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New Orleans: double the despair 

Note: Wednesday, May 24, was hot and sunny in New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just announced that the levees breached in the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina had been repaired. But as miles of older levees remained untouched, and as the official start of hurricane season loomed, board members and staff of the National Council of Churches boarded a yellow school bus to tour the still devastated areas of the city. Some filed personal reflections. 

New Orleans; A Second Look 

A reflection following a visit by the Governing Board of the NCC
By Michael Livingston
President, National Council of Churches USA 

A second trip to New Orleans doubles the despair.  This time I saw several of the places where the levees were breeched.  In the lower ninth ward, along with other members of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches, I stood at the place where a neighborhood used to be.  I stood where houses once rested, home for children and their parents, single mothers and their kids, where elderly couples walked quiet paths remembering and perhaps holding hands. 

There were steps leading to empty space, streets leading nowhere, foundations supporting nothing, trees providing shade for no one, cars incapable of driving anywhere, silence everywhere. It was a graveyard for a neighborhood--homes, hopes, and lives washed away in the fury of a wave 18 feet high against which nothing could stand.  No $70,000 FEMA trailers here.   

Bordering a canal of calm water a new levee stood tall and wide ready to protect no one and nothing; it was a sight that did not inspire in me confidence in the future, it rather made me sad no effort was made before the storm to turn its tide.  It was not so much a testament to the future as an indictment of the past.  With my back to the levee I could see the path of that awful wave.  This is a sight that begs remembering, precisely because it did not have to be.  This tragedy could have been averted, its occurrence as predictable as it was it destructive. Those who were expendable are now invisible, scattered all over the country, they are silent and powerless.   

The new wall brings worries also.  What will it protect?  Will it secure the lives of all those able and willing to return to their neighborhood and rebuild their homes?  Or will it offer protection and to welcome those who can afford the high prices speculators and developers will demand when the original residents have long since given up any hope of return?  Will there be justice in the ninth ward or will there be the heartless application of economic principles fueled by avarice and greed?   

These are questions that must be answered with something other than the confusion and chaos and sometimes the silence that passes for a continuing response to this tragedy.  More than anything else, no one knows what is happening or will happen.  Who will return and when?  What neighborhoods can and will be rebuilt?  Will New Orleans once again be a city of great diversity and welcome? Will the city, state, and federal government do all in their power to be fair and just in the distribution of the considerable resources now available for the rebuilding that must be done?  Is there a place at the table of decision for especially those most severely affected by the storms?   

I’m keenly aware that I’ve said not a single word about Mississippi and Alabama; there were other areas as hard hit by Katrina and Rita as the city of New Orleans.  They must not be forgotten in our eagerness to see a great city restored and its poorest citizens treated with dignity and respect.   

Into the silence of that still, hot space where a neighborhood once thrived, Bishop Melvin Talbert offered a prayer of intercession and hope.  The community of communions that make up the National Council of Churches is among the millions who join in prayer and in work with integrity toward the just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast Region and the people who once did and will again call that place home.   

Place at the Table: A Homily for Ascension Day

By C. Christopher Epting, Bishop
Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
The Episcopal Church
Delivered at St. James the Less, Scarsdale, New York
Ascension Day, 25 May 2006

I just returned last night from a National Council of Churches meeting in New Orleans. We were there to check up on the work of one of our Commissions. It’s called the Special Commission for a Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. Our role there is to stand with churches and individuals and families as they attempt to rebuild their lives after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year. 

We toured the area and, I have to tell you, very little has been done in a lot of ways outside of cleaning up most of the muck and garbage which lined the streets for weeks and months last fall. The thing that struck me the most this time was the very scale of the destruction.  We see pictures of the lower Ninth Ward where the poorest victims lived and, of course, much of that area really does still look like a war zone – with houses still perched on top of cars and others simply lifted off their foundations and floated down the street. 

But the young African American man who drove me around said, “I’ll show you a lot more than the 9th Ward” and he drove me through upper and middle class neighborhoods and working class sections of town where the destruction was almost as bad. He said, “And I could drive you 50 miles in that direction and 70 miles in the other direction and it would look just the same!” The scale is simply enormous! 

We are aware, of course, that this so-called “natural disaster” was, in many ways, man-made. It was the collapse of the poorly constructed levee system that caused most of the damage. The hurricanes themselves would have been bad enough, but many of the homes could have withstood the wind and the rain. It was the unbelievable power of moving water coursing through those breached levies that did the most damage and took the most lives. 

The role of the National Council of Churches is two-fold. We are not so much involved in relief efforts. Unlike the government, our various church organizations are doing a wonderful job there. Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran Social Services, The United Methodist UMCOR have been there since the storms and continue to provide money and grants of various kinds, as well as coordinating the many volunteers who come from churches around the country and around the world! 

No, the NCC is more concerned with the systemic realities. How can we make sure that people are justly compensated for their loss? How can we assure that those who wish to return home can do so safely and with security? How can we stand against those landlords who are now charging 1100 dollars a month in rent for shoddy apartments which used to go for 300 – because housing is so scarce?     

And so we support something called “All Congregations Together” which links perhaps 30 churches around the country with a new church start or a rebuilding effort in one church in New Orleans or along the Gulf Coast. We support the efforts of community organizing groups like PICO LIFT (Louisiana Interfaith Together) to help average people get to the table when discussions are held about rebuilding their communities. Otherwise political pay-offs and corporate and individual greed will continue to win the day! 

Well, what does all this have to do with the Feast of the Ascension, the confirmation of these wonderful people tonight, and the celebration of this Holy Eucharist? You were probably beginning to wonder about that! I think it has everything to do with these things! Today’s Collect, the prayer which “collects” the theme of the feast, reads like this, “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith the perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…” 

The theological point of the Ascension is that, while Jesus was here on earth, like all of us, he was limited in time and space. He could only be in one place, with one group of people, at one time. Apparently even the Resurrection appearances were time and space bound in that way. But after the Ascension we know that Jesus can be present “at all times and in all places” simultaneously! He can be with us tonight in this holy place and, at the same time, we with those black pastors in Louisiana who are not taking salaries right now so that all their churches’ resources can go toward re-building. 

Christ ascended into heaven “that he might fill all things” and, “according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” Well, I can testify to you that Jesus is abiding with the Church in Louisiana. Our church and all the churches. And he is doing so at a time which must surely seem like “the end of the ages” to so many! 

What does all this have to do with Confirmation? Well, when I pray for these candidates tonight, I will say, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him/her for your service; and sustain him/her all the days of their life.”  And I guarantee you that there are Episcopalians (and others) tonight in Louisiana relying on our Lord’s strength, being empowered for the service they are offering, and are being sustained by God’s grace in these particular days of their lives! 

Every baptized and confirmed person here tonight is called to that kind of ministry and that kind of service. It may not be in New Orleans or the Gulf Coast (although volunteers are still needed and welcomed!) but there are needs right here in this community. Needs that you can help meet by fulfilling your baptismal promises to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself and striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.”    

And how about the Holy Eucharist? What does this ritual meal we engage in so often have to do with any of this? Well, it reminds us that Christianity is all about feeding hungry people – physically hungry people and spiritually hungry people. It reminds us that we need food for the journey. We need times and occasions like these to receive God’s grace if we expect to be empowered for God’s service for a lifetime, sustained by that grace all the days of our lives! 

And this Holy Eucharist reminds us of one more thing: And that is, that there needs to be a “place at the Table” for all God’s people – rich and poor, black and white, in times of prosperity and adversity. There needs to be “a place at the table” here – and at all those tables of power and influence which determine the future and well-being of so many lives!   

Thanks for being here tonight.  I close with these words from tonight’s Epistle to the Ephesians: 

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…I pray that…you may know the hope to which he has called you…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe… 

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named…and he has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  (Ephesians 1:15 ff)     

Because of that, beloved, there is a place at the Table for all of us!  Amen. 

NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252.


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