Thursday, October 06, 2005

Katrina Diaries: From the Gulf Coast to the Gulf War

I left the coast Thursday evening and drove as far as Birmingham before sleepiness caught up with me. Even there, in the lobby of the hotel where I spent the night, I found reminders of what and who I was leaving behind: FEMA forms for reimbursement for those seeking shelter from the storm.

On Friday morning I detoured into downtown to walk through Kelly Ingram Park past the 16th Street Baptist Church. There, while sitting on a statue commemorating the children of the Birmingham campaign of 1963, I was reminded of others seeking shelter. A homeless man approached me and asked for a couple of dollars for food. I asked him if there was somewhere nearby to eat and he pointed across the park. I said, “are you hungry?” and, when he nodded “yes,” I said, “come on, I’ll buy you some breakfast.”

We walked through the park and shared bits of our stories. His name is Theodore. He is 30, African-American, born in Huntsville. I am almost 45, white, born in Tuscaloosa. Two sons of the Southland whose journeys crossed momentarily in this park in which the right to journey together was secured.

We talked a bit about what had happened in the park when I was a child. I shared with him how my own sense of ministry, and my own feeling of being called into ministry were shaped by the memories of what people of faith had done in places like Kelly Ingram Park to transform the world we grew up in.

He told me he wanted to find a job as a painter. I asked him if he had any construction experience and, when he said “no,” I suggested asking the folks at the 16th Street church to connect him to someone who could teach him to hang drywall. If you can hang drywall you can make a living on the Gulf Coast for years to come. There will be jobs for drywall workers far after the last volunteer pastors have left the coast.

In the grand scheme of things, hanging drywall – or ripping it down when it’s been flooded out – are probably more necessary jobs than pastoral ministry. In any case, such work certainly offers the great satisfaction of immediate results.

I left the Gulf Coast in time to make it back to Washington for the major demonstration calling for an end to the Gulf War. Alas, that work offers no immediate results. It is, however, inextricably bound to the work on the Gulf Coast and to the fate of folks like Theodore in Birmingham and in cities across the nation.

As Martin Luther King said in calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, “a nation that year after year continues to spend more money on national defense than it does on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Signs and symptoms of spiritual death are all around us in the American empire. We continue to be, as Dr. King noted 40 years ago, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Our coarsened culture has become also the greatest purveyor of cheapened sexuality, mass consumerism and hyperindividualism.

Despite what some preachers will contend, and despite what some passages of scripture seem to suggest, I cannot believe that God sends down huge storms to destroy wayward societies. But the still, small voice of God does speak through the whirlwind, calling us in the wake of Katrina to refocus our priorities, to rebuild the commonwealth, to restore justice to the public square and repair the breaches of the cities’ streets to live in. In such work, a profound joy meets our time’s deepest need.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Katrina Diaries: Pretty, Witty and Gay

Another day of moldy drywall. It remains hot and humid and we are so disgusting that I can barely stand to be in the same room with myself. In the heat of this afternoon, two irrepressible young women who have joined us from Indiana broke into song. With sweat streaking the dust on their faces they sang together, “I feel pretty! Oh, so pretty!” When they got to the phrase, “I feel pretty, and witty …” my friend, Tom, chimed in, “… and gay!”

The deepest joy I have discovered in this journey has come in watching Tom exercise his immense gifts of organization, leadership, energy and good humor. The entire team has been moved by his capacity for compassion – for true suffering with and alongside the families we are serving. We have been guided by his experience with plumbing and electricity, too, and have managed to remove fixtures from bathrooms and kitchens without making a bad situation worse and without electrocuting anyone! His ministry here is surely a sign of the reign of God in the world.

It’s a shame – one might call it a sin – that the world does not recognize such ministry. The church and the broader culture are torn apart by issues concerning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, yet the people themselves remain often invisible. Whether it is ordination issues within the church, or marriage and other civil rights issues in the society, GLBT people are painted with broad brushes and their individual lives are obscured. As a result, the conversation is diminished. Indeed, it is not even ever a conversation, because conversation demands partners rather than stereotyped images.

For this one week, at least, conservative and progressive people of faith have shared a common mission: to serve the people in most need along one small stretch of the battered Gulf Coast. Remarkably enough, through this shared mission, genuine conversation has emerged about precisely the concerns that divide us. But the conversation has an entirely different tone to it among us, because we are not talking now about “an issue” but rather about an incarnation, flesh and blood human beings who may be “pretty, witty and gay” or not.

Houses may not be the only thing that is rebuilt along the Gulf Coast. Perhaps a richer, fuller national conversation about the issues that divide us can also be constructed out of the relationships built among those who are sharing in the common struggle to respond to the unprecedented need in places like Gautier. God is not a Democrat nor a Republican, but God’s people come as each and as neither. Only when we can begin to see one another as individuals, created in our rich variety in the image of an unfathomably creative God, will we be able to reach beyond the lines of difference we have constructed. In any case, it’s clear that the folks down here whose lives Tom has touched are less concerned about his sex life than about the faith life that drives him to service in the name of Jesus.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Katrina Diaries: Theological Storms

Rita swirls out in the Gulf, bringing sporadic rain and a steady breeze with sweet relief from stifling heat and humidity. No amount of wind can clear the air of the bad theology that clings to the aftermath of Katrina. The other day I heard a radio preacher talking about the judgment of God on the voodoo-welcoming people of New Orleans.

Never mind that a god so narrow minded as to wipe out people seeking various ways to the divine does not deserve praise and worship. A god who discounts as collateral damage the hundreds of people who probably shared the radio evangelist’s faith doesn’t even deserve respect. A jealous and angry god is one thing – perhaps even a Biblical thing – but a god with such lousy aim is worthless. A god who unleashes flood waters on poor people trapped in New Orleans by a system that forgot to evacuate them is not the God of Moses who parted the waters for a people escaping a system that enslaved them.

I met some folks today at a church that sits right on the coast in Biloxi among a row of houses built just after the Civil War. The homes on either side of the church were destroyed, but the church itself escaped with nothing more than a flooded basement and a few damaged doors. One of the people I met there said, “God must have been watching out for his house.”

Less than two blocks away, 30 people died when the motel they were in collapsed. Here’s a god with pin-point precision but confused priorities. A god too busy watching over a temple of bricks and mortar to protect the flesh and blood next door is not the God made known in Jesus Christ, the suffering servant.

But when you wander through streets that look like a war zone, it’s hard not to wonder who and where God is in all of this.

Desmond Tutu has written, “The God we worship is the Exodus God, the great liberator God who leads us out of all kinds of bondage. Do you remember what God told Moses? [God] said, ‘I have seen the suffering of My people. I have heard their cry. I know their suffering and am come down to deliver them.’ Our God is a God who knows. Our God is a God who sees. Our God is a God who hears. Our God is a God who comes down to deliver. But the way that God delivers us is by using us as […] partners, by calling on Moses, on you and me.”

Ah, and therein lies the rub. Lousy theology lets us off the hook. It is fatalistic rather than faithful. If spirit is wind and fire – pnuema and ruah – then surely God can speak to us through the ferocious winds of Katrina and Rita, and surely part of the message is simply this: “here I am; where are you? Here I am, come and join me.”

Monday, October 03, 2005

Katrina Diaries: Justice Among the Ruins

Today I heard someone remark that those who had the most lost the most while those who had the least lost the least in this storm. While that may be true from a certain market orientation, people of faith are called to measure according to a different economy. There’s more than lousy politics going on; there’s lousy theology, too! Moreover, even within the framework of a market economy it would be more accurate to say that those with much lost much but those with little lost everything.

Within a more comprehensive economy, perhaps the economy of the kingdom of God, there is no accounting of the things that have been accumulated against what’s been swept away. Rather, we are accountable for treasure that has been given away and for hearts that have been swept away. As Albert Einstein put it, “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

All of the folks we’ve been trying to help down here count themselves blessed and lucky. All of them lost homes, but none of them lost loved ones. Still, it is heartbreaking to pick up stuffed animals encrusted in mud, to find graduation pictures plastered to moldy furniture, to find a photograph date-stamped “December, 1974” and know that someone’s memories will be forever diminished by such losses.

Walter Brueggemann has said that the Biblical definition of justice amounts to sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it. In the wake of Katrina that is an improbably huge task.

Some things are easy. Today we were hanging drywall in the home of a soldier whose entire leave has been spent gutting his house and trying to get at least a little of it livable for his wife before he returns to active duty the last week of September.

I asked him if he was a fisherman. He said “yes,” and, pointing toward his back yard, I said, “well, at least your boat looks like it’s in good shape.” He said, “that’s not my boat. It belongs to the guy four houses down and across the street. It wound up there when the water went back down.”

Other things are more difficult. Another neighbor was cleaning out his house – a trailer he’d lived in for more than 15 years. His insurance was cancelled a few weeks before Katrina hit because the company was getting out of business in hurricane prone areas. No other company would sell him a policy until the end of hurricane season.

What belongs to whom? How can it be returned? Courts and legislatures will have to do some of the sorting. People of faith across the nation will be called upon to remind public officials that food belongs to the hungry, clothing belongs to the naked, healthcare belongs to the sick, jobs belong to the unemployed, and shared risks belongs to the commonwealth. Such sorting is the work of justice.

Among the few households we were able to help, the work of justice was on a smaller scale. While the folks we worked with counted themselves lucky, they were also experiencing an almost unfathomable loss and grief. Papers rescued from a crushed desk unleashed anger at an insurance company. A picture pulled from the muck brought on a torrent of tears. Some losses exceed any calculus.

What belongs to those whose losses cannot be counted? How can it be returned? Working at the level of compassion, perhaps the first gesture of justice is recognizing that dignity belongs to the suffering. The first part of this relief effort lies not in gathering scattered possessions but in helping the suffering restore their fractured dignity.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Elementary school playground. Posted by Picasa

On the coast road where Trent Lott had a home. This roof was still in good shape -- it's just the house beneath it that was gone. Posted by Picasa

Close to the coast. Posted by Picasa

After the deluge. Posted by Picasa

On the ground in Mississippi. Posted by Picasa

Katrina Diaries: The View from the Front Porch

Another multi-analgesic day: gutting the interior of Alfred Jackson’s house. Mr. Jackson, an 82-year-old African-American man, has lived his entire life in the house we stripped to studs today. Katrina was the first storm to flood his house, and she left it under eight feet of brackish water.

The work is brutal in the 90-degree heat, and it doesn’t leave much time for conversation so I don’t know much about Mr. Jackson’s eight decades in Mississippi. I do know he had built a nice home with beautiful paneling on many of the walls, and shelves filled with books and the mementos of a long life.

Katrina’s winds and water swept away the books and many of the mementos. They ripped the veneer right off the walls. They also ripped the veneer that has glossed over racial politics in America. But they left behind a Bible, a bit worse for the beating it suffered, but still carrying the promise that someday justice will roll down like mighty water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

An octogenarian in Mississippi has probably seen a lot of water roll by. He could be forgiven for a certain sadness in the wake of these angry waters, yet as he sat in the shade of a tree in his front lawn watching us carry out the stuff of a lifetime, Mr. Jackson’s eyes were still bright, hopeful and focused on the future as he told us – eyes twinkling – that he’d been thinking about redecorating anyway.

Yesterday we drove along the beach front road where Sen. Trent Lott’s house was destroyed. President Bush joked about sitting on the front porch again when it is rebuilt. I don’t suppose the president will ever sit out under the tree in Alfred Jackson’s front yard.

He should. Familiarity does not breed contempt; it cultivates concern and compassion. Many political observers have noted President Bush’s apparent discomfort with poor folks in general and poor African-Americans in particular. The First Lady may be honest in her insistence that Mr. Bush cares for all Americans; nevertheless, her heated defense of her husband does not change the fact that folks like Alfred Jackson will never be among Mr. Bush’s circle of familiarity and concern.

As for me, in better – and cooler – times, I am pretty darn sure that I’d rather spend an afternoon sitting in Mr. Jackson’s front yard than on Trent Lott’s front porch. The view of the Gulf of Mexico may be much better from Sen. Lott’s porch, but the view of America is better from Mr. Jackson’s.