Monday, September 19, 2005

Reading the Newspaper

The theologian Karl Barth famously said that a preacher should preach with a newspaper in one hand, the Bible in the other. In other words, the pastor should give a reading lesson.

So, to read this Newsweek article, perhaps one should start by reading backwards. "In our end is our beginning," as the poet said, so start at the end:

Inside her one-bedroom unit, Elizabeth Jones, 65, shows off her shiny black stove. "Look how this works," she says, snapping on the gas burner. "I wish I had one this nice at home." Outside, though, a teary young mother approaches an aid worker. "Can you help me get one of these?" asks Kami Phillips, her three toddlers in tow. "You've got to call FEMA, darlin'," shrugs the worker. "I've tried, but they just give me the short end of the stick," says Phillips. "I've got nowhere left to go."
If it can be said that this article "buried the lede," then it buried it as deep as one can go. There is only one sentence after that last one, and it's a formulaic metaphor attempting to sum up the problems of the poor after a natural disaster. But even that is a diversion: in a country as wealthy as the U.S., where foreign countries are still willing to pour capital into the U.S. to finance its foreign trade deficit, how is it that an American can marvel at a simple gas stove, and say "I wish I had one this nice at home"?

The emphasis should be, in other words, on people. Instead, the emphasis is on things:

Money will be the next thing to flow down Bourbon Street. The French Quarter, which was spared the worst flooding, is scheduled to flicker back to life next Monday. And the city's power brokers expect tourists to return within 90 days. Of course, it will be a whole lot easier for them to get there once the government fixes the roads and bridges. Despite the Fed's fitful effort, the talk of all those tax dollars is helping revive grand plans for New Orleans. The city fathers are considering luring a political convention or even a Super Bowl. Wynton Marsalis is shopping an idea to create a jazz institute, with a concert hall and classrooms.
Money will flow, which will lift all boats. But wasn't that the illusion of New Orleans before the storm? That jazz and the Quarter and the Superdome and the Convention Center all made New Orleans what it was? How soon will we forget that New Orleans as also people living in such misery that the Astrodome-as-emergency-shelter seemed like an improvement? That a simple gas stove stands as a wonder?

And this would be just as true for a congregation as for a city: the question of "Who's in charge?"

Certainly, many are praying for a clear sense that someone is in charge. Washington would like to direct the entire effort, but Louisiana is already worried about losing control of its destiny. "I don't want anyone outside of New Orleans telling us how to plan this city," Mayor Ray Nagin told his city council last week (meeting in exile in Baton Rouge). Still, even neighbors can work against each other. The biggest roadblock to housing evacuees: local communities that fear Katrina trailer parks will overwhelm schools and roads. Baton Rouge's population has already surged from 400,000 to 1.2 million. That's why nearby Livingston Parish voted last week to outlaw temporary trailers. Spaulding, who is plopping mobile homes into state parks and along abandoned naval airstrips, says these "social engineering" problems must be resolved, but not with an iron hand. "We need a Marshall Plan," he says, "not martial law."
Leadership does not mean overriding the will of the people. That is, in fact the "genius" (in the old sense) of the American republic. But it has never been focussed enough on people, and has always been focussed too much on property. Eventually even people become property, as we decide their value based on what they are worth to us.

Wall Street bankers were ready to hop the next plane to Baton Rouge after a conference call last week with Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, who was soliciting financing to rebuild what the Feds won't cover. "We won't make money immediately," said one Wall Streeter. "But once this gets started, there could be tens of billions in financing." Florida developers are also flocking in to snap up the Big Easy's ravaged neighborhoods. New Orleans businessman Finis Shelnutt claims to have three Florida investors ready to plunk down hundreds of millions to "build French Quarter design high-rises that can take Cat 5 hurricanes."
This, of course, is where the money will go: toward "improved" properties for people with "improved" incomes. None of which will be the "evacuees" who are living in shelters around the country at the moment.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Do we even know what "New Orleans" was? Was it the buildings, the architecture, the restaurants? Or was it the people?

Moving backward still, the article details the failures of FEMA, failures that continue and are not yet "under the radar" politically. One of the most interesting points, however, is at the very end, again. An item about the mess over trying to secure the services of Kenyon to recover bodies from the streets and houses of New Orleans, ends with this:
An issue raised by the Feds that Kenyon found distasteful: an instruction that chaplains bless recovered bodies. A company source said the Feds are insisting on this, and the first chaplains are supposed to go out this week. Asked if that was mixing church and state, a FEMA spokeswoman responded: "A prayer is not necessarily religious. Everybody prays."
Tkae what position you will on prayer for corpses, but it is an attempt to show respect for the deceased, and yet it is telling that Kenyon finds this "distasteful."

The article opens with the very physical and social problem of housing those made homeless by Katrina, a group of people much larger than the ones seen on CNN for five-plus days. Whole parishes in Louisiana have been devastated by this storm. Houston has absorbed 250,000 evacuees from various levels of society (poor to wealthy; I've seen many Louisiana plates lately on very nice cars), but it's the fourth largest city in the country; we hardly notice the newcomers. Baton Rouge, on the other hand, has tripled in size overnight. Absorbing all the displaced will not be easy for Louisiana, but it must be done. Still, the article quickly swings to the issue that will, ultimately, command the most attention in the world:

And then as now, those mopping up first are the politically well connected: Fluor, Bechtel and the Shaw Group, which each scored $100 million no-bid contracts before the flood waters began to recede. (Halliburton is benefiting from an existing $500 million contract to repair naval bases.) That has Democrats and Republicans howling over potential abuse. Even the president acknowledged the possibility of financial evil-doing when he dispatched inspectors to the Gulf Coast to monitor the money. That gesture, however, hasn't prevented accusations of cronyism, especially given that the president's former campaign manager Joe Allbaugh is a paid consultant to Shaw and Halliburton.
Are these things unimportant? No, but they will be weighed on the scales of "prudent spending," not on the scale with the woman at the end of the article, begging for a place to live.

But we will be concerned over who gets the government contract, or who scores the political "win."

What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

St. Basil

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