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.

When Our Foundations Shake

Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico near i...
Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico near its peak Category 5 intensity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clearly, as we all see what Hurricane Sandy has done, we are reminded, as the prophet Isaiah said, “the foundations of the earth do shake.”

With the ruination and destruction that has occurred, it is clear that things will never be as they were before. When foundations shake, and destruction comes, change follows.  “Getting back to normal” will be a new normal. Nothing will ever be as it was.

Is that a good thing? Probably. There are things about which we as individuals or governments as entities grow complacent.  When Hurricane Katrina wrought destruction in New Orleans, discussions sprouted about emergency preparedness, about the levees, about race relations.  Foundations that are shaken reveal the cracks that have been there for a long time.

If we look at Sandy and even Katrina as metaphors, we can apply lessons we are learning from them to our personal lives. There is much within us that we need to change, and we have thought about doing it for the longest time …only, we procrastinate. And then …a storm comes and the changes we should have made a long time ago stare us in the face, menacingly.

I wonder how many times city planners in New York thought about changes they needed to make in their subway system. For 108 years, it ran without a major catastrophe, and yet, the possibility of devastation due to flooding must have always loomed as a discussion point.

Doubtless, changes to an infrastructure are not looked upon favorably, one, because we like things “the way they have always been,” and two, because change always costs.

We can be proactive and make changes before catastrophe happens, but most of us do not. Invariably, though change costs whenever you do it, it is cheaper to do it proactively as opposed to reactively. We know that, and yet we procrastinate. We eke by with things “the way they are” or the “way they have always been” until the foundation shakes so violently that things can no longer remain the same.  The shaking is so violent that destruction is complete. Change must occur.

So many people in New Jersey and New York and the entire Eastern seaboard are standing in the aftermath of shaken foundations.  Storms come unexpectedly. They come when they want, and they stay as long as they want. They don’t care who gets mowed down in the process.  As I think of Hurricane Sandy, I find myself angry at her. Who asked her to come? Why did she come with such a fury?  Why didn’t she care about the people, not only in the United States but in the Caribbean and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, whose lives she absolutely destroyed?  I am so angry at her …

But I also understand that storms…come…uninvited, unexpectedly, with no regard of who or what they destroy. That being the case, we need to be, perhaps, a little more willing to cast procrastination aside and do what our spirits tell us we need to do to withstand the storms that will eventually come.  They always come, and they almost always pave the way for a new normal.

We could all do ourselves a favor by checking ourselves. Is our insurance adequate to handle a storm that might come? Do we have flood insurance? Do we have a plan in case a storm comes our way? Are we ready?  What do we need to do to prepare, so that when the foundations, our foundations shake, we are not completely devastated?

And …are we ready not only for the physical storms that will come our way but for the emotional and spiritual storms that will come as well?

This hurricane, just as Hurricane Katrina, has caused me deep thought. I cannot stand to see the total destruction, the pain and angst, of the people who lost everything, not now and not after Katrina. I am angry at Sandy, just as I was angry at Katrina. The audacity of these storms to wreak such havoc just does not set well with me.

But what also doesn’t set well with me is that we as humans are so slow to understand that our foundations – physically, personally and spiritually – will shake. We will not always be as we are right now.  It seems that we ought to understand that and do what we need to do to strengthen ourselves while we have a chance…because storms …will come.

A candid observation.