Much has been written about Katrina since that devastating storm ravaged the Gulf Coast a year and a half ago. Many organizations, including Sojourners/Call to Renewal, have seized upon this situation to remind us that there are still two Americas – one poor and forgotten and the other rich and resourced – and that while charity can rebuild houses, governments must rebuild levees.
While I believe that those things are true, my week-long visit to the Gulf Coast last week showed me how complicated this situation is on the ground. Like the twisted piles of debris filling lots and dotting residential curbs, there are many convolutions to the story, and there seems to be enough praise and blame to go around. It might be years before we’ve unraveled all that happened and how we can avoid reliving it.
Notwithstanding the important task of backward-looking and learning from past mistakes, Hurricane Katrina has now provided our nation with an opportunity, going forward, to show how effectively we can rebuild, revitalize, and replenish the Gulf Coast for all residents – if all sectors work in concert. It will take both private and public money, personal and political will, step ladders and savvy legislation. It is not an issue for just the Right or the Left, only Republicans or Democrats. It will take sweat equity and compassionate public policy. But what we must agree upon is to rebuild the coast and its cities for ALL residents, not just those with certain means. As one advocate asked in an e-mail, “How do we do justice to the families who lost everything (including the lives of friends and family members) and were forced to leave during the 2005 disasters? How do we make sure that everyone has a home to return to?”
As expected, the church has responded with overwhelming financial and manual support – thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars have rebuilt countless homes and lives, work not necessarily possible (or fitting) for the government to handle. But if our involvement stops there, we will have failed, for that is only half of the story. It is charity and justice we seek.
Fierce local legislative battles are already underway about such issues as affordable housing policy, development practices, and insurance and government reparations (or the lack thereof).
Band-aids of bricks and mortar do not address the underlying policies that currently have made it virtually impossible for thousands of families to come home and rebuild their lives. Some municipalities have seen this disaster as an opportunity to rid their towns of “undesirable elements” like public housing and the poor, and advocates on the ground are in daily fights to win even the slightest consideration for “the least of these” among us.
It is apparent upon visiting the Mississippi coast that the market and local policy has freely allowed casinos, condos, hotels, and restaurant chains to quickly rebuild. But the call of Christ is to a kingdom where the last are first and in which we have a preferential option to the poor. Unless that priority is intentionally built into the public policy and practice of rebuilding, they will not be remembered. It is up to us – not just to paint walls – but to make sure, on every level, that those that the market forgets have a place they can call home.
Bob Francis is the Policy and Organizing Assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, in support of the United Church of Christ’s Back Bay Mission with five fellow staff members in partnership with a work team from Pilgrim UCC of Wheaton, Maryland.