As the group prayed, Rob Plotke hung back slightly. Prayer intrigues him, maybe because he acknowledges its power to motivate people. Rob believes in a higher power, but not the God of the Bible. And he doesn't think he ever will.
Everyone else in the group is a Christian. Rob joined them in New Orleans for a hurricane relief mission trip, sponsored by Priority Associates, Cru's ministry to business professionals.
The PA group had just taken a picture to commemorate their efforts for the day, standing in front of a giant heap of trash as long as a tractor-trailer and more than half as tall. The pile once decorated a duplex.
Many months had passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged "The Big Easy," and this house in St. Bernard Parish had finally been gutted. Insulation had fallen from the ceiling onto the soaked furniture, now populated by breeding mice, cockroaches and a black snake.
The task completed, Rob and the rest of the group peeled off their disposable protective suits and went back to Celebration Church on Airline Drive to clean up.
The PA relief group rallied from several U.S. cities. Financial planner Tom Palumbo organized 20 fellow New Yorkers to come for 5 days. In Chicago, PA staff member Kevin Smith organized a last-minute group of 4, including Rob, to join the efforts.
"I don't know anyone who has studied the Christian faith more than Rob," says Kevin.
Kevin met Rob several months ago after an evangelistic outreach. Rob was unimpressed with the speaker, but he liked Kevin and joined Kevin's Bible study, though he tries not to stir the waters too much.
"I don't want to 'unconvert' anyone," he says.
He acknowledges that faith can be a good thing, especially if it motivates people to do good things.
"But I can't believe in Santa Claus," he says, "even if I wanted to."
However, Rob loves to learn and discuss, so he attends church every Sunday, as well as nearly every event hosted by PA in Chicago. It makes some Christians wonder why he still doesn't believe, after all this time.
In New Orleans, the city has unwillingly surrendered to time. Six to 10 feet above the pavement, watermarks stretch across most buildings, with lower marks revealing the slow drainage of the city. Along the road to the airport, open businesses post hopeful plastic signs announcing, "Yes, We're Open," and a new billboard advertises mold fumigation.
New Orleans is struggling to return to a sense of order, but the question on everyone's minds is whether the city will ever become the city it was meant to be. The overwhelming and slow repairs are difficult to comprehend.
Friday night, the relief group took a break and visited the French Quarter, one of the few parts of New Orleans located above sea level. It suffered little damage compared to the rest of the city.
Rob and others from Chicago walked along Bourbon Street, which was filled with people drinking and partying. They stopped to listen to jazz improv, and for a moment, the sultry saxophone and clarinetist denied the daily insults brought by Katrina.
Although no one admits it, America has also tried to forget about the hurricane. Yesterday's news. But to New Orleans, it is a wound that hasn't healed.
It would also have been easy for most Christians in Rob's life to forget about his spiritual need.
After all, he's been going to church for the last 8 years.
Because of a conversation with a co-worker, Rob started attending Park Community Church a few blocks from his home in Chicago.
"I thought it was wonderful that they would entertain questions," Rob said. "It was refreshing and educational, better than my previous experience, where questioning anything was shunned."
It also gave him plenty of opportunities to volunteer in the community, something he values highly. That and his friendship with Kevin are the 2 biggest reasons he joined the Christian relief trip.
The 2 men also play chess at least once a week, even while in New Orleans. Rob's dad taught him chess when Rob was 6, and it reveals his intensely logical nature. Often, Kevin loses, but he keeps playing. The 2 have talked for hours about Rob's spiritual journey.
"Kevin pointed me to a lot of resources," Rob said, "most of which I'd already read, like Evidence that Demands a Verdict, The Case for Christ, and a lot of C. S. Lewis books."
He's also read books by the Dalai Lama and Aristotle, and books about other religions.
Clearly, Rob is not content with just analyzing things intellectually. His nature is to explore. He has climbed the highest mountains on 6 continents, summiting 5 of them.
Word got around quickly among the other relief workers that Rob -- the guy who wasn't a Christian -- had once climbed Mount Everest. He stopped 1,635 feet shy of the summit, but still climbed 27,400 feet. Not quite the top, but he's content. Besides the obvious risk, it costs too much time and money to try again anytime soon.
In New Orleans, time and money are also a concern. Early on, a few of the businessmen wondered aloud about the investment of the trip. Would it have been better to just send the money they spent on plane tickets? But at the end of the trip, no one doubted that it was worth it.
"We're here to serve, not to solve," Tom Palumbo emphasized in an e-mail.
Several people on the trip also asked Rob about his faith -- or lack of it. They wanted to dispute his arguments or tell him why he needs to believe. Rob listened politely.
Serve, not solve.
Priority Associates has made a committed effort to helping rebuild the city of New Orleans, and has hopes of establishing a long-term ministry. Their mission will always be to bring hope to the city.
"At least one good thing has come out of this," PA staff member Jeff Hetschel told the group. "A bunch of people got on airplanes to say we love you and we care about you and you're not alone. None of us will think of New Orleans the same way, and none of us will think of our own city the same way."
The trip to New Orleans was called Project Hope, but its effects lasted much longer than a project. The volunteers went home changed. One New Yorker, Joe Rose, returned to New Orleans as a long-term volunteer, organizing more trips to come and serve.
And the city remains in a constant state of transition. While some areas struggle to get up and running, other areas are completely broken. Strip malls are emptied. Chain restaurants like Pizza Hut and McDonald's are deserted.
But volunteers continue to come and help, come and hope.
God invites Christians to participate in His work, and to play a part up close. But He is the One who changes lives.
Kevin once told Rob, "I'm always going to be your friend, even if you never cross that line of faith. You're not a project to me."