The Importance of Helping the Gulf Coast
First of: I hope to have pictures up next week. We'll see. Now, on to today's post.
A friend of mine recently said, “It's the state of Louisiana's job to fix up their city, not the federal government’s.” A relative has often asked me why so many volunteers are needed, telling me the residents need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Those who say the people of the Gulf Coast must help themselves are correct, but the hurricane victims can’t do it alone. The challenge is too immense for such a small band of residents. If your house burned down, you would turn to your neighbors for help, no? Whether for emotional support, financial assistance, or help with manual labor, you would turn to your family, your church, to someone. There’s no way you could do everything, step by step, by yourself.
But what if everyone at church had also had their house burn down? And your neighbors, your friends, your family, too? Because that’s what happened here. You can’t help me rebuild my house, because you’re busy rebuilding yours.
So it is not the individual residents, but the city that must turn to its neighbors for help. Except the next city is in the same rut; it’s not just New Orleans. Slidell was hit hard, Biloxi was hit hard, Gulfport, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Lake Charles, Port Arthur, etc. And the Mississippi and Louisiana state governments can only do so much, because they still have to pay for infrastructure and other governmental functions. This why we have a strong national government – it is a way for the larger community to step forward when the smaller ones can’t. (Nonprofit volunteer groups and private sector donations are also part of the larger community stepping forward.)
And remember, there’s so much more to life in New Orleans than rebuilding – you still have to work, get the kids to school, spend time paying the bills, and take care of your ailing mother. None of that went away, gutting, rebuilding, and waiting through 15-hour lines at parish offices joined them, they didn’t replace them. You can’t do it alone – you need the nation to remember your plight.
But this is not to say the locals aren’t trying. I’ve only gutted one house so far this trip, but at that one house, the homeowner’s son rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a hammer and a mask, and pitched right in. This is harder than it sounds – he had to get time off work to join us, something many bosses aren’t very good about. Then he had to smash away his memories. He spoke of the many wonderful Italian meals his mother made in that kitchen. When his friend came by and saw a small pile of pots and pans we had salvaged, he sadly asked if that was all that was left of Mama Bella’s kitchen. That’s hard for a person to face, but there he was. And he’s not the only one – I hear lower ninth ward stories every day about people rebuilding their homes, about struggling through obtuse government documents and protocol, and about keeping hope despite the overwhelming tasks ahead. One lady asked the other day if we knew where she could get sheetrock. I spoke today to a man who had just finished installing sheetrock in his house. We had one fellow who fell off his roof and was feeling a bit woozy (he’s ok now). Trust me, these folks aren't goofing off all day.
But they can’t do it alone, which is where we come in. And trust me, they are grateful for it. While we do see the occasional ingrate in the lower ninth, it’s rare. We see far more smiles, far more thank yous, far more bless yous, far more keep it ups. There are some wonderful thank you notes from community members taped to the RV wall. We’ve had many people tell us our presence reminds them they’re not forgotten, and it gives them hope. One lady said last week we can never know just how much we’ve really done for them. Another man, two weeks ago, gratefully told us we’ve given out more food in the ninth ward than anyone else (I bet that distinction goes to Common Ground, but the point was his gratitude). If you can come down here on a spring break trip, a winter break trip, or a vacation from work, I encourage you to do so. As you can see, our presence here is needed and must continue to be felt.
Let me conclude with these remarks from Bishop Jenkins’s blog: “If the Church does not raise a cry for justice, no one will. If the Church does not continue to feed the poor, house the homeless, heal the sick and give hope where it has been washed away, no one will. I think our efforts in Louisiana are exemplary as are those good works done in Christ's name in Mississippi. I think the work of the Church in Mississippi and Louisiana is a work of which Episcopalians can be proud. I think our stewardship of all that is entrusted to us, most of which is for relief work, is exemplary.