(Editor’s Note: This post is the second of a series of three reflections on the 10-Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Be sure to check out the posts on Friday and Sunday by John Slattery and Lorraine Cuddeback.)
We were inside of the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum for the better part of an hour before I looked up from my reading of the personal narratives collected in the exhibits there to find three of my students locked in a tight embrace. I was surprised by the depth of the moment, but should not have been. I have been taking students to New Orleans to reconstitute memories for the last three years.
Most of these memories held in the museum are images, moments, and stories that my students never viewed as 8 to 13 year olds when the devastation of a decade ago unfolded. Until coming to New Orleans, Katrina, or more specifically, the levee failure that devastated the Lower Ninth Ward and many other communities in Southeast Louisiana was a surreal historical moment that had scarred other people. In truth, it was like that for me too. Our stories were not yet tied personally to the tragedies of death, of exile, of intense loss, of deep fear and, as I have learned, of their opposites – gritty survival, unwavering commitment to faith and home in the effort to rebuild, and beautiful interdependence in community.
So what did this embrace mean? What has happened in the national encounter with New Orleans in the ten years after Katrina? What happens on the personal and communal levels when we enter into the sacred suffering of this day ten years past and the holy struggle to rebuild and reclaim a city for its people, especially its most marginalized people, in the days since?
The complications of story and memory
There are powerful interests at work in how this day is memorialized. The astute observer will see the content of this list of commemorations and parades and begin to read communities’ desire for self-definition and autonomy. When we were in New Orleans in March, our student and staff delegation had dinner in the Lower Ninth with five community activists from that community and theologian Alex Mikulich of the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University New Orleans. The primary celebration in the Lower Ninth Ward is the Resilience Festival, and the executive director, Kim Ford, was one of the activists that we shared story with that evening. Kim, Robert Green, and two others shared a great deal with us about just what resilience meant over the last ten years. The narratives and hopes they shared were clear, but confounded the voice of power that keeps saying everything is fine, “New Orleans is back.”
I am reluctant to speak for Kim, Robert, Alex and the others with whom we met. Too much of that has been done in years since Katrina to the point that narrative fatigue was some of the rationale for the founding of one of the Lower Ninth’s key treasures, the Living Museum. Moreover available empirical data and my own experience in three years of accompanying students driving around moon crater potholes and lamenting lot after successive vacant lot covered with overgrowth continue to surface questions. Consider these facts for a moment.
Fred Kammer, SJ writes in a recent publication of JSRI:
- In brief, the income gap has widened, and New Orleans ranks second in income inequality among 300 U.S. cities. Poverty is entrenched, and the percent of children living in poverty in New Orleans, 38% in 2005, has risen to 39%. The racial income divide continues growing: white median household income in metro New Orleans, on a par with households nationwide, grew by 22% between 2005 and 2013 to $60,553. That was three times the 7% growth rate of black median households (to $25,102). The disparity in 2013 incomes between white and black households was 54%, compared to 40% nationally. This worsened despite $71 billion dollars received by the State of Louisiana for rebuilding. Closely tied was the fact that employment rates for white men in metro New Orleans was 77%, compared with 57% for black men.[i]
In the Lower Ninth Ward specifically:
- Prior to August 29, 2005, the Lower Ninth ward had one of the highest rates of black home ownership in Louisiana and the nation at well over 90%. Housing stock reflected the rich architectural history of working class people who had been a part of the community for the better part of a century.[ii] Now less than 3,000 people have returned to what was a community 14,000 strong. There is one public school, little infrastructure, small business continues to struggle, and not surprisingly, condo development has challenged local residents’ vision of the neighborhood and its redevelopment.[iii]
Today the memory of levee failure cannot be separated from the story of the failure of the common good that followed. That was certainly one of the realizations that fueled my students’ embrace. One cannot help viewing the long history of the Lower Ninth Ward, the depth of culture and rich textures of community from before Katrina and especially now, and be witness to the struggle to bounce back and not feel some sense of lament. As a nation, we cannot commemorate this day untethered from the 3,651 that have intervened. In that time, resources for recovery have been distributed along the same lines of inequality that mark much of the community development in this country especially in urban contexts. New Orleans uneven recovery lays bare a series of failed opportunities to change the way wealth distribution erodes the common good.
We must come to terms collectively with a failure to live into that sentiment so importantly expressed in Catholic social teaching: “Every day human interdependence grows more tightly drawn and spreads by degrees over the whole world. As a result the common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.”[iv] Not everyone is ok and that is not ok. Our collective memory needs to include this truth if we are to take seriously our commitment to the common good.
The good news of the last ten years came directly from the testimony of our six dinner partners on that evening in the Lower Ninth Ward. What they affirmed was not our labor working with United Saints, our community partner rebuilding agency. Instead, they affirmed our desire to connect with them and share a meal. We listened to their stories, and the six of them listened to ours as well. Connections developed and Kim and Robert shared about the importance of volunteers to the city and the communities of New Orleans over a decade.
What surprised me was that they shared that it was volunteers more than state and local governments (which were notoriously slow and bureaucratic in their responses) that had contributed to community. I did not get the sense that this was the obligatory pat on the back for the ‘do-gooders’ from the North. Instead, we heard story after story of trash removal, clean up, lot-clearing, demolition, home repair. Robert talked about such acts as being “drops in the bucket” but meaningful ones. Together, the presence of people from outside of the Gulf region who had volunteered had been a sign of hope that the broader community from around the country cared about their story. As theologian Roberto Goizueta of Boston College writes, “when we walk together, our common personhood is affirmed.”[v]
What Goizueta does so well in Caminemos is to speak directly to the accompaniment of Christ in the entirety of the Paschal mystery. Joy and hope are derived from encounters with brokenness and lament and Jesus walks with us through it all just as we walk with one another. True accompaniment requires us to hear whole stories, to question narratives that subvert the personal with claims such as “New Orleans is back” with more complex and particular nuance that comes from the questions that emerge when we walk with those who have been on the margins of this long recovery.
“Success as a theologian – as a Catholic theologian,” writes Bryan Massingale of Marquette University, “must include above all else the qualities of constant fidelity to a call in the midst of persistent difficulties; humble service to a people spurned and despised; a willingness to speak unpopular, uncomfortable, yet necessary truths; and a commitment to the life of the mind for the sake of social and ecclesial transformation.”[vi] That is what every Christian is called to because it is the foundation of true accompaniment and fidelity to the common good.
I believe that the national encounter with New Orleans following Katrina is a challenge to our good feelings about service and charity. I believe that authentic accompaniment can open up social and ecclesial transformation beginning with the interpersonal. I believe that accompaniment must extend to the level of community and society if we want policy and community practice to serve the common good. I believe that my students’ embrace was in some ways a recognition of these realities and an opening, a desire to do more, the in-breaking hope in hearing and witnessing a fuller story of the Lower Ninth Ward, of Katrina, and of resilience. After all, don’t memory and the common good call us to hold one another tight?
John DeCostanza is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. He is an ecumenical Doctor of Ministry candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL.
[i] Kammer, SJ, Fred. “Has Katrina Changed Things for the Least among Us?” Email : https://t.e2ma.net/webview/ze13i/3b0e69ffca0111b3799baad88a1c0526 : Accessed August 24, 2015.
[ii] Green, Rebekah, Lisa K. Bates, and Andrew Smyth. “Impediments to Recovery in New Orleans’ Upper and Lower Ninth Ward One Year after Hurricane Katrina.” Disasters (31)4: 311-335. https://huxley.wwu.edu/sites/huxley.wwu.edu/files/media/Impediments_NO_Recovery.pdf : Accessed August 24, 2015.
[iii] “Are Newcomers a Mixed Blessing for the Lower Ninth Ward?” PBS News Hour. August 25, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/newcomers-mixed-blessing-lower-ninth-ward/
[iv] Gaudium et Spes 26.
[v] Goizueta, Roberto S. Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995, 207.
[vi] Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010, 173.