U-C: What I See

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In which my eyes are slowly opened - Katrina

Sisters and Brothers,

I don’t know about you, but it took several days for Katrina’s significance to sink in for me. I had a series of “aha” moments that unfolded through my conversations with Jean Marie Peacock, the vice-moderator of the General Assembly and associate pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Early on, I was horrified, like all of us, by the horrific violence of the storm. I, along with Jean Marie and many others, breathed a huge sigh of relief when New Orleans appeared to come through the storm battered but not destroyed. Then the levies broke, and I felt my anxiety begin to rise like the rising of the water in the city of New Orleans.

Later that day, I spoke again with Jean Marie as she and her husband Peter headed for her parent’s home in Urbana, IL (where they still are two weeks later). She told me that Lakeview Presbyterian Church was the closest Presbyterian Church to the break in the 17th Street levy, and that it was quite likely under at least twelve or fifteen feet of water (a guess that turned out to be accurate). Her own home was also in one of the flooded areas, and she and Peter were just beginning to come to grips with the fact that they probably have lost everything they own. Even now, more than two weeks later, they have no news of the condition of their home.

Two days later, Jean Marie and I spoke again. This time, she told me that she couldn’t watch the news footage from the city any longer because it was just too much to take in. At that point, she and Lakeview’s Senior Pastor, Neil, still hadn’t managed to track one another down, and she had only spoken with two or three of the several hundred members of Lakeview. How does one do the work of pastoring, I wondered, when you don’t know where your congregants are, how to contact them, or whether they are o.k.?

Jean Marie opened my eyes to still more that I was too ignorant to have thought of. How do churches that can’t collect offerings on Sunday mornings, many of whose members have been personally devastated and who don’t know whether they still have jobs, continue to pay the salaries of their staffs? In Lakeview’s case, that includes musicians, administrative and program staff, the sexton, and the teachers for an independent but church-related childcare program. Many of those folks have families, and they depend on each week’s paycheck to survive, just as you and I would.

On Wednesday morning the thirty-first of August, I was invited to sit in on a conference call of the leadership for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Please link to PDA at http://www.pcusa.org/katrina/ to find out how you can get involved.) PDA’s trained teams were already en-route to the Gulf Coast, call-centers were being established for Presbyterians who wanted to help, Medical Benevolence Foundation (http://www.mbfoundation.org/) offered its warehouse in Houston, and international partners were calling to offer help as well. But I confess that I had yet another “aha” moment during the phone call, as it dawned on me that this wasn’t just disaster assistance. PDA was also talking about the long-term housing and possible resettlement of many of the victims. Katrina will impact the lives of many Presbyterians outside the affected region as they open their homes and work to help families resettle, either for the short-term or for the long-term.

Yet another of my new realizations came as I watched the news from a hotel in Chicago over the following weekend and saw the complete chaos and desperation of folks who ended up in the superdome and the convention center. I know that hard questions about political responsibilities will be asked by and of our politicians, but the church has some tough questions in front of us as well. This is (another) clarion wake-up call to all of our churches that we are a long-way from overcoming racism and class division in this country. Our churches should be leading the way in lifting up the biblical call to become a beloved community – a community that overcomes the obvious class and racial barriers that made it possible for tens of thousands of our (mostly) African American brothers and sisters to be left behind because they simply didn’t have the resources most of us would count on to get out when the storm warnings came.

“Aha” moments are a gift to me from God. As children of God, we are called to create the kind of community where all people feel God’s love. We are called to witness to God’s compassion, to rebuild lives with the kind of attention God offers even to the “least of these.” We are called to work for God’s justice whenever clear inequities exist in our communities. I give thanks for my own, gradual awakening to the magnitude of the challenge as we respond to the destruction of Katrina.