Thursday, September 29, 2005

Katrina Diaries: A Long Day's Journey

I've been down on the Gulf Coast for a while, with no access to the cyber world but need deep in the muck of the real world. Over the next several days I will post reflections on my time in Mississippi.
If Frederick Buechner is right – if call emerges at the intersection of deep joy and deep need – then I am less called than confused. Why am I heading to the Gulf Coast to join a group of volunteers from National Capital Presbytery? The pictures from Katrina’s wake are compelling, to be sure. I am a pastor, and pastors are supposed to serve, right? After all, I have some experience in cleaning up after hurricanes and in leading mission trips. In addition, to my great surprise, an openly gay member of my congregation is heading down with the team. I am surprised at his participation not for doubts about his gifts – he holds a construction e license – but because the last time he joined a Presbytery mission trip he and his partner had to reenter the closet for the sake of the sensibilities of their Kenyan hosts and the experience was more than a little abusive. I am going, in part, to support Tom.
So I feel obligation and duty, longing and loneliness but little joy as I drive south. Already I miss my children and my wife and wonder about the faithfulness of leaving them and the congregation I serve behind.
Of course, while I may sense little joy as I embark on this journey, the dire need that awaits us in Mississippi is not in doubt. The images that have flashed across screens for the past two weeks are unprecedented in my lifetime. Although we’ve seen utter destruction before and too many times, the scope of Katrina’s devastation exceeds any natural disaster in the United States in the past half century.
On top of the breadth of destruction, the storm’s effects have clearly split along lines of class and race, and thus made clear the deep divisions and fault lines still running through American society. What most Americans don’t want to know or believe about their country has been laid bare in the Third World images beamed out of New Orleans. The commonwealth has collapsed.
A generation of Reaganomics and neo-conservative policies has eviscerated the public sector, intensified the radical individualism of American culture and widened the gap between the haves and have nots to a distance not seen since the Gilded Age. Grover Norquist, who has been called “field marshall of the Bush plan,” once famously remarked that he would like to shrink the federal government to the size where it can be flushed down the bathtub drain. The response of FEMA as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were being flushed down the drain suggests that Norquist’s dream has come true – with disastrous consequences.
Meanwhile, right-wing Christianity, with its focus on narrowly circumscribed personal piety and individual salvation, has played chaplain to this movement.
In the faces of the women, children and men abandoned in the rising flood waters we are confronting the limits of the conservative social and theological imagination.
The deep need of the world is in those faces. They call forth both the immediate response of disaster relief – the hands on, boots in the mud work of thousands of volunteers, and also for a sustained political engagement confronting the powers in the board rooms of the corporations that will profit from this misery or fail to cover its victims adequately, and the hearing rooms of a Congress that still seems more interested in cutting the taxes of the wealthy than in meeting the needs of the poor.
Christ is in those mud-smeared faces, too. The incarnate one is in our midst: homeless, poor, feeling as abandoned as on the cross. As I drive toward Mississippi, I am realizing that it does bring me deep joy to witness to the reality that some still seek Christ in such places. When that joy of encounter meets such desperate need, Christ beckons – calling us to the public square and to public squalor to be repairers of the breaches in both places.

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