Monday, May 01, 2006

Our New Orleans Mission

For several months now, I've been planning and working with others here in Omaha for a mission trip to New Orleans. Finally, it looks like we're getting closer to making it all happen. Last week, I met with our mission team participants for an orientation and group building experience. Our departure date is May 12 and there's been a lot of work already done for our trip dates of May 12-21. I talked to our on site coordinator down in New Orleans, Sonia, who's the Christian Education Director at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. How are you all doing? I asked. We're hanging in there and doing the best we can, she said.

As I'm writing this, I'm listening to the benefit album, "Our New Orleans", with the music of Dr. John playing. A comment inside the album says:
"Much of the world is grappling with how to understand the loss of the
New Orleans we knew, searching for metaphors to describe the sinking
feelings about the fate of America's great city of music, food, and
architecture, that is at once south of the South and north of the
Caribbean. Headed home or still displaced, many New Orleanians are
moving from mourning to hope, from grief to planning a return."

I'm wondering what we'll encounter and experience in that great city.
During our team building orientation last week, we each shared why we
were interested in making this trip. "I want to help the people there,"
said a couple of college students. "I need to do this to make a difference
in some people's lives," said another person. We all said much the same.
Our group includes college students, a couple of pastors, a couple of
retired college professors, a man who's been retired for several years and
before that worked on 4 continents, and a computer consultant. One of the college students attended culinary arts cooking skill for a couple of years, before changing majors, and he's volunteered to whip up some Creole cooking one night.

Last Friday, I met with another college student who's making the trip. He's
just gotten involved in one of our supporting churches, and he's already
invited a fellow student there and also asked him to join our mission
group. Isn't that interesting? Already, this young college student is
engaged in the fullness of the missional life Jesus calls us to. Jesus
doesn't separate how we serve those in need, for our own personal response
to live as disciples. This long division between evangelism and social
justice just can't be traced to Jesus. It's a modern church division the
gospel won't permit.

Today, I've been reading the very recent book "Come Hell or High Water", with the subtitle "Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster" by Michael Dyson,
one of the foremost authorities on the black experience in America.
Dyson's searing indictment of governmental incompetence and review of all that happened in the course of Katrina and the days afterward lays bear the racial, economic and political disasters that harmed the black poor in the Delta, long before Katrina hit.

As Dyson argues, "Hurricane Katrina's violent winds and killing waters swept into the mainstream a stark realization: the poor had been abandoned by society...
long before the storm."

Consider these realities:
* The Gulf Coast had already been drowning in extreme poverty. More than 90,000
people in each of the areas stormed by Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama
made less than $10,000 per year.
* Blacks in those areas were strapped by incomes that were 40% less than that
earned by whites.
* Before Katrina, New Orleans, with a 67% black population had more that 103,000 poor. That's a poverty rate of 23%, 76% higher than the national rate of 13.1%.
* New Orleans poverty rate ranked 7th out of 290 large counties.
* New Orleans ranks 4th out of 297 metro areas in the proportion of households lacking access to cars.
* 27% of blacks in New Orleans were without cars, while only 5% of non-Latino whites were without cars.
*Children and the elderly were even more likely to not have access to cars.
They accounted for 48% of households without access to cars.
*Nearly 50,000 poor folk in NO lived in areas where the poverty rate approached 40%
* The national average for elders with disabilities is 39.6%, while in NO it's 57%.

During the hurricane, some commentators chided the people of New Orleans for not leaving the city after being warned to depart. They couldn't! Many had no access to cars, and transportation was unavailable.

(They weren' shiftless, stupid, or stubborn as some suggested, like FEMA's Mike Brown.)

As Dyson points out, concentrated poverty is the product of decades of public policies and political measures that isolate blacks in the poorest parts of the city, where transportation and schools and jobs and medical care are sub-standard.

Dyson records that Senator Barack Obama believes there was no racial intent to deny the predominant black population of New Orleans the help it so desparately needed during Katrina. Yet, as Dyson notes, the consequences for people of color in that city were undeniably the result of policies that had the same virtual effects as intentional racism.

I recommend Dyson's book. It isn't an easy book to read. His account of the devastations in New Orleans are heart-breaking. His hour by hour, day by day accounts of the fumbling, sometimes criminally incompetent national leadership is enraging. "Don't play the blame game," was a mantra often stated in the days after Katrina. But attention must be paid to this disaster and to the parties who compounded Katrina's devastations. Dyson's chapter on the history of FEMA and its subsequent role as a place for employing incompetent political cronies stirs your blood.

One of the strongest chapters in Dyson's book is titled "Supernatural Disasters?
Theodicy and Prophetic Faith." In that chapter, Dyson examines the behavior and statements of several high-profile fundamentalist preachers who blamed the sinfulness of New Orleans for God's wrathful judgment upon the city. These false prophets argued that it was "God's will" that New Orleans be destroyed. Political commentators, or hacks, like Bill O'Reilly piled on the judgement as well.

As Dyson asks, "To assume that New Orleans was a greater divine target for wiping out poor blacks than bigger cities with bigger black populations is to accuse God of poor sight or planning. And if God wanted to destroy abortion clinics, there are more in other states... (And) thousands of straight people die in earthqakes just as they do in hurricanes. Did not conservative Christians die in the flood?
Does God punish the innocent to get a message to the guilty? What about the babies who died, who practiced neither abortion nor voodoo...." You get the point. Dyson lets the absurdity of those who claim God was destroying New Orleans speak in all its horror.

Where, asks Dyson, is God's judgement for all those responsible for the plight of the poor and the sick and elderly and defensely in New Orleans and the Delta?

"Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of our human pilgrimage; the deepest faith
cannot prevent our walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For the victims, and survivors, of Hurricane Katrina," claims Dyson, "black faith refuses to offer pat answers or theological cliches. It is a tragedy of untold proportion, a catastrophe that causes the heart of God to break." Dyson's examination of the spiritual and theological concerns of Katrina merit long consideration and discussion.

The opening song of the benefit album "Our New Orleans" by Allen Touissant issues
a clarion call for the common good: "Now is the time for all good men (and women) to get together to make this a better land, to iron out our troubles and to help one another, to make peace without stepping on one another... I know we can work it out. I know we can make it if we try. Yes, we can, can." Let it be so!

Dyson quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. who in a sermon the year before he was murdered said:
"On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside:
but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the
whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be
constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway."

The people of New Orleans call for us to act as good Samaritans and to demonstrate as a nation that we are willing to build a better highway for the lives of those living there in the mighty Delta region that has given so much to our culture and welfare.


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