Monday, August 31, 2009

Katrina Blues

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast during my seminary orientation week, four years ago. During the days, we were immersed in activities and exercises designed to help us get to know our classmates. In the evenings we gathered at a local pub and watched the images on television in stunned disbelief: people desperately clinging to the roofs of their homes; streets of New Orleans transformed into canals; debris from homes being swept along as the water flowed. As the week went on, the images became more horrific: overcrowded conditions at the Superdome; dead bodies floating in the water or recovered from flooded homes; and makeshift memorials to victims erected after the waters receded. The inequitable ineffectiveness of other government agencies after Katrina ripped apart the meta-narrative of the dominant culture allowed a view of institutional racism and oppression in all its meanness.

This event dominated my first year at seminary as Katrina refugees were offered student housing and shared in our community meals. Our responsibilities as people of faith to speak out on the issues of justice raised by Katrina and its aftermath were discussed in classes and preached on in chapel. My roommate (African American, middle class, and middle-aged) and I (white, middle class now but born to and raised by working class parents, and middle-aged) shared space and stories with each other, finding common ground that led to frank conversations on topics often taboo between the races – topics like prejudice and “passing,” and how we each perceived and experienced (or didn’t experience) institutionalized oppression.

Two summers ago (while I was in the midst of my chaplain internship) my spouse & child went to NOLA to help in the recovery. They demolished 3 homes - removing refrigerators with rotting food in them, washing machines with mildewed laundry, precious possessions left behind in the rush to escape. They also tore down walls, leaving the bare studs - framing - for eventual rehabbing. I wonder if those homes have been rehabbed, or if they are destined to remain abandoned. We will never know.

I know the experience changed them - and the others who went with them. I know the experience of Katrina's aftermath changed this country. It certainly gave me one more measure by which to evaluate candidates in the last presidential election. That was the summer the midwest suffered devastating floods. Two Democratic candidates made speeches about the destruction, one actually visited his home state, rolled up his sleeves and helped fill sandbags. Yeah, it might have been a strategic photo-op. But, still. He did it, and he got my vote.

Anyway, a new class is beginning orientation at my alma mater this week. I'm remembering my orientation week - and the people of New Orleans. I pray the new class will have their own appropriate formative experiences - but not like this. Not at such a cost.

And people still can't go home. Sigh. A blogger I read regularly has posted a musical set, sort of a blues tribute to the survivors of Katrina. You can find it here. "Somebody say yeah..."

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