In my 20-year reporting career, I’ve covered wildfires, floods and tornadoes. In 1995, I heard the explosion at the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City and raced that direction. Never, though, had I seen the kind of devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina five years ago.
I first viewed the disaster scene from the air as I joined a church relief group assessing damages days after Katrina struck. I didn’t make it into New Orleans city limits until a few months later, and even then, I was overwhelmed by what I saw.
In one column, I described the scene this way:
The view on the ground revealed miles and miles of debris — miniature mountains of tree limbs, mattresses, broken chairs, smashed toy robots and mildewed stuffed animals piled high outside thousands of homes.
Equally striking were the bright red X’s painted on each front door, showing the date inspected by search teams and the number of bodies, if any, found inside.
Since 2005, I have returned to New Orleans a handful of times, most recently to work on a five-year anniversary package for The Christian Chronicle. Each time I go back, I am struck by the progress — remarkable progress, in many ways — the Crescent City has made. Still, and you already know this if you caught any of the media coverage this weekend, the Big Easy has not made it all the way back.
Given my personal connection to New Orleans (and really, you can’t experience the spirit of the people there without feeling a personal connection), I was interested in reading the coverage of the “faith angle” as that city reached another milestone anniversary of Aug. 29, 2005. In advance of President Barack Obama’s visit to mark the anniversary Sunday, a bit of controversy emerged over an abortion-rights president speaking at a Catholic university (see reports by Fox and Time), but nothing rising to the level of a full-scale Notre Dame furor.
More interesting to me are the stories of how the city’s faithful have weathered the storm. Unfortunately, the main Associated Press story on Sunday’s anniversary gave short shrift to religion, except for this small section:
Members of First Grace United Methodist Church in mid-city New Orleans celebrated the city’s renewal. Church membership, once down to 50 people, now stands at 180, Pastor Shawn Moses Anglim said.
“After every flood, there is going to be a rainbow,” he said.
Church member Martha Ward, a 69-year-old anthropologist at the University of New Orleans, told the congregation that Katrina and the ensuing evacuation are the reason she married her longtime boyfriend.
“This church is a miracle. It’s the face of New Orleans,” she said, referring to the multicultural congregation that attends the church.
There’s one big number missing from that first paragraph. Where did church membership start? Were there 500 members before Katrina? 300? That’s important information. Moreover, the description of the church as “a miracle” certainly seems to lend itself to more elaborate exploration.
Later in the story, there’s this:
Since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, the Lower 9th Ward has seen thousands of volunteers help gut homes, clean up yards and rebuild homes and businesses. It also has become the focal point in an effort since Katrina to make the city more eco-friendly. Groups like Global Green USA, the Sierra Club and movie star Brad Pitt have helped make the Lower 9th Ward into a greener neighborhood. A new eco-friendly village is sprouting near the Industrial Canal floodwall that broke and there are several groups making the Lower 9th Ward the focus of environmental plans. Recently, a plan was announced to build a community center, using U.S. Department of Energy funds, in the neighborhood where people can also learn about climate change.
OK, we’ve got thousands of volunteers gutting homes, cleaning up yards and rebuilding homes and businesses. But why? Could their faith have anything to do with it? I know from my own reporting that people of faith played a tremendous role in New Orleans’ recovery (which is not to imply that every volunteer was motivated by a belief in God). But unlike Global Green USA and the Sierra Club, churches and faith-based organizations merit no specific mention in the AP roundup. That’s a shame.
I did come across a couple of Katrina-related stories that I would encourage GetReligion readers to check out. I’ll save the best for last.
Whatever the reason, New Orleanians seem to have an almost sacred attachment to clubs, bars, po-boy shops, churches, schools and playgrounds.
“Tradition is a cultural heirloom that people in this community will pass from one generation to the next,” said Xavier University sociologist Silas Lee. “And they can be very aggressive about protecting some aspects of tradition.”
I chuckled at the sacred attachment to churches (who woulda thunk it?), but the piece contains a revealing look at what happened to some of New Orleans’ historic Catholic churches as a result of the storm:
Some New Orleans institutions survived Katrina just fine, only to become collateral damage in the aftershocks that followed.
Take St. Henry’s Catholic Church, padlocked by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2008 as part of a vast reorganization after Katrina. Defiant parishioners, already coping with the painful loss of homes and family members, drew a line in the sand.
“It was sad because so many people had such deep roots there,” said Alden Hagardorn, a leader of the resistance movement, which staged a lengthy sit-in to keep the 153-year-old church open. “So many of our older parishioners who had been baptized at St. Henry wanted to be buried there.
“A lot of us felt offended and some drifted away from their faith. After the shock and anger wore off, there were feelings of embarrassment that the church hierarchy had turned its back on them.”
Finally, The New York Times paints a marvelous portrait of the long, slow return of New Orleans’ black churches. It’s a 1,000-word feature that seems to use every word to disclose important, insightful detail:
NEW ORLEANS — Five minutes past 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday this month, which is to say five minutes past the time the worship service was supposed to start, Shantell Henley pushed open the front door of her pastor’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. She entered the living room to find a gospel song playing on the stereo, two ceiling fans stirring the sticky air and 25 folding chairs for the congregants waiting empty.
“Am I late?” she asked the pastor, the Rev. Charles W. Duplessis.
“No,” he replied, smiling. “We’re Baptists.”
His joke, though, could not dispel the truth. The problem at Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church had nothing to do with any Baptist indifference to punctuality and everything to do with Hurricane Katrina, even as its fifth anniversary on Aug. 29 approached.
This was my favorite paragraph:
As every level of government has failed to restore more than a fraction of former residents to habitable homes, the black churches have tried desperately to return through a combination of sacrifice, insurance and charity. And anyone with an even cursory understanding of African-American life knows that without vibrant churches, the Lower Ninth can never truly rise again.
Ordinarily, I’d ask for a source to back up such a sweeping claim. In this case, I think I’ll just shake my head and agree.