The Rt. Rev. Charles Jenkins
Welcome to the National Cathedral and to this celebration of Louisiana Day. I am grateful to Dean Lloyd and the Cathedral family for the opportunity to represent my home state on this our state day. In terms of introduction, I should tell you that I have of late been variously described: I have been labeled a refugee (that did not sit so well), a homeless person, an evacuee, and finally one of “those people.” Indeed, I proudly wear the label of “those people.” We were so named by a resident of this city who proclaimed in an interview with the press corps, “those people down there need to understand…” The day following the newscast in which we finally again became somebody, a friend, an African American preacher, asked, “Bishop, I bet you have never before been called one of ‘those people’.” I replied, “I have not.” He said, “Welcome to the club.” So, I am one of “those people”—you saw some of us plucked from the roofs of our homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, you saw us in the horrible situation of the Superdome, you saw some of us crowded onto highway overpasses with no shelter, no water, no sanitation; you have seen us struggling to build a new home from the ruins of our city. I am one of “those people”—a Louisianan from New Orleans.
America needs us to do better at recovery than is actually the case. Everywhere I go, people look caringly into my eyes, and ask, “Well things are getting much better, aren’t they?” You have good reason to wonder. Television carries reports of the Mardi Gras and Jazzfest; it makes sense to assume that things are getting better in New Orleans. In fact, you are seeing vignettes, scenes from life, but not the fullness of reality. I understand and I very much appreciate your concern and your care. Your outpouring of generosity has been tremendous and on behalf of all in my state, I thank you. Rita/Katrina has taught us a great deal about America; one of the lessons of goodness that I am pleased to hold up and celebrate this morning is the generosity and compassion of the American people. You have been wonderful, thank you!
Even so, America needs us to be doing better than we are. The horror you saw on your televisions when we were wading, swimming, and drowning in the muddy waters, was not an expected scene in these United States. Such horrors do not happen in this country. Thus, have some described New Orleans as the most third world city in America as if that description, perhaps somewhat accurate, relieves the pain and embarrassment of what happened. We all knew New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana stood in harm’s way. What no one could imagine is that in the least likely place in America, tragedy has become opportunity. The American tragedy you saw in New Orleans has become the American opportunity. God has such an odd way of working. As notes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Rowan Williams, “To be unmade is to be remade” (The Wound of Knowledge, page 18). In these weeks following Easter Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus who was unmade—dead and buried—and remade, raised from the dead. And now that He is raised, the reconciliation He brings is available to all people, at all times, and in all places. The opportunity of New Orleans and Louisiana for this nation is that we learn anew the difficult, sometimes painful, but ultimately right and rewarding work of Reconciliation.
Do not hear what I am not saying. I am not saying that God visited us with the worst natural disaster in the living memory of our nation. Now some preachers have suggested that God did just that and that God did it because we in New Orleans were such notorious and evil livers. At least they said it of some, surely not me. Now if you really want to end a conversation at a party or at coffee after Church, just ask, “were you the sinner that caused God to do this to us?” It is not a question designed to impress or win friends. Yes, I am thankful for those preachers because they give me the opportunity, the stark opportunity, to present something different, something much closer to most people’s experience of God. I am grateful to these preachers for they provide us with the perfect segue into celebrating God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, and grace. A reporter from this city telephoned me recently to ask how we were dealing with God’s failure. If God is good, omnipotent, merciful and powerful, how are we dealing with the reality of what happened to us? “It is easy,” I replied. I told the reporter that I would be glad when we could afford the luxury of such a theological and philosophical struggle for such would represent great progress down the road to recovery. As for now, there are no atheists in the foxhole where I live.” I guess when you are living so low on the hierarchy of needs that you are dealing with issues of survival and the basics of life, the luxury of a theological challenge seems attractive.
The tragedy has become the opportunity. Friends, we stand at a touchstone moment in American history. As a colleague in this city has helped me see, that which happens in New Orleans is not simply about that poor old city near the mouth of the Mississippi; it is about all of us. We saw the effects, the horror and the tragedy not only of a flood but also of racism, economic access denied, poverty, and social exclusion. The temptation is to forget what we saw, build back what was and hope it does not happen again. Such is not worthy of the people of this nation; to rebuild the buildings and forget the values is beneath us as a generous people. We cannot allow this opportunity to slide into memory and be forgotten; as a mature people we must insist that the new city which rises from the ruin of the old will be a place where our collective values speak to the dignity of every human being, where the fabric, the rhyme and the reason of the new, New Orleans reflect our values as God’s people. We are a mature and generous people who ask the same for our hometowns, wherever they may be, and for our nation.
The opportunities for healing and reconciliation in New Orleans are a focused, micro glance of the opportunities in our nation, our world, and even in our Churches. You know that of which I speak, I do not need to carefully lay it out before you. Briefly put then, we know the alienation of states painted red or blue, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional. We know of the strange alienation amongst people of faith—for example, between Jews, Muslims and Christians. We know the division between rich and poor, between brown, black, white and all shades therein. We hear the alienation between English and Spanish speakers ( I think it is too bad that Cajun French has not entered the fray). Yes, the possibilities for reconciliation are great. We stand in solidarity with those that seek the end of genocide in Darfur and the Sudan. Brothers and Sisters, the opportunity in New Orleans is the American opportunity, and thus an opportunity for the world. I pray that leaders of government, industry, philanthropy, the sciences, religion, and the arts will hear the opportunity we have in New Orleans to learn the work of Reconciliation, to do the work of becoming reconciled one to another. I pray that you will be part of a groundswell that says no to the impulse to divide us for the sake of another. The opportunity of Reconciliation stands before us. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us the freedom to pursue in the here and now what our Lord accomplished when He was raised to new life. Let us then be clear about this opportunity. We are not speaking simply of buildings and structures, but of more.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam”
Dr. Martin Luther King got more than a few Amens and a smattering of applause when he proclaimed these words in the Riverside Church in New York City.
The work of Reconciliation undertaken in New Orleans and Louisiana by Christian communities, by government, and by people of good will is about values, basic values, which I as a Christian bishop think fundamental to the rights and being of humanity. We are not about restoring what was; gracious, there is much about old New Orleans that I do not want to see again. And lest you have wondered, I have privately and publicly repented of my complicity of silence and inactivity in creating and allowing the distortion of values so apparent in post Katrina New Orleans. I am reminded that Jesus was not simply restored to life; the Resurrected Jesus was not resuscitated, no, he was glorified, transformed, and remade. That is my hope for my city, for our nation and for this world.
I live in awe and wonder as I see the work of God made manifest in the hearts and hands of generous compassionate people who have done so much. The generosity of folks has become an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That is to say there is a sacramental quality to the compassion we have experienced. There is a new song being played on our local Jazz and Heritage Radio Station in New Orleans, WWOZ, entitled “Baptized in Muddy Waters.” The artist notes that we were twice baptized; once in Church and once in the muddy waters of the flood. I suppose we are a city of Anabaptists now but please don’t tell anyone that I said so. When I as one of “those people” speak of resurrection, I do not speak hypothetically or even of a theory. God’s power to remake that which has been unmade, even to the extent that when we have been cast into the ditch along life’s highway, this power is a joyous reality in my life and in the lives of all “those people down there.” This is the good news of hope and joy we celebrate this day. This reality belongs not just to “those people” but to all who have the heart to hear and make their own the Good News of God — “to be unmade is to be remade.” Brothers and Sisters, welcome to the Club. We all are those people, we are God’s people.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen.