October 5, 2005

Pastor’s sign rubs salt in wounds of downtrodden

A few days after Hurricane Katrina clobbered New Orleans, I was sitting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City with one of my favorite hedonists, the author Tom Robbins, mourning the destruction of the city we both adore and the suffering of thousands of poor folks who lost what little they had to begin with.

Robbins described New Orleans as “the depository of America’s soul.”

I hadn’t heard anyone put it quite that way. It’s a lovely, haunting image, and if you’ve ever met a real New Orleanian, you know exactly what he means.

Robbins wasn’t talking about the famous (and, to some, infamous) French Quarter where unfettered decadence and nonstop music keep tourists entertained. He’s talking about the folks who live outside the Quarter — a third of whom eked out an existence below the poverty line even before Katrina struck.

“They are part and parcel of the soul factor. That music didn’t come from those plantation houses, it came from those poor people in those shanty and shotgun houses. There is a spiritual component to the fact that this is happening to America’s soul,” Robbins, a spiritually eclectic fellow who is the grandson of two Southern Baptist ministers, told me, adding that he was certain sooner or later, “people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will say that New Orleans is being punished.”

Well, so far, Robertson and Falwell, who were eviscerated four years ago for claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were somehow divine retribution for America’s wayward morality, have remained publicly silent on all matters wrathful where Hurricane Katrina is concerned.

Unfortunately, Dr. Wiley Bennett, pastor of Woodland Hills Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, has not followed their example.

Not long after several thousand evacuees from New Orleans began arriving in Tyler (including two dear friends of mine who moved from Chicago to the Crescent City last year), Bennett spelled out a fire-and-brimstone message on a sign in front of his church: “THE BIG EASY IS THE MODERN DAY SODOM AND GOMORRAH.”

It’s the kind of thing some people do in the name of Christ that, to borrow a line from Annie Lamott, makes Jesus want to drink gin out of a cat dish.

Sigh.

Even after several evacuees confronted Bennett and asked him to remove the offensive sign, the pastor refused. Earlier this week, after vandals knocked off a few of the letters, Bennett still wouldn’t take down his damn(ing) sign.

“Right now it’s a crippled sign,” Bennett, 74, told me by phone from his church office. “It does not say what it once said, but it is a monument to the fact that the sign was vandalized. The original intent was to point out that the United States of America right now is in a deep state of sin.”

Now, it would have been easier — and arguably more satisfying –to begin yelping at Bennett about how his moral wake-up call was ill-conceived and cruelly timed. I could have chalked him up as nothing more than a redneck fundamentalist who is best ignored.

But I really wanted to know why he would do this. His picture on the church Web site shows that he has a kindly face. He couldn’t have meant to hurt people, especially people who had suffered so much, could he?

“What I was trying to do was point out that the wickedness of the city of New Orleans brought a hand of judgment on that city,” Bennett said. (He wasn’t going to make this easy.) “It was never put up there with the intention of saying there are no good people in the city of New Orleans. That was a misunderstanding. People took it wrong.”

He told me about two women — the evacuees — who came to see him about removing the sign.

“One of the ladies who came in here is the harshest person I’ve encountered. She said she had lost everything. Believe me, I can understand the stress and the hurt she was feeling, but on the other hand she would not listen to me,” he said.

What was he trying to tell her?

“I’m trying to get as many people to go to heaven as I can,” he said. “When I questioned one of them, she said, ‘I’m going to heaven because I’m good.’ I had to tell her that ‘there is not one righteous, no, not one.’ But she rejected what I had to say.”

Could he blame her?

I tried to engage Bennett in a discussion of his shoddy theological reasoning (and general insensitivity), but he couldn’t see what I was saying, either.

There he was, trying to preach the message of salvation, which he believes happens by grace alone and not by anything we can do ourselves, while rubbing salt in the wounds of the downtrodden. By offering no grace, only blind judgment.

“New Orleans is a wicked city,” he repeated. (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Biloxi, Miss., and Tyler are also “wicked cities” according to Bennett.)

Judgment awaits. Katrina was a warning shot.

OK, but is there something wrong with the Almighty’s aim? God missed the French Quarter almost entirely.

The Quarter is built on high ground, Bennett tried to argue.

So high that God couldn’t reach it?

Why was the Quarter — the seat of debauchery, the devil’s playground — spared the full force of the hurricane’s havoc while poor people had their lives washed away by the ark-worthy floods?

“Regardless of what you believe, poor people are wicked, also,” Bennett said. “The French Quarter is not preserved. It may be easier to rebuild . . . but it is not operating right now and is basically shut down.”

Of course on Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that the Quarter will reopen later this month.

So much for divine retribution.

I prefer Robbins’ theological explanation to Bennett’s.

“I think this demonstrates whose side God may actually be on,” Robbins said. “Maybe all of us who like to eat, drink and make merry should relax.”

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