God, Black People, and Katrina

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and parts of Mississippi. Katrina was vicious, surely, an unwanted and uninvited visitor to an area of the country used to unwanted guests, but she was much more rude and imposing. Her winds and her rain devastated parts of Mississippi, and her power caused storm surges and broke levees in New Orleans, in effect murdering innocent people caught in the firestorm.

One could not look at the images on television of people, mostly black and poor, standing on roofs for days, waiting to be rescued. It was hard to shut out the images of people walking in the hot, blazing New Orleans sun, across the Danzinger Bridge, looking to get away from the flood waters that were swallowing their homes. My heart was broken as I saw pictures of dead people on that bridge, waiting to be picked up. The one picture that sticks in my mind is that of an old woman, in a wheelchair on the bridge, dead.

It didn’t help to hear the stories of people in the convention center, even though Katrina’s wind and rain had caused a hole in the center’s roof. The people were there, sitting in seats normally inhabited by people enjoying entertainment of some sort. Now, those seats were filled with desperate people, in a facility where there was reportedly no air conditioning, no electricity, no running water …The images even now haunt me.

I sat in Columbus, Ohio, a pastor of a church wanting to do “what Jesus said.” I have always wanted that. The people down South were suffering. We had to do something. So, we organized a campaign to collect needed items to take to the people. Health supplies. Bleach. Diapers, Food for babies and adults. Water. Clothing …you name it, we collected it. People from all over the city and outlying suburbs came over to Advent United Church of Christ, bringing supplies and by extension, love, for the people who were suffering. We were able to get an 18-wheel truck and we filled it  …and we drove to New Orleans. The truck with supplies, and us in our cars, with the determination to help “the least of these.”

In my mind, “the least of these” were primarily the black people. Those were the people whom I saw on roofs, crying for help. Those were the people who were on that bridge and in the convention center. They were the ones who had been, in large part, unable to get out of New Orleans before the levee broke, causing that dastardly flood. I considered them to be “the least of these.” We were going down there to help my people.

But God.

I have to admit, I am angry at God a lot, because I blame God for allowing racism to flourish. I blame God for not changing the hearts of white people who are filled with hatred and a sense of superiority and entitlement. I truly believe white Christianity, for the most part, has failed when it comes to racism. The white Church has allowed racism to flourish; it has advocated for segregation in its congregations; it has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of African-Americans who have been deemed to be the scourge of not only the United States but, it seems, the world. The god of white people has not insisted on agape love, not insisted on justice for “the least of these,” and has not pushed for mercy.

The god of the black church has been different, created out of what I call a “crazy faith” that has been the fuel for hope in spite of the injustice meted out by the government and the church. Author James Baldwin called the faith and subsequent hope of black people in America an “ironic tenacity.” Black people had to develop and embrace a faith that said trouble would not always be. Ida B. Wells, who fought against lynching in this nation, talked about her faith that was defined in large part, said James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  to “black cultural resistance to white supremacy.”

As we traveled to New Orleans 10 years ago, I fully expected to be able to get to the suffering black people.

But God.

We were stopped in Mississippi before we were able to get to New Orleans. I think the reason why was that there were so many people traveling there to help. We looked around; the place where we were stopped was completely devastated. We were in Pass Christian. There was nothing …We drove through deserted streets and saw homes and business flattened. There was no electricity. The houses that remained had marks on them to indicate that dead people had been found inside. On one street, there was a lonely dog walking, looking lost and forgotten. We fed him and I wondered how long it would be before he was rescued.

Anyway …we had this truck, full of supplies, and in our meandering, we came upon a church. There was life there; we could see people. We were excited and we drove as close to the door as we could. We were there! We were going to help “the least of these.”

There was one problem. All of the people …were white.

Damn. I wanted to leave. I had wanted to help the black people, and here we were, in this deserted, God-forsaken place called Mississippi, where I was sure many of my ancestors had been lynched and discriminated against. Mississippi???? God! Are You kidding me?

We began unloading stuff, things that these people needed. After a while, one of the people from Columbus came to me and asked, “When are we going to help the black people?” I just muttered and said, “soon.” In our group, we had black and white people, Jewish people as well as Christian, but for me, this wasn’t their trip, not as far as the ultimate goal was concerned. I wanted to help black people, and here we were, stuck in Mississippi, helping white people whose ancestors, at least, had surely caused misery for the very people we wanted to help and who were still in misery because of Katrina.

After we had unloaded much of what these people needed, I was jumping down from the truck, and this little old white lady, with white, fuzzy hair, came up to me, with giant, crocodile tears in her eyes. She hugged me. And then she just said, “Thank you. Thank you.”

I have never forgotten that day. I still have feelings about how that day worked out, how we ended up helping people whom I no intention of helping. I have grown too cynical to believe that our stop in Pass Christian that day made a difference in the hearts of white supremacists in that group. I blame God, like I said, for not doing a sweep of hatred in the hearts of people.

But the one thing I know is that God taught me a lesson that day, about what God and religion are supposed to be about. I am not sure I appreciate the lesson, but in spite of myself, I did learn.

Who can understand the ways of God? Surely, not me.

Why Does a People Weep?

Today, I wept.

I was already reeling from the report that a young, white, wealthy teen boy received probation after being convicted of vehicular homicide in an accident which resulted in the deaths of four people. I have been studying the phenomenon of mass incarceration, a reality which is responsible for literally thousands of young blacks being imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses, virtually ruining their lives forever. That this young white kid could and did get off, on the premise that he suffers from “affluenza,” i.e., his wealthy parents virtually let him get away with everything.

In an article in TIME Magazine, the reporter wrote that a psychologist, testifying for the defense, said, “He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” Gary Miller, a psychologist assigned to Couch said in court. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”( http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/12/12/the-affluenza-defense-judge-rules-rich-kids-rich-kid-ness-makes-him-not-liable-for-deadly-drunk-driving-accident/)

The judge bought the defense argument and this kid is out of jail.

As I was struggling to get through the disgust and repulsion that I felt at that situation, I got the news flash on my phone that the ex- New Orleans police officer who was convicted of murdering an unarmed black man, Henry Glover, following Hurricane Katrina, has now been acquitted. Ex-cop David Warren will be home for the holidays.

The story is always the same with these killings: Warren said he thought his life was in danger because he thought he saw a gun in Glover’s hand as he and another man ran toward police officers, including Warren. Glover was not armed. To add insult to injury, Glover’s body was burned in a car by another officer.

But Warren is free, as is that young, white, rich teen.

I am sick.

The story I read said that Glover’s sister broke down when she heard the verdict acquitting Warren. Her tears are sadness and anger. This justice system, filled with officers, attorneys and prosecutors who apparently don’t care about justice, continues to slap black people in the face. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/acquitted-killing-man-post-hurricane-katrina-mayhem-article-1.1545038)

I keep thinking, “What if that had been my son?”  Or, in the case of the young teen, “what if one of my kids had been killed?” Where does one put the grief and the anger at not getting justice. Why is it that this nation continues to elevate some, who are a certain color or who have a certain socio-economic status, and throw other people away?  Over and over again, this justice system says to people of color, and to poor people, “You do not matter.”

I am a theologian. I believe in God. But I promise you, this stuff is taking its toll. Why doesn’t God shake the consciousness of people and breathe into them a holy breath that tells them they are assaulting people who are also children of God?  Carlyse Stewart, author of Black Spirituality and Black Consciousness, says in that book that the spirituality of black people has been the force that has sustained us in spite of oppression. Black spirituality, he writes, has a soul force that gives black people the ability to exercise “patience while suffering, determination while frustrated, and hope while in despair.”  He says African-Americans have the ability to create “their own world and culture within or beyond a world, free to fashion their own values, beliefs and behaviors in response to the larger culture and society.”

That is true; black (and, by extension, I would think, all people of color and poor people as well) people have only been able to exist and maintain sanity in spite of gross injustice, dehumanization and criminalization because a spirit force inside them whispered to them to “hold on and keep fighting.”

But this is the 21st century and this stuff keeps happening. Juries and the justice system keep sending the message that certain people count more than others, that certain deaths matter more than others, and that some people just are not worth treating like dignified human beings.

That young teen who received probation, like George Zimmerman, probably walks arrogantly now, thinking, as I feel Zimmerman did, that he can do whatever he wants. His “affluenza” entitles him …to do whatever he wants …precisely what the psychologist says his parents taught him.

Officer Warren is probably walking arrogantly as well, standing on his claim that he was “afraid for his life.”

Cut me a break.

With all these officers killing unarmed black people, can’t someone, won’t someone say, “something is wrong here?” Doesn’t anyone have enough God in him or her to say, “enough!”?

I weep. Why does an individual weep, and, larger than that, why does a people weep?

Because they are ignored and dehumanized.

They are treated as dreams, deferred.

A candid observation …