Faces of Tragedy, Faces of Grace

Just a couple of weeks ago I was in New Orleans sitting at the counter of the tiny Clover Grill with my family. Earl, our waiter, told me his place had never closed during a hurricane. Today, I hope that he and his lovely place were able to make it through this latest nightmare. I vividly remember Earl and his funny, spirited stories about New Orleans and its people.

Earl was black; and so too were many of the people who could not or did not get out of New Orleans in time. Many of their faces we now see plastered on the front pages of newspapers and across our television screens looting stores and bitterly complaining about their plight.

One response from “officials” is that they will deal “ruthlessly” with lawlessness and looting. On one level, that makes sense. Such behavior cannot be condoned.

But there is something else at work in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast of America. There are people – poor people, often African Americans – who are now stranded in a city bereft of communications, food, shelter, safe drinking water – and hope.

On one radio program last night, I heard people saying that they could not leave the city because it was the 29th of the month, and they had no cash – they were waiting for payday, living paycheck to paycheck. Others said they had no transportation.

Now, many of these people are living day to day. The head of the Baton Rouge Community Foundation talked about how over 40,000 people have showed up in his community, some 80 miles north of New Orleans, with the numbers climbing by the hour. These are people, he said, who once thought they’d be there for a day or so, and are now realizing they have no place to go. Indeed, their children may be enrolling in Baton Rouge schools.

Think about it: many of these and other people affected by the hurricane have no money in their pockets, no clothes beyond what they are wearing; they do not have their medications; some have lost loved ones.

I see the pictures on TV and in the newspapers of the “lawlessness” and “looting” and other deviant acts and one response is anger: how dare people act in such ways.

But, then again, I think about the people in New Orleans and Mobile and Biloxi and other parts of the Gulf Coast whom I know – I think about Earl – and then the people in the pictures become real. What is happening in their lives? What is our response?

And how come the poorest of the poor are stuck and so many others were able to leave – is it simply because they chose to stay?

Our impulse may be to say that people should have left, or that they should have known better, or that lawlessness makes us so frustrated that we turn away. Compassion and grace are often hard to come by when our own sensibilities are offended.

Last night as I was listening to another news program, a Salvation Army official talked about how 250 of poorest of poor citizens in New Orleans were stranded at a Salvation Army office, totally surrounded by water. Then, the good people in Mississippi got a hold of enough wind boats and made their way to rescue them. To me, that’s simply amazing.

There is much work to do in the Gulf Coast. I know that Americans will respond and offer a hand of help. But my fear is that we will not come to terms with the underlying story of New Orleans: why were the poorest of the poor left amid the rising waters? And what does it mean today to say a rising tide will lift all boats?

To answer this question we must ruthlessly enforce the laws of our land; but we must also bring compassion and grace to our efforts – not only in the immediate days ahead, but as we consider the society we seek to create as the waters recede.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation has established two funds in conjunction with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to assist relief efforts. If you would like information about how you can contribute, please click here.