'American Awakening' details journey from 9/11 to Katrina

October 8, 2008

Courtney Cowart, director of advocacy and community affairs at the Diocese of Louisiana, said on October 6 that the title of her book, "An American Awakening," refers to her transformation from elegant church historian to gritty relief organizer after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.


She spoke to an audience of about 70 at St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks north of Wall Street, where the economic crisis was producing almost-daily aftershocks and television camera trucks were lined up near the church.

"How do I say a cosmic thank you for my life?" she said, reading from a passage in her book. At the time of the attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center and killed more than 2,000 people, she was staying near St. Paul's sister church, Trinity, just a few blocks from the center. "I have no idea. But a kind of mantra is needling me. It runs in my head, as it has since the attack, and it goes something like this: Only people, only people. Only people matter."

Andrew Senchak, CEO of brokerage firm Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, had its office on the 86th floor of the trade center. Speaking at the book launch, he broke down in tears as he described how reading Cowart's mantra had moved him to return to St. Paul's for the event, his first visit since the 2001 attack. "It's a terrible thing -- and a wonderful thing for that matter," he said. After losing 66 employees that day, and attending scores of funerals, "I'd discovered exactly the same thing, in exactly the same words."

Cowart also said that Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf coast in 2005 and killed more than 1,000 people in Louisiana and Mississippi, also was part of her journey.

Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief and Development, told the audience that when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, he'd been on the job for six weeks and the disaster was his "baptism by flood" into the agency's relief work. ERD supported diocesan efforts to provide shelter, food, medical care and drinking water for victims and relief workers.   

Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana, who figures prominently in Cowart's book, said that the diocese has become the second-largest homebuilder in New Orleans since Katrina, helped 1,100 families financially and provided medical treatment to nearly 10,000 people.

Many of those in attendance at St. Paul's had joined Cowart after 9/11 in transforming the church from a majestic house of worship into a shelter and soup kitchen for the newly homeless, a shrine to the victims and a staging area for workers at Ground Zero.

The book's first part, "The School of Death," describes the identity crisis this provoked as church traditionalists clashed with the disaster workers over the proper role to play. Cowart writes of the rector who looked around the space and asked, "what are all these weird people doing here?" and the vicar who demanded to know, "when is St. Paul's going to become a real church again?"

"I have been one of those traditionalists," Cowart acknowledged in her book. "But just as 9/11 has become a watershed for me in so many other ways, my rendezvous with violent death has also marked a turning point for me on this issue. I no longer think that humankind has the luxury of indulging in dollhouse religion. The size of the problems we face has made me an ardent champion of ecclesiastical innovation and the church of the future."

Cowart said she was inspired to write "An American Awakening" after reading an interview in which Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" was asked how to talk to children who had seen images of the Sept. 11 attack. The children's television host replied, "Tell them to look at the helpers."

In part two of the book, "The Other America," Cowart shares her journey into New Orleans' most challenged neighborhoods, where inner-city youth, community organizers, "Big Mamas" and positive rappers teach Cowart and thousands of other hurricane relief volunteers about racial injustice and economic disparity. 

Where in New York she had been able to directly address the emergency at hand, here Cowart discovered that true assistance was not possible without also addressing underlying problems such as illiteracy, malnutrition and lack of vocational skills. 

Jenkins said that "what tears my heart up are the human issues. They are coming more slowly. We are working to undo centuries of racism and centuries of intentionally poor education -- yes, I said intentional -- and centuries of economic exclusion. If you are a population that has been told for generation upon generation that your life counts for nothing, you don't have much sense of yourself."

Noting that the country will soon be facing an economic crisis --"and make no mistake, it is coming"-- Jenkins urged Episcopalians to adopt Cowart's mantra that "only people matter" as our own, and remember that it's not about "those people" down South or up North or anywhere else in the world, but one people -- us -- belonging to God. 


-- Molly Gordy is a New York-based freelance writer.