A higher view of New Orleans
The loss of comfort and control can be liberating.
NEW ORLEANS — Fortunately, it is not often that a city is expected to make an argument for its very existence.
When it happens, however, as it has in New Orleans, there are a number of ways to make the case. Economic, strategic, historic, and logistic arguments are all being made. Some reduce this city's value simply to tourist appreciation. But surprisingly, perhaps because people are reaching for more than just another cost-benefit analysis, some of the most significant questions regarding New Orleans "p-K," (post-Katrina) are spiritual.
We are not quite ready to do without the port, the offshore and on-shore oil rigs, the ship building, the centralized location to sort the nation's mail, the abundance of seafood, and the ambience that created jazz and blues, but perhaps we could adjust.
What we should fear, and fear is not too strong a term, is that if we define this experience by what has happened and should happen to the city's infrastructure, we might skirt the larger and more pivotal issue of what has happened and should happen in people's hearts.
In a city teeming with imported workers, there's no need to ask who is a New Orleanian. These days, New Orleanians share a haunted look, a distracted manner. Storm destruction is everywhere. Daily life can be dauntingly inconvenient, and we might as well all be wearing rubberized bracelets reading "Your Future Here Is Uncertain." But these sights are not the most important of what's going on in New Orleans.
What's going on in New Orleans is that people who love to fill our homes with the smell of red beans and rice, done just right, do not have homes, have no place to cook, and are tired of "eating in the street," but are glad to find whatever they can.
What's going on in New Orleans is a new realization that the sense of peace you have when you arrive home at night is built as much on your neighbor's light being on as your own, that the folks-down-the-block's kids are doing homework, and that although you don't want anything from the bakery, it's there if you should change your mind. People working, relaxing, arguing, planning, talking, and sleeping all around you mean peace, and when this normalcy is not there, not for miles in any direction, this is heartbreak.
If asked to identify a difference between the United States of 40 years ago and the United States of today, it could be reasonably said that our inability to face human truths, universal truths, has played a major role in our descent from higher ground. Part of the agenda of the civil rights movement was denying people the luxury of pretending that other people's pain did not hurt. But like first-graders anxious for recess, our attention to this agenda has strayed, amid fascination with the shiny objects of consumer goods. And we have elected and reelected politicians who do not serve the people, we've marred the environment and we've abused prisoners of war abroad.
Recent events - the 2004 tsunami; the succession of hurricanes; the Pakistan earthquake; assorted mudslides, fires, and floods, and in its way Sept. 11 - are conspiring to revisit a world of loss we had hoped to have left behind in the last, less technically adept century. But our plans to create spiritual peace by controlling our material lives have been foiled. Just when we had decided we could be cool based on what we wear and displaying the right type of granite countertops in our kitchens, suddenly here we are in Salvation Army giveaway pants and a borrowed T-shirt, eating a hot dog off a paper plate and having no choice but to find it all good.
Rather than declaring that what has happened to New Orleans and the other affected areas is God's punishment or America's mistake, the wise option would be to listen to what is coming out of New Orleans, p-K.
The rising voice of spirituality declares that God is here. We were floored by the storm's display of power, unable to get our minds wrapped around it. But we don't just see flooded houses filled with mold and mud. We see a requirement and an opportunity to think about what it means to be home and to have a home - not just in the sense of people and community, but in being united with other people all over the world who have lost as we have lost, and worse.
Before, I stood in New Orleans and believed in the interdependence Martin Luther King Jr. always spoke of: "As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich.... As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30 years, I can never be totally healthy.... I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent."
Now I stand in New Orleans and know of that interdependence.
Katrina took, but she also gave. As a friend of mine says, "Now that your life has hoisted you up by one ankle and has you dangling in midair, you can think about some other things you might want to change, things you wouldn't have had the courage to touch if everything else around you had not changed."
In one of spirituality's outward manifestations, the churches are already regathering. We will try to find some way to grow from this, to grow closer to God, to grow closer to one another. We will try to use this glimpse of extraordinary, unspeakable power, this liberation from comfort and the illusion of control, as a wedge to keep the door of disruption open in us.
We have the sneaking suspicion that something important, mysterious, and much needed is trying to come in. I say: Let it come.
• Gail E. Bowman is a minister living in New Orleans. This article first appeared in The Des Moines Register.