Four years later, Katrina still calls us to change our values

August 27, 2009

Editor's note: Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Mississippi and southeast Louisiana coast on August 29, 2005. The category three storm laid waste to 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast land, an area the size of the United Kingdom. In Mississippi, the storm surge obliterated coastal communities and left thousands destitute. New Orleans was overwhelmed by flooding after its levee system failed. All told, close to 1,800 people died during the storm and her aftermath.



The generosity of our nation and the world in response to our time of having been brought so low is gratefully acknowledged.

Like the Good Samaritan who left silver with the innkeeper to care for the man robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road, we in Louisiana have known the mercy of others in our time of need. Some would say, the season for such generosity has passed. Indeed, many of us are well on the way to recovery and that which yet needs be healed will be done by God, perhaps through the hands of doctors and nurses. Indeed, I find in my own soul a wound so deep that healing seems possible only by grace.

However, not all are where I am on the road to recovery. Demonstrated so plainly time and time again is the indisputable fact that the "least of these" are not able to stand without assistance. Surely assistance is available for many but the process to that assistance remains a moving target. Deadlines are arbitrarily set to meet the needs of bureaucracy rather than the needs of our fellow citizens whose lives remain in the roadside gutter.

I remind us that the Good Samaritan bound up the wounds of the man brutalized and then took him to the inn. He did not simply give him silver coins and tell him to be on his way. As tired as we are, as deep as may be our compassion fatigue, like the Good Samaritan we must be gird our loins and pick up the least of these and bring them with dignity to the place of healing. If we just toss a coin to the beggar along side the path of life, the beggar will die in that spot.

The words of Martin Luther King must ring loudly in our ears. "A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies," he told an audience at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. "On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

We have engaged in a direct and intentional manner the work of challenging the edifice that produces beggars. I believe Dr. King to be correct when he calls this "true compassion." Faith communities and people of good will are the standard bearers in this challenge. This challenge has been and continues to be lived out in New Orleans where the façade of American progress has been washed away. Many would be happy if we could again apply the "make-up" to the wound that affects us all, but such will not be the case. This wound is evident around our nation, but in New Orleans it has been exposed as the flood washed away the veneer.

Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon I well understand. True compassion as defined by Dr. King seems to me so fundamental to being a person of faith, a Christian, and in my case, a bishop, that I think we must persist. When the wound in our society is healed by grace and compassion, the scar will not be an ugly reminder of what was, but a medal of honor reminding all of God's healing.

I do not know if there was an intentional thought of social engineering in New Orleans. I observe that, intentional or not, the city is a different place today than it was four years ago. For some, life is better, for others life is at best unchanged or worse. I observe a shift in where political power is vested and a dramatic change in the role that New Orleans plays in state government. I see some of our schools improved but a gross neglect of others. I see children going without special education and the tools that will help those challenged to succeed. So many children remain estranged from their spiritual roots in New Orleans. They have no way to return home and little encouragement to do so. The tear of the child remains a scandal to humanity.

The privatization of disaster response has made us a means to profit. The revolution of values of which Dr. King wrote is a theological revolution. This theological shift has to do with our understanding of God and thus our understanding of humanity. Grace and blessing cannot be measured in the rich lifestyles of predatory preachers; rather God's blessing is seen in the ministry of Jesus whereby dignity has been granted to all. The revolution of values must include recognition of the dignity of every human being. Such dignity is incarnational and thus has to do with what we think of God.

On this fourth anniversary of Katrina I find myself concerned that the work of the revolution of values is still in the beginning stages. What we do in Louisiana has an impact across the nation and the world. I pray for the continuing generosity of Christian brothers and sisters and friends from around the world that we may continue the task that has been placed before us.