About a year into the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, I seriously considered giving up. I had been deployed a few days after Katrina as a strategic adviser to Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Jenkins. A few months later, I became director of the newly established Office of Disaster Response. The invitation was extended because of the role I had played at St. Paul’s Chapel at ground zero after 9/11.
There I had learned a great deal about people power. “The little chapel that stood” -- as St. Paul’s came to be called -- was a museum prior to the terrorist attacks. But seeing its proximity to the devastation, thousands of people from the city, the country and the world descended on the church spontaneously and created a ministry to the recovery workers that became internationally known.
That experience lasted nine months -- until the last piece of twisted steel was removed from the World Trade Center site. But at that point in the Katrina recovery there was no end in sight. In fact, it seemed the recovery had not yet begun. The scale of human suffering was beyond anything I could conceive of, even after nearly being buried alive at ground zero on 9/11.
So a year after the storm, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever be able to make even a dent. That was when Mark Stevenson, canon to the ordinary, said to me, “Remember what Mother Teresa said: ‘God does not call us to be successful. God calls us to be faithful.’”
I stayed. And because I did, New Orleans had the opportunity to teach me what so many of the people of New Orleans know -- that the divine image of God is a community of faithful relationships. The truth of this is in the bones of each of the three people whose leadership stories are honored in the accompanying article. Being in the company of Bishop Jenkins, health care advocate Alice Craft-Kerney and community organizer Linda Jeffers allowed some of their deep faith and commitment to rub off on me.
Traditionally, churches and the ministries they support are the entities that exhibit the greatest staying power in post-disaster recoveries. Perhaps this is because Christian values, faith practices and sustained moral fortitude go hand in hand. Just as the initial response to Katrina was a litmus test for the spiritual health of the nation, so is completion of the mission to build from Katrina’s ravages America’s first 21st-century city, a city worthy to be called “the beloved community.”
I’m not worried about the long-term commitment of New Orleanians to making every neighbor whole. But I know they are worried that vacillations in the public will to assist Haiti, and widespread acceptance of the message that the BP oil fiasco is now over, could be indications that the capacity of American citizens to sustain their commitments to the Gulf is declining.
Addressing our populace’s short-term spiritual attention span in the face of long-term social challenges associated with incarnating God’s reign of shalom is the work of all of us who are faith leaders wherever we serve God and neighbor.
We have a role in combating the systemic pull to return to a pre-storm status quo (as Craft-Kerney calls it) of “depraved indifference” toward the suffering of our neighbors. Without the rest of us, can the vision of a new New Orleans be manifest over the next 10 to 15 years? The outcome may depend on the ability of faith leaders throughout the country to exercise our leadership gifts, to renew our commitments and sustain our covenants.
Doing so would undoubtedly be good for our beleaguered neighbors who have endured the largest natural disaster in our country’s history and the largest environmental one, both within the span of five years.
But, as Jenkins suggests, there may be more to it than that. Only people of deep values stay motivated. Or is it that people who stay motivated form deep values?
At the fifth anniversary of Katrina, renewal of the moral commitment necessary for citizens and neighbors to sustain the faith that does justice on the Gulf Coast may be a gift and a blessing not only to New Orleans but also to people, communities and churches everywhere that choose to stay the course. That choice was certainly a blessing to me.