challenge you to see the sights, taste the food, learn the history and mingle with the people that make South Louisiana the rich gumbo that it is.

Eat where locals eat. Use the phrases locals speak. Seek to identify with those who have always called New Orleans home.

Learning your context is almost like an adventure, but it also serves a great purpose. You, as a follower of Christ, have been challenged to “Geaux therefore” and introduce others to Jesus. As you learn your context, you become better equipped for communicating the Gospel of Jesus in a way that connects with the hearts and minds of the people you encounter.

So read on, explore, make new friends, and “Geaux therefore” into New Orleans and South Louisiana.