Thursday, January 18, 2007

What Katrina Revealed Part 2

This is a second post on my trip last week to New Orleans for the Biennial Conference of PHEWA (Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association). The conference theme came from Isaiah 58:12.
"You shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to live in."

On the second day of the conference, Friday January 12, we took bus tours through the streets of neighborhoods around New Orleans to see first hand the effects of breached canals and levees.

My own tour guide was Aaron, a middle aged Black man and leader in the Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. As we set out on our trip, Aaron told us that over 200,000 homes had been significantly damaged by Katrina and the flood waters. Now think about this, Aaron commented, "It took Habitat for Humanity 30 years to build 200,000 homes. So imagine the scope of our challenge here in New Orleans."

The Presbytery of South Louisiana has a vision to rebuild 300 homes in 2007 through a revolving loan fund much like Habitat for Humanity.
The Katrina Cottage fund would build a home for $30,000 with volunteers doing all but electrical and plumbing work.

As we entered the Lower Ninth Ward, a scene of almost complete devastation loomed before us. FEMA trailers could be seen where families and individuals were still living. A FEMA trailer, Aaron told us, has about 200 square feet. The average room in a house is 240 square feet. Some individuals and families have been living in FEMA trailers over a year now. Aaron told us that the air quality in trailers has been said to be worse than the air quality experienced by professional embalmers who daily work with chemicals. People living in these FEMA trailers experience nausea, burning eyes, nose and throat discomfort and other symptoms.

We got out of our bus in the Lower Ninth Ward to walk through the streets, where many houses were empty or severely damaged beyond any standard of liveability. I turned down Roman Street in the Lower Ninth and came across an older black man named Harold who was working in his driveway.

After introducing myself, Harold told me his story. He had lived in 3 states with various family members since Katrina and had recently returned to work on the home he had build with his own hands back in 1950. Harold told me about surviving Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Here in his home the water from Katrina rose above the roof line, leaving mud all through the house. It was obvious that Harold loved his home and community.

As I looked around Harold's home, I saw that across the street the houses were gone, washed away by Katrina flood waters. Other homes were severely damaged. For several blocks around, no one else was working or living in their home.

Our tour guide, Aaron, told us that situations like Harold's pose major issues. How can a single home owner survive and truly live if no one else returns to their block? What kind of economic sense does it make for city service such as sanitation, light and electric to be provided a solitary home owner in a community?

We were then told that Mayor Nagin has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward rebuilding in neighborhoods, after his recommended policy to not rebuild drew deep and bitter opposition. "Build at your own risk," is the mayor's policy today.

As our bus tour members regathered, I saw tears in the eyes of several. This was my second trip to New Orleans and I had seen the Lower Ninth previously, but it was a moving moment.

One of our group asked if she could offer a prayer, in these words.
"O God, it is so desolate and abandoned here and recovery seems so slow. Like the Psalmist prayed, 'Do not forget us Lord. Our help is in the Thee, O Lord."

As of this writing, 12 Billion Dollars have been allocated for Gulf Coast Recovery. 97,000 applicants have applied for 7 billion dollars in home recovery. Only 153 awards have been made for homes, at up to $150,000 per home. The average award is $50,000.

Homes in the Lower Ninth are rarely valued above $50,000. It is unclear, when and how the streets of many neighborhoods will ever be restored. It raises deep questions about our nation and its government. Have the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast been forgotten? Why do we not see the urgency of this challenge to our nation's people? Has the war in Iraq numbed our consciousness as a nation?
What leadership do we need? When will people of America demand justice and compassion for the people of the Gulf?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Katrina Revealed

While many football fans enjoyed the remarkable victory of the New Orleans Saints football team over the Philadelphia Eagles this past Saturday, I saw a different vision of the city while attending a four day "Social Justice Biennial Conference" put on by the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I have to admit the football scene in New Orleans on Saturday was electric. And on my return to the Louis Armstrong Airport, I even met the 11 year old boy from Tennessee who won the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick Contest. Estimates are that the Super Bowl- scene of so much heartbreaking human tragedy during Hurricane Katrina- was repaired for a cost of some $180,000,000. The football stadium is repaired, but it will take decades for New Orleans to recover.

Much more remains to be repaired in New Orleans. Our conference theme was drawn from the prophet Isaiah: "You shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to live in." (Isaiah 58:12)

Some 500 Presbyterians from across the United States gathered in New Orleans to witness and engage in "Action/Reflection" on the nature of mission in a great devastated city. Our keynote plenary address was presented by Bill Quigley, a law professor and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill Quigley has been engaged in a variety of issues, including Katrina Social Justice issues, voting rights, civil liberties, public housing, and educational reform among other concerns. He is the author of
"Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage" (Temple University Press, 2003)

Here are some of the stark facts that citizens and leaders of New Orleans must contend with in "Repairing the Breach".

*280,000 people were displaced by Katrina out of a pre-Katrina population of nearly

*The African-American population dropped 73% from 325,000 to 89,000.

*The White population declined from 136,000 to 81,000 for a loss of 41%.

*Children dropped from 145,000 to 40,000.

*Over 80% of New Orleans was covered by the flood waters.

*100,000 people were left behind in the course of the city's flooding, most of them elderly, children, disabled, and those without transportation.

*25% of the displaced were disabled.

* 1,500 died....mostly elderly.

*75% of Physicians have left, due to loss of patients and closure of hospitals and clinics.

*84,000 rental units were destroyed.

*90,000 square miles were damaged by Katrina.

*250,000 displaced citizens are now living in Texas

*100,000 displaced citizens are living in Georgia.

The impact of the storm was unequal. It was born overwhelmingly by the black, elderly, children and renters.

And yet the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of hope and compassion is present in New Orleans. Bill Quigley summarized his faith in this way:

"Our Hearts must be open totally
to injustice and pain
and totally open
to hope and love."

Quigley observed that 1,700 law students came in the last year to offer assistance.

During our second day in New Orleans we were taken into the devastated neighborhoods of the city on buses with the opportunity to walk the streets and see evidence of the destruction, but also to witness signs of hope and love.

We stopped along the way at Musicians Village, a Habitat for Humanity Project to house the struggling musicans of New Orleans. Harry Connick, Jr. and Wynton Marsalis- both esteemed musicians from New Orleans- had organized this effort. It's very difficult for many musicians to rebuild and afford housing, because the music life isn't always highly remunerated.

Walking down the street at Musicians Village, I saw very modest Habitat homes raised up some 6-8 feet above the ground. All were painted with bold colors: yellow, purple, robins egg blue and green. At one house I saw three young college students, all women, taking a break on the front steps.

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"We're from the University of Minnesota-Duluth" they told me. "There are 38 of us here for a week, during semester break. We raised money for the trip, recruited faculty advisors to come with us, and came down to help out."

"Wow" I said. And then they told me, I had just missed 238 members of the University of Maryland marching band who had also come for the week!

All that was inspiring. I remember a couple of other comments by Bill Quigley at his opening plenary address to members of PHEWA:

"Mourn for the Dead
and Fight like Hell for the Living!"

I heard Quigley share another prophetic comment: "New Orleans is a warning for other communities in America. People are left behind in every one of our cities as they struggle with poverty, loss of jobs, lack of health care, poor schools, disabilities, and the sense that cities and people can be disposable."

And I thought, yes, our heart and minds must be totally open to injustice and pain; but also open to hope and love.

I'll be posting a few more blogs from my experience in New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Compass Point #3 What is a Christian? Where do you fit?

What kind of world and church do we find ourselves in and how does Jesus meet us there? As I reflect further on the question "What is a Christian?" I realize that we face a new situation for faith, new at least for many in today's world.

Here's a thought-provoking passage from Shirley Guthrie's book "Always Being Reformed" which provides a "compass point" for navigating our way toward faithful discipleship. Guthrie was a long time professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and an esteemed theologian in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) His book "Christian Doctrine" has been much valued for teaching theology in churches and seminaries.

"We live in a post-Christian, multicultural, pluralistic society in which people who are different from one another have to learn to respect one another and live together in peace: people of different religions and the ever-increasing number of people with no religious faith at all; people who live by different ethical values and norms; men and women who are no longer willing to play the subservient role traditionally assigned to them, people who differ in sexual orientation, race, class and cultural heritage. In the past, we assumed that our traditional white, middle-class, Euro-American, male-defined Protestant understanding of God and Christian faith and life is or should be normative for everyone. But now we have to learn what it means to be Christians (and Presbyterians) in a church and world that no longer belongs to people like us."

Guthrie comments that he made that above observation in a church context and heard someone remark: "How can we get it all back?" and was then applauded for saying so.

When we are honest about things, we know that we'll never get back that older cultural experience of church. And we should be glad about it. Every experience of what it means to be a Christian is culturally conditioned, and sometimes those cultural factors are in fact oppressive and limiting of the gospel.

I think of one of my favorite New Testament passages, Ephesians 2: 11-11. Paul writes that "in Christ you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jew and Gentile) into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility." Eph 2:13-14

Something about the gospel and Jesus Christ does not like dividing walls of hostility. When we ask about the meaning of being a Christian in today's world, that is surely one of the affirmations we need to make.

In the church I now serve I regularly celebrate the wonderful diversity of those who worship in a congregation near a major military base in a metropolitan area. We have a growing number of Korean worshipers and a plan by some to reach out even more effectively to the Korean community; an African American man and his family join us frequently; a young man from Central America and his American wife have come; native born German and Scottish and Japanese members participate. You could account for some of this diversity by proximity to a military base. But not all. I am welcomed each Sunday by a Downs Syndrome adult in her early forties with the most loving hospitality at church. She is well loved by us all. And I remember how my own autistic sister, when she was young, was not always understood or easily embraced.
So many things are changing in how we understand what it means to be a Christian and to be a church.

We are leaving behind the era of Christendom, when being church was the norm and where certain expectations of what Christians should look like were fixed in all too stereotypical ways.

We are progressively entering the post-Christendom era which "is not designed to change your mind- it is designed to change your life." By that, I mean that we no longer view being a Christian as just thinking the right thoughts, but practicing a way of life that does in fact break down barriers, where Christ makes peace between those who are "different".

Part 2 What is a Christian? Where do you fit in?

A number of years ago when I was a Scoutmaster in Missouri, reliving some childhood adventures with my sons and their fellow scouts, I planned an outdoor experience in Orienteering. It's a great skill. And it's also a fun experience to gain confidence in navigating in strange or unfamiliar places. With a map and compass, and adequate skills, you can learn to find your way.

So, I picked a 6,000 acre state park with my fellow adult leaders for a week-end experience of orienteering and lessons in how to use a map and compass. I remember setting out that Saturday morning with about a dozen scouts and six adult leaders. We hiked for about an hour, until all familiar landmarks and bearings had been left behind. That was done on purpose!

And then I gathered the scouts and adult leaders in a circle around me and my fellow adult leader, a skilled outdoorsman named Al. Al said to the group, we need to find our way to the camp site about 2 miles away. Here's a map and a compass. What do we do next? One of the younger scouts picked up the compass and said, that way is West. Let's go that way. "Why?" said Al. Your compass is no good unless you have a map to use with it. Or as someone has commented, "when you don't know which way you're going, any direction will do." So right away, we had our first lesson in how to put together map and compass to chart a course. We learned about true North and various symbols on the map legend (symbols to denote features on the map). We taught our scouts how to read a topographical map, to learn about elevations in the terrain. There was a lot to learn in one week-end. But we made progress.

I think about the questions, What is a Christian? And, where do you fit in?, in much the same way I do about that experience in map and compass reading with young scouts. Lots of people do not have the set of skills and practices to begin figuring out which direction to head in becoming a follower of Jesus. Who will teach them?
Does the church know which direction it is taking in this effort? We live in strange and unfamiliar times and places. How will we find our way?

A few years ago I read a wonderful book by Diogenes Allen, a Presbyterian minister and one time professor at Princeton Seminary, titled "Quest". The subtitle of the book is "The Search for Meaning Through Christ". Using that image of map and compass, Diogenes Allen explores how we navigate our way toward an understanding of what it means to be a Christian in today's world. Allen writes, "Jesus becomes our light when we study his life and teachings and let them illumine the world in which we live, allowing them to show us what is worth striving for and what is reliable and trustworthy." Jesus is a living presence and a teacher to us still. He is true North. In the words of Scripture we hear his voice anew to guide us in unfamiliar settings. And the focus of both Jesus and his word is to show the way forward in the world where we are sent to live and serve him. All three of those elements of finding our way are critical: Jesus - his teachings - the world. Strikingly, the early Christians according to the Book of Acts, were known as "people of the way". They learned a way of life, a practice of life that helped them find meaning.
I sometimes think we have failed to grasp that Jesus is leading us out into the world where we have to find our way in serving him. It isn't just our inner world or soul Jesus is affecting; he calls us to be salt and light to others who do not know him or his way.

Diogenes Allen comments in his book "Quest" on how many people do not know they have lost their way. "Even the finest and most remarkable of people need God." For us to learn more about what kind of life Jesus calls us to live we need to study the gospels, where we are likely to find out something essential about ourselves and what it means to be a Christian. Allen comments that the people in the Gospels are what literary critics call "figures". A figure is an individual that reveals something about other people and from whose life we can gain guidance for our own.

And here is my summary thought for today, drawn from Diogenes Allen's book, "Quest":
"To become like Jesus, to realize the divine image in our own lives, we are not to look at him in isolation, but at his interactions with people. We, too, need to interact with him now by seeking his help, as people did during his earthly ministry, and by obeying his teaching."