Dispatches From the Forgotten Corners of Empire

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

katrina-rooftopdisabledtearhole2getout-thurs1sept05-reuters-davidjphillipDo you remember that story in Mark’s gospel? You know, the one in the second chapter where the friends of a paralytic man take him to see Jesus? Do you remember the story of how Jesus, returning home to Capernaum after several days was accosted, surrounded, swarmed by the throngs who just had to see what this bold teacher and prophet was going on about?

Do you remember the story? Do you remember the story of how the friends couldn’t make it through the crowds, so they climbed to the roof, pulled away the thatch and let their friend down through the hole, into the house?

I’ve been thinking about that story a lot this week. But I’ve been reading the story from a bit of a different perspective. The perspective of one who has just returned from New Orleans, where in August and September 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, the levees broke, and the vast majority of the city was drowned and summarily rotted under 3, 6, 9 feet of water.

In the wake of this perfect storm, religious folks were all too quick to say that New Orleans deserved it. The big easy gets its due. That den of iniquity is finally paying for its sins.

Only problem,the French Quarter – the belly of the beast itself – barely got hit. Oh. And another thing? So much of the drunkenness and debauchery of that neighbourhood comes at the hands of those who are visiting from away. Those who come to be different people. Those who come to shed their inhibitions and to live raucously, before returning home to somewhere in the midwest to their picket fences, minivans and kids’ soccer practices.

I’m not saying. I’m just saying. There are so many lies about this place, so much the media takes for granted, so many stories that don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the structures of oppression at play in that city. If you’re going to talk about the problems in New Orleans, let me just suggest that these accusations don’t even scratch the surface, and that to be honest, the bigger, badder problems have a different perpetrator than even those from the midwest who come for a week of letting loose.

As I walked through the Lower Ninth, nearly two weeks ago today, and as I’ve been reflecting on that experience, I found it very difficult to read the signs of the times alongside the second chapter of Mark’s gospel.

I read the gospel story of friends climbing the roof, in great faith, to lower their friend down to see Jesus. And yet all I can see, all I can hear are the screams of people from rooftops. All I can see are those who have gone from first floor, to attic, grabbing the hatchet along the way in order to break through the roof, out-of-breath-and-all-the-while-screaming…

Somebody save us

Somebody help

Take our friend, leave us behind

Somebody, anybody, please, please help.

These good men are not lowering their friend into the house. If anything, they’re hoisting their paralytic friend up through the attic, and onto the roof, where perhaps, they will wait for days to be rescued.

Will they be rescued?

While the government turned a blind eye. While the president waited for days to come and survey the damage, and even then – even then, only to do a quick fly-by. This is heavy stuff. This is a system that is broken. These are dispatches from the forgotten corners of Empire.

Forget the fact that the Ports of New Orleans form the largest port system in the world by bulk tonnage, and the world’s fourth largest by annual volume handled. Forget the fact that some of the city finds itself 10ft below sea level. If you want to tell people to uproot themselves, move out of the city, and move to Omaha, you better think again. You might want to think about that for economic reasons. You might want to contemplate what it might mean from any person or group of people to simply uproot, leave their community, their group of friends, and to move clear across the country where they know no-one.

Maybe you’re from the suburbs, and that doesn’t seem so bad. Maybe you don’t know your neighbours that well, and you say to yourself, “well, that wouldn’t be so bad.” But when you live deeply in community. When you live in a neighbourhood with all your best friends, in the house your grandfather built, in a home that you own…well let’s think again about how easy it’ll be to abandon the community, the neighbourhood, the people you know, and find yourself in Arlington Heights, IL, or wherever. Oh the mythological worlds of the upwardly mobile…

So where is Jesus in all of this? Where on earth was Jesus? Was he on the ground floor? Was he in the attic? Was Jesus on the roof, in a chopper, or in a rescue boat? Where was Jesus when Katrina hit, and where is Jesus now, 3 years later, a city still bereaved, devastated, oppressed?

The city is resilient, yet in all too many ways forgotten. Insurance companies, Road Home, the Government. Forgotten by them all.

All the people say: “3 years after Katrina? They must have rebuilt by now.”

Uhh…sorry. Not yet. It may not have been in the media, but we’ve got other battles to fight these days. And really, in terms of rebuilding, we’re too busy blowing stuff up overseas to help our own people rebuild. Y’all understand tho. It’s about freedom. It’s about protecting our liberties, our way of life.

All the while the folks in New Orleans, and all across the gulf coast ask, “what freedom?” “what way of life?” “Have you even seen this place lately?”

Where are the hands and feet of Jesus in this story? Where is the healing? Will the people of New Orleans get up and walk? Are their sins, whatever those might be, forgiven?

But hold on a second. Jesus’ story doesn’t stop there. The story of the paralytic doesn’t stop there.

But where might it go?

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

5 Responses to “Dispatches From the Forgotten Corners of Empire”

  1. Brian

    “The city’s aflood, and our love turns to rust.” Seems like U2 were prophetic on the shame and tragedy of New Orleans. Except that the streets in the Lower Ninth have names and if there is to be homecoming in New Orleans it is to those streets that folks will have to go. Thanks for this, Andrew.

  2. Peggy

    Seems to me that the story is going straight to the hearts of those who walk down the streets of the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview and Midcity, to those who allow their hearts to be broken by the neglect and oppression and disregard that people can have for each other, to those who see their own participation in such behaviour, and to those who say, “I want to do something to set this straight again.”

    Next week the Rebuild Program in which Andrew and others worked will celebrate the gutting of 900 homes and the rebuilding of 50 homes by over 8500 volunteers during the past three years. 50 homes. From the standpoint of a start-up organization in a devasted area whose entire assets come from donations elsewhere, 50 homes are a bold accomplishment. And that is 50 more than the government has done anything toward rebuilding. From the standpoint of what is left to do, 50 homes barely make a blip on the radar. And what is left to do is so much more than the rebuilding of homes. Schools are still closed and some of those which have reopened are substandard. Roads are atrocious. Hospitals are still closed. Medical care is inadequate. The criminal justice system is dysfunctional. A road-side memorial reminded us that 603 homicides have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina ( a figure that I have not been able to verify). And as one medical professional told me, no one is counting the deaths attributable to stress or tracking the upswing in diseases that are affecting the reduced population. New Orleans is indeed a long way from recovery – and parts of it may never recover.

    But I could see a difference. There was less trash and debris – 43 years worth of garbage has been hauled out truck load by truck load. Vacant lots where homes once stood have sprouted grass. Abandoned cars have been removed. There is hope – fragile and weary, perhaps, but hope nonetheless. And where there is hope, there is Jesus. And it seems to me around those 50 homes – built by teams of people from all over – the church appeared – that body of Jesus made visible in the world by individuals joining in solidarity with those who bear a cross of suffering and shame. And isn’t this what the church was like before there was empire?

    • andrew

      Peggy – Thanks so much for this response. I don’t know – but I find it hard to believe that you can walk through New Orleans (and not just the Lower 9) without being affected in some small way. For me, it was a bit of a wake-up call. There is so much to do. It was good to be a part of rebuilding one of those homes, and helping a few people out along the way in a city that is not my home. I think there should be more of that – so much more – in a city that still has a bit of an uphill battle, as you describe.

      New Orleans is not my home, and some of the needs there are seemingly obvious, having now visited and seen some of them first-hand. The questions I return home with are ones that lead me to seek out the need and the hurt and the brokenness in my own city, and to find some small way in which I can contribute, ways in which my friends and I can contribute to the redemption of some of the forgotten places in my own city and country.

      The question I find myself struggling with is, why is it easier to locate somewhere to help in a different community than in your own? Is there not need in Ottawa? And if there is, why does it seem so hard to find ways for the church to participate in the healing?

  3. Jim Mondry

    Hey Andrew,
    In response to your question about helping those in our own communities, I think there are a couple of factors involved. First, it’s sexy to travel to help-vacation and good work all in one. Second, you get to leave behind the struggle, and the hardships that you witnessed, rather than thinking about them in your community every day. Third, there’s often far more info for helping in these really needy areas, like New Orleans, or Haiti, etc, then there is for helping in most Cities in Canada.
    Like I mentioned when we were having coffee, there’s a website (www.volunteerottawa.ca) that has listings for Ottawa.

    Then there’s that whole “bum inertia” issue that we all suffer from, having trouble getting off the couch to go and do something…

  4. andrew

    Hey Jim – Thanks for your insights. I think you’re probably right about each of those 3 things. A good part of me asks the question, “what, has the call of the gospel just not sunk in?” all the while acknowledging my own bum inertia. Then there’s the organisations I contact and say “I’d love to help,” they talk big, and then don’t follow through.

    Not that I’m blaming everyone else. I do need to be more actively searching, but it does get frustrating. Anyhow, the volunteerottawa.ca site looks great, and I’ve already started checking it out. Thanks for that!


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