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you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,
you did it to me."--Jesus
August 27 I was in Birmingham Alabama. As I unpacked my bags, I flicked
on the TV and heard that a huge hurricane was heading for New Orleans.
Last year I saw an episode of the PBS program NOW that showed how environmental
destruction of the Mississippi delta left New Orleans in danger of destruction
by even a moderate hurricane. I recognized immediately the situation
The worst we experienced
in Birmingham were downed trees and power outages. We weren't flooded
like New Orleans: we were flooded with people fleeing the storm. The
looks on their faces and the tension in their voices still haunt me.
The stories in the hotel lobby of friends left behind were heartbreaking.
One family told of leaving pets in a kennel on top of a table, then
hearing that their neighborhood was flooded to the rooflines. I was
surrounded by newly homeless people.
On TV I saw endless
interviews with people stranded without transportation. What good is
an evacuation order without an evacuation plan? After returning home
I continued to be horrified as so many died waiting for rescuers that
never came. These people come to me now in nightmares, but they will
stay in my heart forever.
Then I saw a transformation
in the news coverage that was as horrifying as the gruesome scenes:
the poor black victims, and they were overwhelmingly poor and black,
were transformed before our eyes into criminals. Curfews and shoot-to-kill
orders were imposed on people merely trying to survive. Heightened security
drew manpower away from rescue efforts, and evacuation centers were
transformed into concentration camps. Police blocked bridges to prevent
the poor black residents of New Orleans from flooding into the not-so-poor,
New Orleans was not just the Hurricane. The destructive force of racism,
cloaked in denial, has worked for decades compounding the poverty of
the black parishes. The hurricane exposed the cancer. The hurricane
also exposed the cancer in our national priorities. Our leaders pour
out our resources and blood in Iraq but treated New Orleans with utter
have given generously for hurricane relief, and we must continue to
give, but we must do more. We must confront the racism that alienates
us from our neighbors in need. We must address the inequality that traps
generations in poverty. We must build infrastructure that respects the
environment and provides a safe and healthy place to live. We must build
true community, not just buildings. And around the world we must make
friends, not war.
For Jesus, the
test of true spirituality was not words, or even beliefs, but actions
toward "the least of these my brethren." The "least of
these" were abandoned to die in New Orleans. Spiritual values,
on the national level, do not consist of professions of faith, but priorities
and policies that value people.