God's Politics

God's Politics

Adam Taylor: A Pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward

This past week I stood with hundreds of black clergy as the sun rose over a memorial site constructed in the lower 9th Ward to honor the thousands of lives that were lost in the waters of Katrina. The vigil was organized as a part of the third Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference, a conference that draws together nearly 1,000 black clergy, seminarians, and leaders from the across the country in order to strengthen the network among the African American faith community and its leaders, and to increase the community’s capacity to address the needs of those it serves.

The rising sun provided a powerful metaphor for the new New Orleans that is struggling to arise from the water-soaked ashes. We stood on sacred ground, in the middle of a neighborhood that has become a symbol of Katrina’s wrath and the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in America. Pastors from across the still-devastated city spoke passionately about protecting the right to relocate. The very survival of many neighborhoods rests in the rebuilding and revitalization of these anchors of hope and community empowerment. Joe Givens, a lifelong resident of New Orleans and a former community organizer with PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing), is leading an effort to pair New Orleans churches with churches outside the city for prayer, solidarity, and financial support.


Seventeen months after Katrina hit shore, huge swaths of New Orleans still resemble a ghost land and a disaster area. Empty lots and dilapidated homes appear to be tombstones, marking where lives have been uprooted and shipwrecked by the breaking of the levies. The only visible human activity is the occasional group of volunteers, groups that continue to pour in from across the country to provide the backbone of labor in gutting and repairing houses. In Lakeside, a more affluent and predominantly white neighborhood, the chances of revival are high due to strong and active neighborhood associations and civic organizations. The lower 9th Ward lacks the same degree of civic power. While the machinations of city and state-level politics unfold, neighborhoods are in a race against time to attract enough residents back in order to prove that their neighborhoods can once again be viable. If they cannot prove this, neighborhoods will either die or be resurrected through the hands of developers. The clock is ticking.


On our tour of four neighborhoods I found the biblical references to be profound and haunting. Givens described people displaced as being in a practical exile, waiting and hoping to return to the promised land of their birth. Yet most lower-income families can barely afford the bus ticket back to the city, let alone afford what are now astronomical rents while they go about the task of gutting their homes and starting the arduous process of rebuilding. While the federal government has allocated $4.2 billion to assist these families, only an estimated 400 families have benefited thus far due to red tape and government delay. The “CNN effect” of media attention seems to be passing by the storm of rebuilding that has followed in the aftermath of the storm. Isaiah 58 calls us to be “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Will the church take up this spiritual vocation in the face of the gulf coast recovery? We can be repairers by assisting churches that are trying to rebuild one brick and one family at a time. We must also raise a prophetic voice to interrogate failed public policy surrounding the rebuilding effort, ensuring that the former residents’ right to return is protected and that monies actually reach those most in need.

Adam Taylor is Director of Campaigns and Organizing for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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kevin s.

posted February 13, 2007 at 5:31 pm

“Isaiah 58 calls us to be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.No it doesn’t. I am not opposed to rebuilding New Orleans, and I am certainly opposed to red tape, but can we cool it with the scriptural shoehorning?

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posted February 13, 2007 at 5:55 pm

Kevin Can you read Isaiah 58 and not feel even some small tug to want to be called by that name, “repairer of the breach and restorer of the streets in which to dwell”? Even if it is not God asking you to go and do it but just a romantic notion it doesn’t appeal to you at all? I think that feeling may have been what Adam was referring to. He interpreted it as God’s calling. I do not think you have to be an exigetical expert to support him on that. Come on Kevin, lets go rebuild something old and broken for Jesus.

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kevin s.

posted February 13, 2007 at 6:13 pm

Again, I have no problem with the idea of repairing neighborhoods. However, this verse promises the restoration of God’s chosen. To say it refers to the rebuilding of a man-made city cheapens it tremendously. I have just seen the book of Isaiah used here to justify hiking the minimum wage, preserving Social Security, increasing governmental entitlements. That’s just not what the book is about. So, yes, I would like to help, and have supported efforts to help rebuild New Orleans, but not because of this verse.

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Mike Hayes

posted February 13, 2007 at 7:03 pm

Adam, It is good that you call our attention to the continuing disruption that occurs to the lives of people who lived in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane… I think it is a common reaction among human persons to feel sorrow for those who suffer from calamity, from a variety of sources… My thoughts almost always drift back to the message that those of us who are capable of doing so should assist those who are “thirsty” (safe drinking water comes to mind), “hungry” (malnutrition comes to mind), “naked” (inadequate clothing comes to mind), “imprisoned” (those wrongly convicted comes to mind), and so on… Why that sticks so clearly in my mind is that it was a “double whammy”… those who do those acts of kindness will be saved… and those who do not do them will not be saved…

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posted February 13, 2007 at 7:04 pm

New Orleans has been the recipient of so much since Katrina hit. There is much that can be learned from this – one that is not discussed is that if you build your house on the sand – you are asking for trouble. How many times was LA and New Orleans warned that the levies were not sufficient? How many times were they warned that they were an accident waiting to happen? Are we still going to allow them to build everything ‘just as it was’ so that we can go through this again in years to come? God gave us a heart full of compassion – New Orleans has been the recipient of that. He gave us the will to help – they have seen that too. He also gave us a brain for reason – will we see that in the future in New Orleans? later .

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posted February 13, 2007 at 8:45 pm

Kevin I know you mean well and are a good guy but your emphasis is just a little off and I really mean just a little. I’m all for historical grammatical interpretations, and though I am skeptical about systemmtic theology it is only for the following reasons. I don’t think we should be too defined by our systems. God once spoke through an ass and I am quite sure he still does. Adam just got through seeing the devestation of NO and the futility of what is happening there. It does no one any good to chide him for what is, to you and I, is an improper use of Isaiah. Many of the NT writers would have done just such a “poor” job of handling scripture, if scripture itself is proof of anything. You know I just realized you don’t know me from a hole in the ground. What if I am one of those “angels unaware” and you went right past my invitation to go have an adventure somewhere like NO because I didn’t seem to agree with your doctrine? I wonder how many times I might have done the same.

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kevin s.

posted February 13, 2007 at 9:08 pm

Perhaps this is a poor time to bring up the discrepancy. However, if one were using this verse to justify, say, the wall between Israel and Palestine, you would probably be upset.I don’t think I’m as doctrinally limited as you might think (and certainly not compared to some divisions of the church).Interesting thought on the angles unaware. I don’t want to pass up any adventures.

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Rev Thomas Fogarty

posted February 13, 2007 at 9:10 pm

The prophets are hardly misquoted or misinterpreted when it comes to addressing the corruption of leaders, political and religious, at the expense of the poor. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos…ALL spoke, in context, to the injustice we see so very much today…the VERY reason the people were sent into exile in the first place. The valley of dry bones… Maybe a stretch. I also am apalled at the reading and quoting of scripture with a “pair of scissors”. This case, however, seems to be inspiration to breathe life into an area that needs to be restored. “All scripture inspired by God is USEFUL…” The 9th ward… Have you ever thought about what it would be like to have the land that you have always lived on, from grandparents to parents to you, your only home wiped out due to the neglect of the powers that be? This was a man-made disaster. For me it’s a stretch that the hurricane would be classified as an act of God; the argument can be made that it’s intensity was spurred by our global neglect. The failure of the levy was most certainly an act of governmental neglect; the failure of agencies who are charged with stewardship to take care of those who depend on them for protection. If this piece of property is all you have, all you have ever had for generations…where are you supposed to go? The very reason for government is to protect and serve those in need. The very purpose for people of faith to come together as a church is to help each other survive, physically and spiritually, and to worship (offer ourselves in service to God) collectively. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Herodians…it would be much easier for me to quit serving homeless people and go back to pumping the safe and easy scriptures to those sitting in the padded pews. Find the balance…It’s ALL about balance, people. Re-read the prophets, re-read James…and go back to the prophets. If you’re still in doubt re-read the Gospels and look around this country with a plumb-bob. Is there any doubt what we must do for the poorest of the poor in the 9th?

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posted February 13, 2007 at 10:31 pm

Thomas , As a family, we just recently finished Isaiah, and are 40 chapters into Jeremiah, and the overwhelming message I hear over and over is God is exiling them 1)because of their idolatry 2) they go through the motions of their religious ceremonies, but God doesn’t have their hearts. I remember from listening to “God’s Politcs” that Jim Wallis echoes your thoughts that the exile is because of mistreatment of the poor, but I haven’t seen that as one of the main thrusts of either book.

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posted February 14, 2007 at 12:20 am

I know I am going to suggest something scary and it is arguable the scariest book in all of scripture (besides Revelation) but folks should really read Ezekiel. He talks a great deal about idolatry and the lack of grace shown to the poor and weak.Some minor prophets that address this issue include Jonah (showing mercy and grace to one’s enemy,) and Amos. Then there’s Daniel and it is a book that centers on God being the God of the world. If we are going to talk about the prophets and their messages then let’s really talk about them. p

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Bill Samuel

posted February 14, 2007 at 12:25 am

What happened to the people of Lower Ninth Ward is really tragic, as is the fact that far too little has been done to help them restore their lives. But we shouldn’t be naive romantics about it, but use the brains God gave us to develop a constructive course of action. The larger New Orleans area is a case study of humans trying to stop the natural forces of God’s creation. The Lower Ninth Ward is not a place anyone should be living. What should be done is to find environmentally more suitable locations in the area to relocate people who live in low lying areas that are not appropriate for human habitation. The larger community, primarily through governments, should be willing to kick in to make this feasible. And we should be working to allow natural processes to work more fully in that whole area.

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posted February 14, 2007 at 6:29 pm

I’m sorry, but i cannot concede that isaiah 58 is being used inappropraitely here or that it is in some way limited to ‘restoring god’s chosen’ in some fantastic supernatural event. “is not this the kind of fasting i have chosen…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” this is 6 verses before the quote adam uses. guess what, the next six verses continue with more of the same, saying to do these things is to do God’s justice, and doing God’s justice will cause you to shine and be called the repairer of broken walls. a ‘cheapening or shoehorning’ of the scripture here? i think not, nor do i think the text intends to differentiate between what adam is talking about and what kevin and ronnie are talking about, but rather they are one in the same.

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Mike Hayes

posted February 15, 2007 at 4:07 am

Bill, I agree in the sense that I think that our society pays the price of unwise locations of housing following damage from hurricanes and flooding and other recurring natural disasters. It does seem that persons are being persuaded to return to New Orleans even though rebuilding now may result in a future necessity for rebuilding. Until that repetition ends, we face the challenge of assisting those caught in the process. In some ways, that is not unlike the challenge we face to help those caught in the violence in Palestine/Israel… If I were unfortunate enough to be living there, I would not continue to live there… if I could afford to pick up and leave…

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posted February 16, 2007 at 2:11 am

Adam, Thank you for this insightful article that has helped me process my own experiences (just 3 weeks ago now) working on the Mississippi Gulf coast. The hurricane ripped open wounds that are often left untended and ignored in our society, those of race and poverty. I could not be present to those I was attempting to serve without seeing this bare reality. I would love to know more about the work that Joe Givens is doing – any chance of a link to a web page or email for him? Thanks again.

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