God's Politics

God's Politics

Ryan Beiler: After Mardi Gras, Make Your Gulf Coast Pilgrimage

Adam Taylor recently reflected on his “Pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward,” and I’ve been wanting to tell my own story since October, but the timing has never seemed quite right. Now, with Black History Month coming to a close, and much attention focused on the recovery progress of New Orleans because of Mardi Gras, it seems like a good moment to reflect on attitudes toward racial tensions and disparities at home and abroad, most recently revealed by Hurricane Katrina.


Readers of SojoMail may remember that in July 2006 Sojourners/Call to Renewal sent a team of volunteers on a rebuilding mission to Biloxi, Mississippi. You can see images and stories from that trip in my Voices of Katrina presentation. I was able to take another trip the Gulf Coast in October, this time with a team from my church in support of an amazing ministry in New Orleans called Urban Impact. I’ve incorporated photos from that trip into a new presentation titled Songs of Hope.


I’m one of those people who’s been on half a dozen short-term missions trips but worries that they’re often little more than high-priced field trips for wealthy church folk. Often the image of the white missionary attempting to bring “hope” to “dark” corners of the earth prevails. Any reputable relief and development organization could take that money and effort a lot farther though local churches and partners. Many people who sponsor such trips are honest enough to admit that much of the benefit is for the gringos (or muzungus, depending on the continent): to have their horizons broadened, their comfort zones stretched, and their dependence on God deepened.


These are good goals, but I still want to vomit when the most profound insight gained from the whole experience is, “It really makes you appreciate what we have.” It should make you question, just how did we get all that we have? Could it have anything to do with a history of exploiting, oppressing, and actively impoverishing the very countries where we’re now doing missions? One also hopes that we could find just as many opportunities for service within 100 miles of home.

Yet in spite of my critiques, I’ve participated in several such trips – to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, to the Ugandan border with Sudan – always for what I believe is the best reason to enter such places of suffering: to listen, learn, and be informed by these places, and then to bring back stories that will inspire others to support sustainable development and ultimately justice – not mere hit-and-run charity. Mennonite Central Committee has even promoted the more honest concept of “Learning Tours” – which is how I traveled to Colombia in 2003.


All of that to say, that the Gulf Coast region after Katrina is a very different scenario. With such vast devastation – and more than year later, it’s still plenty devastated – what is really needed are thousands of people to make a national pilgrimage of repentance to help rebuild. Whomever you prefer to blame, our nation failed these communities, both historically and in this moment of crisis. And as was so starkly seen on rooftops and in arenas, communities of color were disproportionately affected. Sending money to organizations already working there is good, but materials and local contractors are so expensive that infusions of eager volunteers are far more appropriate on the Gulf Coast than in a more typical overseas mission context. In this case, your money generally can’t do more than your actual presence.


Without many of the typical barriers of language and culture found in overseas projects, real exchange and real relationships are that much more possible – as opposed to a clique of church teens jetting to Peru and back in a bubble of privilege. Certainly, there are still issues of cultural sensitivity. Privilege is problematic in any context. People who’ve lost everything do not need lectures from well-meaning, middle-class suburbanites about how to responsibly spend their FEMA emergency funds. They need solidarity, and a listening ear. And God forbid you should try to pull a James 2:15-17 – we need you to get your hands dirty. On this trip in particular, Urban Impact provided several moments of teaching, educating our group about the government response to Katrina (or lack thereof), the history of inequality in their community, and their desire to seek God’s justice based on Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 22:16 – all the while modeling a multi-ethnic congregation based on loving your neighbor. (I’m sure it’s not perfect – no church is – but it provides a real challenge to many of our more complacent congregations.)


I anticipate comments about the life-transforming experiences that are only possible internationally, and about how many missions organizations are providing the kind of teaching I’ve just described at Urban Impact. Wonderful. Both my finacée and I would cite such experiences abroad as being pivotal points in our pursuit of God’s call to do justice. I just really, really, really want everybody to go to New Orleans, Biloxi, or anywhere on the Gulf Coast where people are still in need, and see that folks much closer to home are just as worthy of your time and money, and in this case, your work and presence may actually be their best – or only – option.

+ Click here for the new multimedia presentation, Songs of Hope

Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

Comments read comments(11)
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Mike Hayes

posted February 22, 2007 at 5:59 pm

Ryan, I hesitate to admit it, but the reaction about how fortunate we are is one that I often use when I’m talking about some tragedy with persons who are righties (or if I’m uncertain which way they lean)… After having tried a number of approaches to communicate about the fact that we have it pretty soft here in this country, that is an expression I’ve begun to rely on, and I think it has a chance of making the point without getting righties to feel resentful and thereby shut out any consideration of just how fortunate we are… Occasionally it might lead to an opportunity to mention Oxfam, Heifer International or assistance programs here in the US that are homeless shelters or food pantries or services like Second Harvest… …hope you haven’t just finished lunch…just kidding…

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Mike Hayes

posted February 22, 2007 at 6:07 pm

Perhaps I should have used the term “persons who think it is immoral to provide assistance to poor persons because it will prevent poor persons from doing what they can do to succeed on their own” instead of “righties”… I meant no offense to persons who lean right and who do however do a lot to provide assistance to poor persons, here and abroad. George Lakoff speaks about the blend of “strict father” and “nurturing parent” models that many of us follow, depending upon which issue is being addressed at any one time. I personally know a number of persons who are conservative, generally, but who contribute significantly to poverty assistance programs, as volunteers and with financial support.

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posted February 22, 2007 at 8:18 pm

Great Article, Ryan. Thank you. I got to serve with Urban Imbact as well in November and December of 2005. We worked in Crescent City and the upper ninth ward. At the time, much of the lower ninth ward was still closed off. The devastation was indescribable and haunting. But the hope and strength of the people of New Orleans was even more memorable. Some friends of mine went back in August of 2006 and I was saddened to learn that much remained the same as it had been in autumn. I know that many are working very hard, but the job is big. I want to encourage everyone who can to go and work. The devastation is massive, but the hope is even more powerful.

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posted February 22, 2007 at 8:38 pm

I don’t know how prominent this was in the national news, but around 3 AM February 13th a tornado touched down in three places in and around New Orleans. My wife and I live three blocks from the tornado s path. Within a stone s throw of our apartment there are houses with their roofs torn off, one that was knocked off of its foundation, several from which a whole side had been torn away, and a school that had a large hole torn in it. My wife and I woke when the power went out, but most of the neighbors on our block slept through it. Our power was out for about 18 hours, but we counted it a blessing that we had such a minor inconvenience compared to those whose homes were under the tornado.

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posted February 22, 2007 at 11:14 pm

I really want to take my own pilgrimage there. p

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posted February 23, 2007 at 12:06 am

Ryan, Thanks for your advocacy.For those who might care to see pictures and some thoughts from my own recent New Orleans service trip they can check out: Peace, Jim

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posted February 23, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Mike Hayes, Thanks for modifying your first post. The conservative church denom. I belong to has poured lots of people and money into the Katrina effected area. The question is not whether we should help the poor. Us righties believe that and contribute more money to the cause then lefties. The real point of conflict is what is the best way to help the poor. I think the different perspectives that religious righties and lefties bring could bring viable solutions.

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Stephen Davidson

posted February 23, 2007 at 4:27 pm

I think the people of New Orleans need to make a pilgrimage to a Church that preaches repentance. Murders are happening in that godless city like trips to the gas station.

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posted February 24, 2007 at 12:27 am

Stephen Davidson Have you ever been here? Upon what do you base your statement that this is a ‘godless city?’ (Something Ann Coutler wrote?) Yes, there are frequent murders in New Orleans, but for the most part, they are usually related to drugs in some way or another a problem that is certainly not unique to New Orleans. I lived here in 2000-2001 before I got married, and would not have moved my wife here if I wasn’t sure that I could provide her with a reasonable level of safety. My wife and I are church-going people. New Orleans seems to have about as many Catholic churches as there are Starbucks in Seattle. I moved here because Tulane is the only school in the U.S. to offer a master’s in public health & tropical medicine. I am pursuing a MPH&TM because God has called me to work in Africa. While I am not a native New Orleanian, I love this city. I love New Orleans for its people something I can say about few other places I have visited or lived. New Orleans has many godly people who probably don t appreciate disparaging comments made about their home. A popular bumper sticker reads: New Orleans, proud to call it home (variations in several languages are also available) After Katrina, another bumper sticker has also become popular: New Orleans, proud to swim home. The operative word here is home.

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posted July 24, 2014 at 1:35 am

You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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