Can America Ever Go Back?

Of course, the phrase for this week is "Hurricane Katrina" -- the most destructive natural disaster in the history of the United States, and the most powerful political storm to come along in recent memory.

The magnitude of Katrina has yet to be fully assessed but already the political and spiritual ripple effects are enormous.

Last week, I met Gracie Bell Beauvais, a displaced 71-year-old New Orleanian who now calls Camp Edwards home, along with about 200 other "evacuees" who were plucked from the Big Uneasy and airlifted to Cape Cod.

With all of her material possessions gone, disease and death all around, Gracie was put on a plane whose destination was unknown to her and the other passengers until mid-flight.

Unimaginably uncertain about her future, when she saw the welcome reception that awaited Katrina survivors at Camp Edwards, "I felt like it was an angel coming on over on top of my head. It was like my hair stood straight up when I saw those people waiting. ... I feel wonderful. God has given the angels charge over us."

In an instant I was transported back to the Baptist church of my youth. Gracie was referring to the 91st chapter of the book of Psalms. "For he shall give his angels charge over you," the psalmist wrote.

A woman of the Word, I thought to myself -- just like the old, wise women in the church of my youth; "church mothers," as they are called in the black Baptist tradition.

Untrained as theologians -- actually, without much formal education of any kind -- the church mothers always struck me as having profound wisdom. In fact, one bit of church mother wit I often heard as a youngster expresses an ethical approach worthy of emulation. The gospel of Luke records Jesus as saying, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). The church mothers used to say, "If the kingdom of God is within us, then we ought to leave a little heaven behind wherever we go."

Katrina has made evident the truth spoken by the church mothers. In her aftermath, tens of millions of people across America have been about the business of "leaving a little heaven behind," and it has awoken in many the personal joy that comes from collectively serving others.

Now that we've seen our unprecedented collective relief effort, can we ever go back to the atomistic, survival-of-the-fittest, tax-cut, I-got-mine-to-hell-with-you-if-you-don't-got-yours worldview that pervaded this country before Katrina hit, and still feel genuinely, authentically human?

Will we continue to believe economists and politicians who insist that economic health and wealth can only come by the narrow pursuit of self-interest? While noble sounding, does the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps philosophy really go far enough?

Another childhood Bible lesson came to mind while talking to Katrina survivor Gloria Perry. She reminded me about the flood of 1927. Blacks in New Orleans were pressed into civil service. When the water rose, they were prevented from leaving the area. Civic leaders intentionally flooded the poorer parts of town to save the more "important" people.

Isolated, without communication, seeing boats, buses and helicopters passing by to rescue others, you might think history was repeating itself if you were a black New Orleanian, which may help explain why law and order broke down in a city notorious for corrupt authorities.

Another bit of church wisdom evoked by the evacuees: The Bible refers to Jesus as the Word, the Truth, and Suffering Servant. Based on that biblical description, I once heard a preacher conclude that "it is a condition of truth to allow suffering to speak."

We won't know the truth about Katrina until we've listened to those who have suffered in her wake.

We've got a difficult conversation ahead. I hope George Bush and the rest of America are willing to candidly confront the issues that have floated to the surface.


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