Back from New Orleans

This was presented at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in February 2009 after returning from a trip to New Orleans.

It is good to be back here in Collegeville.

Good to be back in my bed. Good to be back with my boys. Good to be back among friends.

And yet, I must tell you, we returned just yesterday, and this is going to be difficult. I’m supposed to be talking about how we move forward, and I’m not sure I’m going to be very good at that. My eyes are still trained back over my shoulder. I am having trouble making sense of what I have seen, of the people I talked to, of what I suspect and fear and hope. So, I’ll be honest, Virginia signed me up for this trip and I agreed to go because I wanted to help without much thought. Virginia read; I listened a little but sweated a million other things in our life. Like a lot of people, I think, I thought 3 years after Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans would be well down the road to recovery. Not finished, mind you; I’m no Pollyanna. But I thought that I would see the recovery of New Orleans, like an image shimmering in the heat of a Louisiana summer day.

And friends, let me tell you, that vision is a decade-plus away.

It began to hit me on Sunday, when we toured much of the town, and all those hours of CNN and the photos in Time magazine that told me New Orleans was 80 percent underwater suddenly became real. And it came with this sobering realization: You don’t drown a city of two-thirds of a million people, ring it out, and put it back in working order in 3 years. You don’t set off the equivalent of an atomic bomb in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million without leaving the people in tatters.

“The reality is, this city was broken long before Katrina, and the silver lining in this tragedy is the opportunity to mend that brokenness.”

And New Orleans is still in tatters. New Orleans is still sitting on a stoop in the gentrifying Broadmoor neighborhood (“the bottom of the bowl,” as one resident put it), in mixed-class, mixed-race Gentilly, in Midcity, in the Lower 9th Ward … she is still sitting with her head in her hands, trying to make sense of what has happened.

And that’s all fine and well, and I can rant about New Orleans as American tragedy—half ghost town, half corrupt monument to a toxic stew of racism, classism, cronyism, cynicism, and any other ‘ism you care to mention, some of which I understand and much of which I don’t.

But let me point you to someone who does a better job of it. Van Jones, who electrified the 2008 General Assembly with an hourlong call to action regarding a “green” retooling of America with equal parts next-generation energy policy and social justice, had this to say about our response to Katrina in 2006:

Devoted volunteers did descend on the region. But in most people, sympathy for Katrina victims dried up almost as soon as the storm waters did. And in contrast to its obsession with 9/11, the media covered the initial catastrophe and largely moved on. Within months, even some of the most strident anti-Bush Democrats seemed to have forgotten it had ever happened.

More disturbing: most regular folks don’t want to discuss Katrina anymore, either. We push the images away. When TV airs long updates, we change the channel. We flip past the follow-up stories in the newspaper. Somehow, it is all too painful, too shameful, too unpleasant.

And something less wholesome is also at work.

Somewhere inside us, an unkind voice whispers: Those People deserve pity, but only so much. They did “choose” to live in a floodplain, “choose” to ignore the warnings, “choose” to loot stores. They are victims, yes—but not innocent ones. At some point, Those People—poor, black, and unbecoming as they are—must accept some blame for their own sorry plight.

We rarely say such words aloud. But our actions—and inactions—testify…

The pundits faulted New Orleans’s Ninth Ward residents for living in a low-lying area that was developed in defiance of nature and left vulnerable to flooding. But many of them had little choice, having been herded there by poverty.

And Van might be right … but that isn’t what I’m seeing as I recall New Orleans this morning.

I’m recalling the 15 volunteers who I worked with, from four area UU congregations. And I’m remembering the volunteers before us. One, a UU named Molly, shared her thoughts about helping a woman named Ifama restore her home. In a piece entitled “3 Things We Learned in New Orleans,” she closes …

We made a beautiful chalice from pieces of broken things. We made beautiful rooms from ruined spaces. We made ourselves more whole by the actual pounding and painting and sweating and sanding and carrying.

Ifama taught us by her warm embrace that, when things are lost and patterns are broken, healing and new beauty become possible.

I’m recalling an amazing collection of young volunteers from across the country who have come because they have been called to help a city get back to its feet. Folks like Nick, a Penn grad from Berkeley, Calif., who worked at Project Green, a non-profit that repurposes the salvageable parts of the thousands of homes that are still being torn down there. Like Cory and Christie, our coordinators for the week. There is greatness stirring in the ranks of the volunteers. Mark my words—the next crop of “community organizers” who accomplish great things are cutting their teeth right now in New Orleans.

I’m recalling Quo Vadis Breaux, the Executive Director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, where we stayed, who told our group, “The reality is, this city was broken long before Katrina, and the silver lining in this tragedy is the opportunity to mend that brokenness.”

I’m recalling the city residents:

  • The Parks and Rec crew who told how they still have moments where they’re sharing a funny story and realize that two or three or four of the people involved died in the flood. And it stops them cold.
  • Miss Virginia and her husband Roy and daughter Tanya, who live on a block in the Lower Ninth Ward so devastated that it feels like one part war zone, one part rural backwater. Tanya told me that after they returned, they knew when another family moved in nearby, because it broke the near total silence. This in a city that, according to the 2000 Census, had nearly half a million residents. Today’s total is thought to be less than half that.
  • I’m recalling Gwendolyn Dunnigan, a feisty 60-something woman who splits her time between a flat in Chicago and a FEMA trailer, all the while working to resurrect her self-proclaimed “party house.” We hung some cabinets for her, repainted a railing, cleaned up a dozen-plus windows, and we talked and laughed. I asked her what she wanted you all to know and she said: “I want the people in Philadelphia to know that your volunteers are doing a great job. They’ve done a lot of work, but if all they had done was come and visit, and let me know that somebody cared about us down here, that would have been enough.” Gwendolyn goes to the doctor in Chicago on Wednesday to learn more about the uterine cancer that will be her next challenge. Say a prayer for her that day, will you?
  • I’m recalling Gwen’s friend Sam, an occasional handyman who at the height of the flooding grabbed a small boat and rescued more than a dozen elderly residents of his neighborhood. When the boat got too full, he guided the boat from the outside without getting into it—pushing aside dead bodies when they got in the way. “I hadn’t swum since I was 14,” he said. “Hope I don’t ever have to swim again.” He saved one gentleman who reached into his pocket and gave him $100. Sam’s response: “Keep yo’ money. It was nothing. And where am I going to spend it around here anyway?” When the water receded, he found out he was out of his truck driving job.

These are the people I’m thinking of today.

But that’s not my job, to tell you about what I’ve seen. Yvon took care of that.

I’m thinking about the future. And this is what I’m pondering.

I love this religious community. There are good people here. It’s a good place. But we have an issue. Sometimes we call it “the burning ember” problem. It is, in a sense, a lack of mission. It’s an unanswered question: Why are we here?

And from an admittedly skewed perspective on this, my first full day back home, I want to suggest an answer: We are here to serve.

  • We’re here to serve the good people of New Orleans. I would love to see a Thomas Paine contingent return to the city in the fall—late October, early November. Maybe with other congregations, maybe a dozen of our own. I promise you a transforming experience. As part of that, I’d like to see us help financially anyone who feels pulled to be there but cannot swing the money end of the equation.
  • We are here to serve are brothers and sisters locally. Something’s been gnawing at me: Quo Vadis’ words and the thought that in some crazy, excruciating fashion, New Orleans has received a blessing—an opportunity to start again. And I see brokenness in Norristown and Philadelphia and I think crassly—it shouldn’t take a hurricane to get us off our collective seats and engage the people in these communities on issues of affordable housing, of safety, of opportunity. Our shift at Central Pres is good ministry, but it should be a starting point, not an end.
  • We’re here to serve in ways beyond this, and I encourage people to bring their intelligence, their passion and humanity to our Social Action Committee. There’s deep knowledge in the thought: In helping others, we help ourselves.

We’re not gonna change things overnight. Nobody ever has. But you, me, my kids, your kids, the people we connect with and support, all together, we can make small differences—the drip, drip, drip of progress. Martin Luther King didn’t say that justice comes to the world in a thunderclap. He said, “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.” But be clear on this, we collectively bend the arc. It doesn’t just happen on its own.

A part of this community’s “burning ember” should be pushing the moral arc of the universe closer to justice—every week. I don’t know the specifics. That’s for us all to figure out. But I’m convinced that it’s essential to the flourishing of a community of faith that holds that everyone matters, that we’re all in this together, and that we can only reach wholeness when we take the audacious step of replacing fear with love.

Blessed be.

Some photos from the trip

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