The Last Nail
God and democracy failed in New Orleans. While religious communities rushed to respond to Hurricane Katrina with charitable contributions and volunteers, some of the most powerful religious voices in the country used Hurricane Katrina to espouse a grotesque theology. Two days after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Columbia Christians for Life, a Religious Right anti-choice organization, put out a statement claiming that the satellite image of Hurricane Katrina looked like a six-week old fetus.
The image of the hurricane … with its eye already ashore at 12:32 p.m. Monday, August 29, looks like a fetus (unborn human baby) facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation (approx. 6 weeks). … Even the orange color of the image is reminiscent of a commonly used pro-life picture of early prenatal development. … Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers. … [F]ive are in New Orleans.
Preaching at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Rev. Franklin Graham predicted, “There’s been satanic worship. There’s been sexual perversion. God is going to use that storm to bring revival. God has a plan. God has a purpose.” The connection between the war on terror and this god’s favored hurricane was made by Chuck Colson, the former Watergate conspirator, now a conservative Christian leader.
I learned from Katrina is that we had better win the war on terror and resolve to prevent another 9-11. Katrina exposed how easy it would be to take a city out. Katrina gave us a preview of what America would look like if we fail to fight the war on terror. “Did God have anything to do with Katrina?,” people ask. My answer is, he allowed it and perhaps he allowed it to get our attention so that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that all we have to do is put things back the way they were and life will be normal again.
I lost faith in the capacity of America and its religion to meet the needs of most vulnerable. In face of their misery, our government ignored those stranded on rooftops, those in the Superdome, and now, those who desire to come home. Religion blamed them for their fates. Troubled in my soul by all this, I moved down there to serve as founding Executive Director of the Interfaith Worker Justice Center of New Orleans. Using disaster capitalism as its chief response to Katrina, the Bush Administration suspended most labor protections in the region and unscrupulous construction contractors ignored the rest. Our task was to organize clergy, labor unions, and workers—many of whom were undocumented—through a center that would provide them with legal counsel. I found a city in total disrepair, with few signs that the situation was improving.
Given the war’s trillion-dollar drain on the country’s resources, nobody was prepared to handle such a catastrophe. The Louisiana Army of Corps of Engineers is responsible for levee maintenance, but President Bush gutted virtually all of its budget in order to finance the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. National Guard personnel, I later learned, retain their weapons during different deployments, and that most of the Guard troops in New Orleans had been redeployed from Iraq. It chilled me to realize that the same guns used to “establish democracy” in Iraq were being used to secure the city of New Orleans. I could hear echoes of Martin Luther King’s prophecy, “Every bomb dropped in Vietnam explodes in Harlem.” The bombs dropped in Baghdad exploded in the Lower Ninth Ward.
To simply return New Orleans to its pre-Katrina status quo would be no victory. Prior to the storm, poor blacks in the city were already bastards of American democracy. One-quarter of African-American men and one-third of African-American women lived below the poverty line. As Bruce Katz explains in “Concentrated Poverty in New Orleans and Other American Cities”:
On the very day the levees broke, the Census Bureau released a report on poverty in the nation, finding that Orleans Parish had a poverty rate of 23.2 percent, seventh highest among 290 large U.S. counties. Yet the economic hardships were shared unequally. Although African-American residents made up 67 percent of the city’s total population, they made up 84 percent of its population below the poverty line. And those poor African-American households were highly concentrated in 47 neighborhoods of extreme poverty—that is, neighborhoods where the poverty rate topped 40 percent.
For decades, New Orleans citizens were among the least educated and poorest in the nation. Youth had better access to handguns than up-to-date textbooks.
When Katrina struck, the vomit-soaked stench of Bourbon Street was overcome by poor, black, bloated bodies floating in the Lower Ninth Ward. Flesh in flood waters, houses staked one on the other, tent cities for the homeless, unjust public policy, and inept organizing haunt the soul of the country and haunt my dreams. The flood waters washed away the tourist veneer and revealed a deeper spiritual malady. The Katrina Pain Index bears witness to the spiritual malaise illustrated in horrific statistics that should grieve the soul of the nation. Ranked number one in murders, homelessness, healthcare, and education disparities, poor New Orleans continues to suffer. With a recent unanimous vote, the city council voted to demolish all public housing despite an over fifty percent increase in rents. There is still no real plan for the creation of new affordable housing.
My search for meaning during those six months in the Lower Ninth Ward led me to demand, as have others: Where was God? Why didn’t God intervene? It is at once a question of theodicy and democracy. How could a good God allow those whose existence was miserable before the storm be silent in such a moment of tragedy and need?
As the post-Katrina horrors unfolded before me, I was plagued with angst. The sustained suffering and political failures in New Orleans only caused me to doubt democracy and God. While many celebrate the Democratic control of Congress and the White House, my time in the Big Easy made me unable to rejoice. The poor are never the priority of the powerful. Four years later, so many people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast remain in third-world conditions even despite Democratic representation at the municipal, state, and federal levels. I wonder, God where are you? How could you let this be? The work of salvation that I hoped would come as the floods receded never did.
After establishing a board of directors for the Interfaith Worker Justice Center, hiring staff, and opening a legal clinic for workers, I resigned and returned to New York. New Orleans broke something in me that I am not sure will ever be fixed. It left me with rage and regret. I am angry that we could not transform the moment into my generation’s Montgomery. I wonder if I should have stayed longer than six months. As a clergyman, I am trained to proclaim hope in the face of hopeless, to speak a language of joy in the midst of sadness. But there, I could not.
Black folk have long had to contend with hegemonic forces of American empire denying them both the means to make ends meet and to make meaning for themselves. In a nation that sees itself as “a city on a hill” and a “new Zion,” we have had to sing songs of Zion in a strange land. The story of black folk in America is one of overcoming the American theatre of the absurd. We have made our way out of no way, our home out of homelessness, our meaning out of meaninglessness. New Orleans is the embodiment of such meaning-making.
There, black souls played old European instruments and stewed scraps from the master’s table. They created jazz, America’s greatest original art form, out of individual gifts, familiar standards, minor notes, and ancient rhythms. New Orleans is America’s gumbo—an extraordinary mix of cultures reflected in its food, architecture, skin tones, and social life. Jazz and gumbo have become the epistemic framework for meaning-making in American political and social life. Such diversity, improvisation, joy, sadness, and community are the hallmarks of democratic activity. These gifts to America were born of the poor black folk who lived at the bottom of the Mississippi river.
New Orleans is a cradle of modern American civilization, and the failure of the government to respond with due diligence and haste to the needs of its people is the single greatest failure of American democracy. The spiritual implications of dishonoring and disrobing of them—stranded on rooftops, packed in the Superdome, and struggling to return home—are cosmic and catastrophic. New Orleans may prove to be the last nail in the coffin of American democracy and in the cross of its god.
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is the Senior Minister of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church (UCC) in South Jamaica Queens, New York. He is third generation ordained Elder in the Church of God in Christ. Rev. Sekou holds fellowships with the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Institute for Policy Studies. His forthcoming book is Gods, Gays, and Guns: Religion and the Future of Democracy.