Pastor Robin Lostetter
In the January Point Press, I pondered, “Have [words of scripture] lost their power for us? As a privileged and affluent people, can we hear ‘Good News to the poor, captives, and oppressed?'”
And then, on January 11, I flew to New Orleans to attend the “Social Justice Bienniel Conference” of our denomination. The location had been selected to put action behind our words of encouragement to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We listened to peoples’ stories, spent money liberally, and offered a ministry of presence, living among the struggling inhabitants. We celebrated the Saints win over the Eagles with our New Orleans hosts, and caught the early Mardi Gras spirit!
The stories we heard from individuals were different, but there were common themes. Without exception, from pastors to hotel workers to taxi drivers, we learned what we’d already read in the papers—that government money has not gotten to where it was intended, that hundreds of FEMA trailers stand empty, that frustration has driven people to desperation.
These stories were not told with contempt—but rather with a smile of resignation to a reality they simply accepted. Residents who gained some satisfaction from at least taking top honors in something told us, “We are a perfect example of a failure” of all branches of government.
And the smiles came because the people have hope. One commented to a working group from New Providence NJ, “God is the one who is rebuilding our city through you.”
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.”
“Christ has no hands on earth but yours,
no hands, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes
through which Christ looks with compassion on the world.
Christ has no hands and feet but yours.”
(St. Teresa of Avila, famous 16th century mystic and religious reformer)
“Bear one another’s burdens,
and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Sue, our guide through the 9th Ward, Lower 9th, Lakeview, and Gentilly districts is an elder in the Canal Street Presbyterian Church. Canal Street’s membership before Katrina was about 160. Today there are 40 members. The church itself also flooded.
Now I don’t know how deep the water was at Canal Street church, but the deepest water in New Orleans was about 10′, and what seemed to be the average was about 7′. Water marks still visible on buildings are referred to as “bathtub rings.” On our wall, I’ve created a sort of artificial bathtub ring out of fabric. The lower level, across the stained glass window, is at about 7′. Ten feet would be one foot higher than the top of the speaker over which the fabric is draped.
Take a minute and notice what would be covered by water— toxic water—if our sanctuary were flooded to either of those heights by storm waters.
. . .
We would lose the sound system, the organ, hymnals, bibles, pews and pew cushions, the piano—historic chairs, communion table, and pulpit. Interestingly, our cross, as well as our light fixtures, might be the only things remaining above water. In the offices, all computers, copier, pastors’ libraries, music library, and most permanent records would be under water. Our minutes, bank records, baptismal, marriage, and membership records would be lost in the equivalent of the lost identities of thousands of New Orleans residents.
Since two days after Christmas, we’ve been dealing with a very shallow level of “black-water” in the CE Annex basement. The cleanup will exceed our $10,000 insurance cap for one incident of sewage backup. The cause was a blockage two blocks away, which is a responsibility of the town. We’ve delayed church school two weeks already, and resumed today with only a modified multi-graded program. Jack Johnson, head of buildings and grounds, and Donna Norton, our Director of Christian Education, with help from family members and volunteers have spent untold hours cleaning, discarding, or demolishing damaged materials and taking inventory of the loss.
Our damage came from less than an inch of blackwater. All porous items, such as those made of wood, must be discarded and replaced.
Imagine what 7 feet of water would do. Carpet, pews, paneling—everything would have to be stripped down to the basic building frame. And that, of course, assumes no wind damage, falling trees, or cars and boats sailing down a previously uncharted contaminated river. And that is just our church. If we were to reflect the effect that Katrina had on the Canal Street church’s membership, one of every four of you in the pews would no longer be a church member. Some might have died, but most would be relocated in places as far afield as Chicago, Florida, Seattle, or Texas.
“Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.” (Psalm 69:1-3)
“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.” (Psalm 124:1, 4-5)
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
Sue, our tour guide, is from the Broadmoor area, the “bottom of the bowl,” and one of the last areas to flood. She now lives with her elderly parents, one of whom uses a wheelchair to get around. Sue is about my age, and her response to stress is one of my favorites – she loves food – and stress has caused her to gain a couple of dress sizes. She has worked in the past for one of the construction firms whose signs we saw around town. Before that, she had been a civic worker, which in New Orleans, means she was paid at poverty level. She is now a full-time coordinator of recovery efforts.
She’s one of the lucky ones . . . her home was relatively new and so she had flood insurance, as required by law for a home with a mortgage on it. She also had proof of wind damage, and so her insurance settlement paid for her mortgage. She hasn’t yet decided whether or not to rebuild.
I had hoped to show some photos of both the flattened neighborhoods that remain, 17 months after Katrina, and also of homes that have been restored under new codes which require them to be on stilts about 6′ in height. Of course, if your house is built on a concrete slab, raising it on stilts is impossible, so there are neighborhoods with houses of various heights – as though they were doing knee-bends out of synch, with some at full height and others closer to ground level.
Another elder in Sue’s church was not so fortunate as she. As is common in New Orleans, her house had been in the family for three generations . . . a “grandmother’s house.” So it had no mortgage. And . . . no or inadequate insurance. This elder of Canal St. Church, a respectable, hard-working person like many of the victims of Katrina, has lost everything. And she received $1000 in compensation.
Many affected Presbyterian churches received initial payments of about $10,000 from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance . . . the result of gifts such as the several thousand dollars our congregation channeled through PDA. Those churches who had to let staff go due to destroyed facilities and scattered congregations used some of these monies for their employees. One church simply dumped $5000 into the bank account of an employee who lost everything—sounds like a lot of money, but he lived on it for 9 months.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,and bring the homeless poor into your house;when you see the naked, to cover them,and not to hide yourself from your own kin?Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,and your healing shall spring up quickly;your vindicator shall go before you,the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.If you remove the yoke from among you,the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,if you offer your food to the hungryand satisfy the needs of the afflicted,then your light shall rise in the darknessand your gloom be like the noonday.The LORD will guide you continually,and satisfy your needs in parched places,and make your bones strong;and you shall be like a watered garden,like a spring of water,whose waters never fail.Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;you shall be called the repairer of the breach,the restorer of streets to live in.(Isaiah, chapter 58, on False & True Worship)
What if you had a safe deposit box at your bank? Well, even if it was above the water line, the humidity blurred the ink and rendered your valuable papers useless.
What if you live near one of the three places where the levee was breeched? Well, there’s a new wall built on either side of the Mississippi. It appears to be about a 10′ wall, of single or double-depth concrete block. When asked if this seemingly minuscule boundary was adequate, we were told that, in light of what Katrina did, “Nothing can stop that force of nature.”
Areas where the levees broke are still flat, vacant fields. The force of the water pushed houses back several blocks. Debris that has been collected is being moved to swampland to create landfills.
City Park, where people pitched tents in the days after the storm subsided, lost over 1000 trees. It turns out that trees die when their roots are submerged for such a long period of time.
In the neighborhoods where cars and trees are still embedded in houses, the government will buy back the houses . . . but first you must clean it out. At this time, PDA has a list of about 250 houses yet to be gutted. The shift to reconstruction is just beginning. The Presbytery of South Louisiana has begun a fund drive called “Homes for Christmas,” and the goal, if I remember correctly, is to build 300 homes by Christmas 2007.
Habitat houses all stood – they were up to code. Habitat and the churches were the two sources of help which were mentioned most often—churches, because that’s where the money has come to and flowed from. Other valuable help came from Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowes, who all brought in people from other parts of the country and housed them in trailers in their parking lots so that people who were able to stay in their homes were able to access things they needed. Neighborhood grocery stores are still pretty much non-existent.
New Orleans firefighter, Judith Mason, shared her experience with us. In her words, “the hope of the city is the result of the support of churches and others outside the area who have come to the city and worked in the restoration and rebuilding efforts.” (PDC minutes 1/13/07)
One church provided drive-through meals, mass-produced by volunteers. Sue got ice and water daily from a church that served as a Red Cross center. In her words, “you fed us and sheltered us.”
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
therefore,love is the fulfilling of the law.”
“Let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.”
(I John 3:18)
“The fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.”
One of the horror stories, documented in a variety of ways, was the behavior of a neighboring community . . . adjacent to Orleans parish. People escaping the hurricane across the bridge to this community found themselves greeted by police cars, blocking their entrance. Over time, that same community passed laws to prevent residents of New Orleans to be housed – by charity or by rent – by local residents.
As one might expect, the most vulnerable, those for whom there was no room in the inn, were the poor, the uneducated, the renters, the minimum wage earners, the single moms. And most of those without resources, who lived in the most fragile housing, were black. They were the ones who were turned away from the neighboring town. They are the ones who filled the Super Dome. If you had family farther north . . . if you simply owned a car . . . if you were young and able-bodied . . . then you probably got out of the way of the watery hell.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; defend the rights of all those who have nothing. Speak up and judge fairly, and defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9 NCV)
In answer to my initial question, I found that the words of scripture did indeed come alive. I live in a secure home, air-conditioned, heated, with hot and cold running water, functioning washer/dryer and fridge. I am privileged, and relatively affluent. And during worship at the conference, I did indeed find scripture to be moving. It was just as fresh to us at the conference as it was to Ezra’s listeners, when he read from the newly rediscovered Law of Moses. And the Luke account of Jesus reading in the synagogue continues to be, for me, one of the most powerful passages in the Bible, summarizing the Gospel . . . “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In New Orleans—and in Mississippi—and in Appalachia— and in Binghamton New York—residents see Christ in Presbyterian Disaster volunteers. The “blue shirt people” in the Pod Villages bring hope. In the month of August, when there were no volunteers in the Pod Villages, people driving by looked for the “blue shirt people” and, seeing none, would lose hope.
These workers are those who have heard Jesus’ words that he brought “good news to the poor.” They have become the hands and feet of Christ, bringing hope to those who had no hope; repairing the breach and restoring streets to live in.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12b)
You are the light of the world.
A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,
but on the lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
(Most of the information above came from Elder Sue Larue of the Canal Street PC.
Quotations of scripture, Teresa of Avilla, and MLK Jr. were read by youth members of our Mississippi Mission Team.)
Copyright 2008 Robin Lostetter. Used by permission.