On the day Hurricane Katrina hit, Rev. Ray Cannata was supposed to fly from New Jersey to New Orleans for his final interview with the PCA presbytery there, anticipating that he would be approved as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, a fledgling church plant. He looks back and laughs because he actually called the airport to see if his flight was cancelled.
When Cannata and his family moved to New Orleans in December of 2005, just three months after Katrina, the church he came to pastor consisted of 17 members and a boarded-up building. The city was still in shock from the massive destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. In addition to the physical crisis, Cannata faced a spiritual one as well. It had probably been 100 years since a Reformed evangelical church flourished in the city. New Orleans was clearly a major challenge.
But Ray Cannata welcomed it. After serving for years in a New Jersey suburb of New York City, Cannata was ready for a place with more diversity, a place where social justice could be a clear component of the church’s outreach, and a place with, well, more sense of place. He immediately fell in love with New Orleans. Yet, this fast-talking pastor from New Jersey soon discovered that this historic city was even more complicated than he imagined. Cannata describes the city as not Southern, not evangelical, and not conservative. Rather, he says, New Orleans is seemingly more French, Caribbean, and Mediterranean than American. If you consider the difficulty of living out your beliefs as an evangelical in Boston or Seattle, Cannata argues that New Orleans tops them all.
He describes this city as “the closest thing to heaven and the closest thing to hell in America.” Although it boasts the highest murder and poverty rates of any city in America, New Orleans also radiates beauty and creativity. It is home to America’s first opera house and first movie theater, as well as 800-year-old live oak trees and architectural treasures in perfectly preserved neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and Garden District.
Cannata was drawn to this dichotomy and embraced it. But it meant he needed an education. For Cannata, learning about New Orleans culture began with learning about its food. “Everything in New Orleans revolves around food,” he says. “Just as the church ought to, it centers around the table.” What began as Cannata’s haphazard trial of various restaurants while leading reconstruction teams to different areas of the city became a deliberate endeavor to eat at every non-chain restaurant in New Orleans. By the end of the summer, he counted 600 down and 13 to go. Cannata will culminate his food quest at a “Last Supper” event where chefs, musicians, and artists from around the city will gather at the 613th and final restaurant to celebrate the food and culture of New Orleans.
Celebrating the City
“Food is a symptom of deeper cultural values that make New Orleans so beautiful,” explains Cannata. “It may drive some people nuts, but people here often take a couple of hours to eat. In New Orleans, you experience the power of sharing a meal together—the table is a place where relationships are built, where people fall in love, where wonders happen. I believe that this culture of relationship is what has kept New Orleans together though incredible suffering.” Cannata says he’s amazed at how people take care of each other. This strength of community, Cannata believes, is what enables New Orleans to be the celebration capital of America in the midst of tremendous pain and brokenness.
“The church can learn from that,” he says. “Yet, we can also bring a deeper understanding of what celebration means to this culture. The bridegroom is on His way—that is the true reason for celebration.” Cannata’s approach with his restaurant tour—and with his church, Redeemer Presbyterian—is not to scorn the culture but to unearth the good and beautiful that is sometimes buried beneath the rubble in New Orleans.
As Redeemer embraces the community, even in its brokenness, Cannata finds that the community embraces the church. With its prolific home-reconstruction teams, members’ involvement in the neighborhood association and local schools, and unique acts of service (such as placing bike racks throughout the community), Redeemer is as integrated in the life of the neighborhood as the corner hardware store. “Our mission is the whole kingdom,” explains Cannata. “I want to see our church grow, but it’s also important to see the city thrive.” So, the church invests in the city whether it sees direct results or not. “It’s okay if people fall in love with Christ’s body before they fall in love with Christ Himself,” says Cannata. “Gradually, they will want to love what their friends love; they will explore what we believe and embrace Christ.”
Cannata believes his restaurant tour fits this mission of advancing the whole kingdom by celebrating the beauty of New Orleans. A documentary titled The Man Who Ate New Orleans (www.TheManWhoAteNewOrleans.com) is in the works for a 2011 release. It will share Cannata’s experiences with the rest of America. He hopes that by vicariously joining his restaurant quest, America will appreciate the deeper significance of relationships, nurturing, and community embedded in New Orleans’ rich food culture. “America can learn from New Orleans,” he says. “America needs New Orleans.”