Volunteering with Catholic Charities united couple
Theirs was a match made amid the rubble left by Katrina.
Sara Johansen and David Harms came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with college degrees – hers in marketing and his in economics – putting their careers and graduate studies temporarily on hold to help New Orleans recover.
Harms, 34, is an Indiana native and a member of the Mennonite Church, where he was taught that members best live their faith by serving others. Having completed a previous Mennonite Mission trip to help people in need, Harms moved from Houston – where he had graduated from Rice University in economics in 2004 and was working for an investment firm – to join a Mennonite Disaster Service team in Mississippi from July to October 2006. After that, he served in New Orleans through April 2007, living at the Sisters of the Holy Family’s St. John Berchmans Manor.
He said once the Mennonite undertaking was completed, he couldn’t leave, and he transitioned to Catholic Charities New Orleans’ Operation Helping Hands, based out of the former St. Raymond Catholic Church.
That’s where he and Johansen met, being among the 29,730 volunteers who had worked from 2005-12 with Operation Helping Hands.
“Katrina hit close to home for me,” he said, having visited New Orleans from Houston. “I fell in love with the city. I always felt like it was a privilege of stepping into a city with such a rich and long history of forging its own culture and story. ... Here people value their traditions and culture.”
Also wanted to help
Johansen, 37, now data manager for the Office of Institutional Advancement for Catholic Charities New Orleans, worked with Operation Helping Hands for a stipend and housing.
“I’m Catholic, so that made sense,” said the University of Missouri at Columbia graduate, a native Missourian, about her position with Catholic Charities.
“This was a way I could use my (administrative) skills in a different way. It opened my eyes to a whole other way I could work. ... Operation Helping Hands gave you an experience of these different communities and neighborhoods, to see and understand these communities in a different way.”
She thought her stay would only be the summer before her MBA program started.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to spend more time here than a few months,” Johansen said, staying from June 2007 to August 2008.
Johansen and Harms both became volunteer leaders assigned to new recovery teams that rolled into town, and they found a mutual attraction in rebuilding and being older volunteers.
“Sara and I were older than most volunteers and had professional experience,” Harms said. “I saw Sara as someone else who was bringing professionalism to the job and a spirit for this work that others did not necessarily have.”
A lot in common
They said they knew early on that they were compatible.
“We shared a similar sense of humor – a little dry and a little dark,” Johansen said, smiling at Harms.
“We had a sense, even coming from different places, that we were on a similar path,” Harms said. “On some level, we knew that we weren’t just taking a year off school but were receptive to and listening to another path.”
Once their volunteerism ended in New Orleans, Johansen moved to Chicago to earn an MBA in 2011 from Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. About a year later, Harms followed, working as a carpenter, utilizing skills learned in New Orleans. They stayed in Chicago for 2 1/2 years.
They had a three-year courtship before marrying in August 2010. The couple chose to complete marriage preparation through the Archdiocese of Chicago, attended a Marriage Encounter weekend and had counseling with a Mennonite pastor who discussed different aspects of a relationship, how to resolve conflict and unite their extended family, Harms said.
“I would say similar things were discussed on the Catholic retreat,” Johansen said.
“I think the Catholic Church was more formal about what the marriage commitment is,” Harms said.
Their interfaith ceremony was in Johansen’s hometown of Tipton, Missouri, at St. Andrew Catholic Church where she was baptized, had her first Communion and confirmation sacraments. Her parish priest and Harms’ Mennonite pastor officiated and both offered words to the couple. Several New Orleans volunteers they had befriended participated in the ceremony.
“It was important for us to get married in the church and have a church ceremony that drew on both faith traditions,” Harms said.
“They did such a beautiful job coordinating everything,” Johansen said. “They let the service reflect our relationship and faith traditions.”
A special element of the ceremony was a wedding blessing written by Harms’ mother, a Mennonite pastor, and read to them by both sets of parents.
Love to cook
In August 2011 after Johansen’s graduation, they returned to New Orleans. David worked with Catholic Charities Operation Helping Hands on drywall remediation and then Hurricane Isaac Recovery. Johansen rejoined Catholic Charities in October 2011 as a data manager on the Development Team.
They said their different faiths have not caused marital conflict. They concentrate on the common interests that first attracted them to each other.
“We enjoy spending time with each other ... and enjoy cooking and food and doing things in the community,” Johansen said.
They have a cookbook collection and call a Paul Prudhomme cookbook their “go-to” for Louisiana cooking.
“It’s one of the things we enjoy together and sharing with friends,” Johansen said.
The couple considers each other students at heart. Harms followed Johansen with a master of science in finance from Louisiana State University in 2015 and has been project manager for Gulf Coast Housing Partnership since August 2015.
They remain in touch with a core group of Katrina Catholic Charities volunteers who remained in town, just like they did.
“There’s something very special about living in the city and being involved in rebuilding work,” Harms said. “There was such a need in the community, a spirit within the city, and we were all pulling together. It’s a blessing to have a partner to share that experience with me.”