Puritan journey for New Orleans

Can a flooded city below sea level reemerge as a shining "city upon a hill"? Many might remember Ronald Reagan using that biblical metaphor to describe America as an example lighting the world. But he was quoting Puritan John Winthrop, who invoked the passage to encourage colonists setting up a model Protestant community in the New World.

A nation reacting to the heartache of hurricane Katrina can benefit from Mr. Winthrop's 1630 simile. When days are dark, people need illumination to move forward.

To this centuries-ago governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the challenge must have loomed monumental. Penning his sermon aboard the Arbella, he was bringing the largest contingent from England ever to New England - 11 vessels and 700 passengers - and undertaking a daunting experiment in community building.

In a sense, New Orleans and the devastated Gulf region face recolonization. To muster the fortitude for this massive undertaking, the survivors and those assisting them must see before themselves the beacon of recovery and rebuilding - not only from nature's catastrophe, but from the tragic human errors compounding the damage and suffering.

Winthrop's guidelines on how to establish his shining city are of course deeply rooted in Puritan Christian theology. But hundreds of years later, they bear an uncanny relevance to the Katrina challenge, and ring with a universality and humanity that sounds across faiths and beliefs.

As he journeyed over the Atlantic, he anchored his sermon with the message that the better-off must help those in need. "Every man," he wrote, "must afford his help to another in every want or distress."

As survivors transition to new lives, the helping hand of individuals is especially important. Government can set up shelters, but it takes volunteers to staff them, homeowners to offer spare rooms to evacuees, and employers and school administrators to open their doors to them.

America's generous spirit is already pouring out, but it must reach even those with no outside connections. The poor, aged, and infirm who were stranded in the New Orleans rescue effort, for instance, can't be left behind again in the recovery stage.

And what about the construction phase ahead? Winthrop wrote of the need to "lay up for posterity" and warned that "we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means." The usual and ordinary would be to allow, yet again, development in danger zones and to ignore the need for protective wetlands. Congress has approved $1 billion to shore up US shorelines. But it should consider the $14 billion plan to restore meandering waterways in the Mississippi Delta.

And, at some point, a nonpartisan review of government preparedness and response to this disaster should also occur. Expressing "less respect toward ourselves," as Winthrop advised, implies a humility that can admit mistakes and learn from them.

To succeed, Winthrop said the Puritans needed to be "knit together ... as one man." That is how a country rises to the occasion, and how a sunken city is relocated to a hilltop.

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