Ten Years After”

August 30, 2015


Job 38:1-11

Luke 22:47-51


This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Once again we were shown those video clips and photographs that, in some way, have been etched into our minds.

 Scenes of people walking through water up to their necks.

Shots of rescue boats being dashed by wind and rain.

Pictures of bodies floating in the water.

On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in 2010, New Orleans Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, preached unity. “With the rising water, differences and divisions were washed away,” he said, asking the audience to listen to each other, and embrace their common aspirations. “We will hear and we will learn the beautiful truth that Katrina taught us all,” he declared, “We are all the same.”[i]

But we weren’t and we aren’t.

I still remember the front page article in The New York Times that reported on how some of the survivors of the Hurricane were making out. Before the storm hit, one group of people booked a block of rooms in the Lafayette, LA Hilton and stayed there for a week, drinking wine late into the night in the lobby. A week later they were settling into a rented home, stocking the refrigerator and relaxing on the porch.

These people were white and well-off.

Another family, sick and starving, waited at the airport with a blue plastic bin filled with what they had scrounged from strangers. It was all they had. Their $2000 cash savings burned up with their belongings, including birth certificates in a post-flood fire at their apartment in New Orleans.

And, yes, you guessed it, they were black and poor.

Similar disparities were seen in how the aftermath of the storm was reported. In one infamous example of skewed coverage, an Associated Press photo shows a young black man wading through water that has risen to his chest. He’s holding a case of soda and pulling a bag. The caption says he had just been “looting a grocery store.” A second photo, this time from AFP/Getty Images, shows a white couple in the same situation. The caption says they are shown “after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

So President Obama had a better assessment of the situation when he said last Thursday: “What that storm laid bare was another tragedy—one that had been brewing for decades. New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing. Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already when the storm hit, there were no resources to fall back on.”[ii]

The storm exposed the huge contrasts in our nation—the growing gap between the rich and the poor, between whites and blacks. And at the time many of us wondered aloud if anything could be done to heal these deep and enduring wounds, which seem far more difficult to repair than all the broken and flooded cities. The storms called us to examine what we valued. The staggering contrasts could overwhelm us, or we could rise to the challenges they presented.

I can’t help feeling that we as a nation lost an opportunity. The gaps between rich and poor, blacks and whites only seem larger today. And we really haven’t wanted to look at that or talk about it.

Yes, ten years ago this congregation—like so many congregations across the nation—was concerned and generous. But with time, so many people were burdened with “compassion fatigue.” They grew tired of hearing New Orleans being mentioned in prayers. They grew tired of giving to the same cause over and over. Because disasters did not stop with Katrina, most people grew tired of hearing about hurricanes and then earthquakes and, well, human need as we faced rising oil prices at home and a rising death toll in Iraq, and ultimately our own flood.

For most people, life got back to what we call “normal.” But one songwriter puts it: “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”

Ten years after, a new survey finds a stark racial divide in how residents of new Orleans view the recovery. Nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five blacks say it has not, a divide sustained over a variety of issues including the local economy, the state of schools and the quality of life.[iii]

So Jamelle Bouie, wrote recently: “The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Now, black Americans are back to their post-Katrina consensus; a deep sense that America is indifferent to their lives and livelihoods. Indeed, when read in that light, a movement like Black Lives Matter seems inevitable.”[iv]

Back in, when was it, the late sixties, the early seventies, the rock band, Ten Years After, sang somewhat plaintively:

            I’d love to change the world

            But I don’t know what to do

            So I’m leaving it up to you.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, it’s still up to us.

Ten years after, the work is not just rebuilding a classic—and in some sense always threatened—American city. The real work is healing: identifying the wounds, doing what needs to be done restore what is broken.

And that story of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane points us in the direction we need to go. We don’t usually read stories from the Passion of Jesus at times other than Lent, and especially during Holy Week. As a result, we often forget them or miss out on what they show us.

All four Gospels remember the incident of the high priest’s slave.

Mark tells it briefly, just noting that “one of those who stood near” cut off the ear of the slave.

John says that it was Peter who did this—and gives the name of the slave: Malchus.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns those who follow him: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

And Luke—the Gospel that takes the name of the beloved physician—states Jesus touched the ear and healed him.

The way of those who follow Jesus—at our best—is one of laying down sword, even beating them into plowshares. And when we have lain down our swords, we are called to take up the task of healing, even in the most difficult situations.

We cannot heal the great racial divide of our nation on our own.

We cannot bridge the ever widening wealth gap that results from income inequality on our own.

Individual congregations—and entire denominations need to have a sane estimate of our abilities—of what we can accomplish. We are not called to be solutions as much as signs—those who point to what might be done, those who point toward the world that God desires for all people.

I find one such sign coming from the United Church of Christ down in New Orleans.

St. Matthew UCC and Central Congregational UCC were located just 2 miles apart in New Orleans. Their situations before the storm reflected the racial disparity of the city. The ways that they there weathered the storm echoes the ways of the two families profiled in the Times.

St. Matthew, a former Evangelical ad Reformed congregation was a predominately-white church in the Carrollton section of town, on higher ground. It sustained wind and rain damage from Katrina –– but nothing like the devastation at Central. Situated in the Bienville neighborhood, Central Congregational Church –– whose congregation was composed primarily of African-American members –– was a total loss.
Today there is no more Central UCC.

St. Matthew UCC is gone, too.
But Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ is going strong.
The two churches joined into one congregation that is Central St. Matthew UCC in the post-Katrina era of New Orleans, trying to bring the best from both legacy churches into the future. “It's a new day," their pastor says. It is a sign that honest conversation, that healing action is possible. It is a sign that the disparities of wealth and race can be addresses, lived through in positive ways.

You see, Harry Connick, Jr., Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie can’t do it all on their own. (In fact, did you see that Brad and Angelina are selling their home in New Orleans? They bought it right after the hurricane for 3.5 million and are asking 6.5 million now. Yes, I know. They’ve also done much good there. As the Pope would say, “Who am I to judge?”)

I kept thinking this week about what the contemporary dancer and choreographer, Liz Lerman, said when she was in Iowa City a couple of years ago: “If you ask a big enough question, you need more than one discipline to answer it.”

The problems that Katrina revealed, the problems of systemic, institutional racism, the problems of wealth and poverty, will require the best thinking of politicians and economists and scientists and musicians and writers and engineers and nurses and business owners and all other manner of people because everyone is touched by this. We are all part of the racial divide in our nation. We all participate in an economic system that is leaving many behind.

What might happen if our own congregation and our boards—Christian Education, Mission, the Diaconate, even our Membership and Stewardship boards and the Trustees started thinking about, talking about, working on ways of being signs to our community that healing can happen, that divides can be crossed, that barriers can come down?

What if?

What then?

We listen when the Psalmist affirms: “Therefore we will not fear. . .though the waters roar and foam.”

Who can speak like this?

Those who are still.

If we are willing to be still, and to listen, perhaps even when the storms are raging we can know God, our refuge and our strength.

When life is stormy the first thought is often toward action: What can I do now to solve this problem? Motion begets motion. And very often more heat is generated than light.

There is still a great work to be done in our hearts and out in the world. There is a great and challenging work to be done in this town and in this nation.

“Two things are absolutely essential for the church,” says the noted preacher Fred Craddock. Two things: “Jesus Christ and human need. In that place where the church dwells are the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, the powerful and the powerless. There are those who are educated and those who are ignorant. There are those who believe and those who don’t believe. There are the high and the mighty and the lowly who nobody knows. In between is the church of Jesus Christ…The church is to be the gospel—[the good news]—for all these people. As long as you have Christ and as long as you have needs, you have the church.”

Human need and Jesus Christ are both still present—on the Gulf Coast, in our community, across our nation.

God does not ask for patience when lives are threatened and taken.

God does not ask for patience in the face of injustice.

But the psalmist counsels us: Be still. In stillness before God we might discover what needs to be done rather than simply what can be done. In stillness we might better discover our own ability to act and our ability to be the church of Christ in a world of need.

Ten years after—and once again we are called to examine what we value; we are invited to choose.

We can be overwhelmed by the challenges; we can try to ignore them. Or we can let the tension of contrasts allow us to stand up and walk together.