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January 9, 2014
“Do you have eyes and fail to see?” Mark 8:18, NRSV.
Before I tell you what I have just seen in post-Katrina New Orleans, here is a disclaimer: I am not an expert on New Orleans. I am a visitor and an appreciator.
I understand all the nuances and intricacies of New Orleans about as well as I understand them in the gospel of John. I appreciate New Orleans like I appreciate abstract expressionist art. I am excited to be around it, but I don’t really have a clue about what it means. New Orleans is a really fun city, but it wears me out like a manic, high-maintenance friend does. It overloads my senses.
I was there two weeks before Christmas. New Orleans does Christmas like it does everything else: over the top, with flair, food, glitz and glitter. There were pages of special events, shows, exhibits, and concerts from which to choose. Even though we were on vacation, we made a chart of the morning, afternoon and evening events we wanted to attend so we didn’t miss anything. Compulsive, I know.
However, I can’t just be a tourist in New Orleans. Why? I see too much. My first post-Katrina visit was on the Friendship Tour led by BPFNA’s LeDayne McLeese Polaski in November, 2007. Then, I saw the devastation and I heard the stories that pour out when one asks simply, “Where were you during the storm?” I was involved for 5 years in the Upper Ninth Ward since I was the pastor of a church with a partner church there. I wish I could report the wonderful rebirth of the Upper and Lower 9th Wards of the city, but I can’t. The neighborhoods lag far behind others in redevelopment. This is not for lack of trying. Some say there are strong political forces with other plans for this land who are working behind the scenes to keep these neighborhoods full of empty lots. The Army Corps of Engineers has been exonerated in any wrongdoing in the failure of the levees that caused the extreme devastation. Because of new laws requiring construction to be 38 inches higher than ground level and inadequate insurance reimbursements, many homeowners cannot afford to come back and rebuild.
Similarly, New Orleans East, a neighborhood just north and east of the two 9th Wards, is also still devastated. One can see this easily from I-10 on the approach to the city from the east.
While there is some new and rebuilt housing, abandoned homes that are boarded up dot every street. I think it would be hard to feel the love from one’s city officials when one looks at this scene every day. Another ghastly sight is the outline of a ruined and abandoned amusement park, with the defunct rides silhouetted against the sky. We were first shown this “landmark” when given a tour by a pastor in 2007. And there it sits still.
One of the beautiful things we did on this visit was to attend a free concert at the Cathedral of St. Louis, on Jackson Square. The music was provided by the Roots of Music Band, a group of young people formed since Katrina from underprivileged schools around the city. Once accepted into the program, students are brought by bus to classrooms at the Cathedral every day after school. They receive homework help and mentoring for their studies and then music lessons! During the concert, several band members spoke about what music meant to them. Some of the jazz greats from around the city sat in on various numbers to lend their support. At the end of the concert, the band led us out of the Cathedral onto the Square with a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Everyone was cheering and clapping. It was a splendid moment of Christmas spirit. More information about this program can be found at www.therootsofmusic.org.
On a much sadder note, the three in my company were alarmed to hear from a tour guide speaking confidentially about the increased problems with runaway youth arriving at the bus station being lured into the sex trade. While wonderful organizations like Covenant House are trying their best, there are still those who slip through the cracks and fall into this terrible trap. Getting out proves difficult and sometimes even fatal.
A shocking headline in the Times Picayune grabbed our attention during our visit. The former policeman, David Warren, previously convicted in one of the most notorious cases of police abuse and negligence post-Katrina, had his conviction overturned. He had been convicted of the killing of unarmed Henry Glover, whose body was subsequently burned in a car left on a levee in the Algiers neighborhood. (By Rebecca Alexander, Times Picayune, Dec. 11, 2013.) Many other post-Katrina convictions have been subsequently overturned.
I was trying to gain some insight into all of this, so I read more about these stories in the Katrina archive of the Times Picayune. This information is available to you at www.nola.com.
I wanted to check my perception with someone from the area so I reached out to one of the pastors whom we met in 2007, Pastor Aldon Cotton. His personal response was that the verdict was sad, but predictable, given that some things allowed in the previous trial were not allowed in this one.
In a moment of synchronicity, Pastor Cotton also used sight as an image to describe his thoughts. He said the question that haunts him from this case is the same one that haunts him about the Trayvon Martin case and many others. He wondered if justice was indeed blind or if the lens of racism clouded the vision.
The verse I quote at the beginning of this article is found in Mark’s gospel story of the feeding of the four thousand. The disciples come to Jesus with the problem of feeding the crowd, even though they had witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus asks them, (I imagine with some exasperation in his voice) if they have eyes but fail to see. It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina and there is still much we don’t want to or choose not to see about what happened during and after the storm and what has happened since.
My hope and prayer for New Orleans is described by the photo I took on my last night in the city. The statue of Jesus with arms outstretched located behind the Cathedral of St. Louis is illuminated at night so that the shadow cast is very large. I hope and pray that those who love God and love New Orleans will have eyes to see. I hope they will work together so that needs are met, justice is served and the light of God’s love is magnified in this unique place.