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 …


Sandy: An Act of Terrorism

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)


As the reports of the devastation and destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy continue to dominate the news, it has been hard for me not to think of this as an act of terrorism – a natural act of terrorism.


We all know that terrorism can come in a lot of ways, but the most threatening, at least in my mind, is that which can come from an act which upsets and unwinds our infrastructure. something that is so complete that our very economy and way of life is threatened. Terrorism seeks to do its work by destroying what is vital for everyday life, and by instilling fear in those being terrorized. Hurricane Sandy seems to have done that.


Hurricane Sandy, like Hurricane Katrina, showed no mercy to its victims. Both storms went right to the heart of their targets’ infrastructures, causing people to lose everything. When one looks at the total destruction on the Eastern seaboard, and remembers back to what New Orleans and places like Pas Christian, Mississippi were like after Katrina, it is easy to see how the goal of the storm was met. People were left hopeless, distraught, and displaced. They were that way after Katrina and they are like that now, after  Sandy. People bounce back…but they are never the same. Terrorist acts do that: they destroy what “was” and force us to do something new.


What if these storms are a warning, or a clarion call, for the United States to become aware that we are NOT the same as we were before 911? What if these storms are saying to us that we have to create a new reality, live within a new caution and awareness, so that we are not walloped again like we have been? Every time I fly, I moan at the screening we have to go through as a result of 911, but I also realize that we in America have to accept that things are not the same here as they were and will never be.  It feels like we need to begin to accept the new reality that is before us and begin to act in different ways.


Before 911 and these storms, it seems like we were almost smug in our comfort. We had never been attacked. We heaped destruction on other countries in the World Wars, but we had never experienced that. We felt really safe and protected.


But with new technology, which is so powerful, and nations around the world which do not like us, we are not so safe anymore. All a nation has to do is figure out how to upset our infrastructure, and the reality we know even now will be forever gone.


I have heard it said that to fix infrastructure, like New York‘s 108-year-old subway system, is too expensive …yet, in the wake of this horrible storm, Hurricane Irene last year, and Hurricane Katrina before that, can we really afford to use expense as an excuse not to improve our infrastructure so as to protect our nation?


It is said that when bad things happen, it’s not so bad; bad things are “lessons” for us. I don’t think we are supposed to try to “get back to normal.” I think we are supposed to think about what our “new normal” looks like, and work to make it happen.


We have a good percentage of America that is severely traumatized by this hurricane. They are going “back” to nothing. Their homes are gone, their mementos are gone. For some, their loved ones are gone…because of this act of terrorism called Hurricane Sandy. They don’t have anywhere to go, some of them. Some people have resources to start over, but many do not. This country is not the same as it was, even a week ago.


It seems that we need to look at what has happened with different eyes and a new understanding, and with a determination to learn all the lessons we need in order to live in this “newness.”  If we do not,  Hurricane Sandy, who has danced blithely off into oblivion, will have had the last laugh. She doesn’t care what she did to our people, our country, our spirit, our hope …but we should.


A candid observation …






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.



Devastation and God

Hurricane Sandy came through this week with an attitude, cutting a path of destruction the likes of which most of us have never seen.

As I look at the images on television, I shudder. The affected areas look as though they’ve been hit by a nuclear bomb. The destruction is total, and breathless in its totality. Fire, floods, sand covering neighborhoods, houses knocked down, facades of buildings blown away, cars put into place by angry flood waters…a crane hanging precariously from a building under construction, and literally millions of people without power.

I keep thinking, “the people. How will they cope? ”

When I visited New Orleans and the area affected by Hurricane Katrina, I felt the same way. To walk through streets that had once been part of vibrant neighborhoods, but now destroyed by a fierce and relentless storm, was eerie. There were things hanging on power lines, cars that had obviously been moved to their locations by moving water, houses with big “X’s” on their doors, indicating whether someone had been found inside dead. The former streets were deathly quiet. Pets, who obviously had lost their families, wandered around, following us, wanting food, and love and attention.

It was eerie.

But this latest storm, this Sandy, seems to have done even more damage than Katrina.

In a time like this, people ought to be able to turn to God, but invariably, some religious type makes a pronouncement about God and about such a devastating event being God’s will, as punishment for the “ungodliness” of the people
Pat Robertson is pretty famous for doing that, but he is not the only one. He  certainly was of the opinion that Hurricane Katrina happened because of the waywardness of the people.

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University writer and scholar who most recently authored The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide and Define a Nation, wrote a piece this week on the CNN Belief Blog about the whole notion of saying that certain things, like a natural disaster, are God’s will.

Wrote Prothero: “Is God angry with Cuba, where 11 died last week? More angry with Haiti, where 51 perished? Relatively unperturbed with Jamaica, where the death toll was only two? If a tree falls on my house today, will that be an Act of God, too?”

We are all so imperfect. Paul Tillich talks about how we sin but how grace “more abounds” than does sin. There can be no sin without grace, and grace is given to all. Tillich says it is our challenge to believe that God accepts us in spite of our being basically “unacceptable.” Grace is given “in spite of.”

That notion of God is a far cry from this notion of God who would send a storm like Sandy to punish people for being “ungodly,” and not particularly according to God’s standards of “godliness,” but according to human standards.

I can’t fathom a God like that.

I cannot believe and will not believe that God looked down and said “I’m going to devastate a whole slew of innocent people because they have not “been good.”

We have never been good.

According to the Bible, “all have sinned and fallen short.”  Supposedly, there is no sin that is greater than another.

Therefore, corporate crime is as distasteful to God as is street crime; selfishness and thievery and murder are no greater than any other misstep. We all fall short. If God was that punitive, would not we all have been knocked out of commission a long time ago? Isn’t the fact that God sent Jesus, according to Christian theology, supposed to confirm that we are “justified” and “reconciled” to God, “in spite of” ourselves?

I cannot believe, will not believe, that people who are walking around tonight with no home, who are dazed with the afterglow of this horrendous storm, are being punished by God. And …I wonder where the people are, how they’re coping, who even without a storm, have little or next to nothing.

In order to maintain sanity, I for one have to believe in a good God, a God who does not cause bad things to happen to good people, a God who loves us “in spite of.” Without that notion of God, I don’t know how people would be able to cope with something like this storm.

I know I wouldn’t be able to.

That’s a candid observation …