Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Katrina, Poverty, and Community

Hey, I got a request! I really enjoy writing to an assignment. It's a good discipline and I think it's one in which I shine. This week I got a question specifically for the blog: namely, in light of the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, what is the difference between a natural disaster and disasters like poverty or homelessness that makes people rally together in one instance and largely argue in another?

I think there's a lot that can be said there. The easiest (and also most difficult answer) is that cleanup from a hurricane is tangible and has an end date. You can go and clean rubble, rebuild homes, hand out food, etc - and at some point, the job is more or less done. It doesn't require an investment beyond our comfort zone. Tackling poverty, though, really requires us to dig in, to invest our lives in something with no end date. To do it well, we need to tie our own future to those of the people we're trying to love and help. It has to be a working with, not a working for. And that is, quite understandably, terrifying.

It's something that's likely not going to end. Jeffrey Sachs' famous book, The End of Poverty, laid out a tangible, achievable plan for ending poverty - but that was defined as no one in the world living on less than $2 per day. It would be a great achievement, for sure, but calling it the "end of poverty" is a little bit of overselling. Jesus told his disciples the poor would always be with them - which many people have used as an excuse not to tackle the problem at all - I tend to look at it as an acknowledgement that poverty is a demonic force in our world.

You may have read here my take on demons at some point - I don't go in for the supernatural sentience or anything like that - I tend to think of it more as a force that's gotten beyond our control - hatred, addiction, psychoses of one kind or another. Poverty is certainly in that category. People don't like tackling problems they can't solve. This one is a doozy.

So what do we do?

I think it's particularly interesting that President Obama is quoted in one of the articles that came with the question. As much as we ascribe a lot of power to the President, but he's got so little ability to do anything positive to alleviate problems. I know we're sold this big, happy narrative that our votes can change the world - and they do in some sense - but they're completely powerless to tackle real problems. Problems like poverty.

In fact, this President likely had a much greater impact on the world when he was an organizer in Chicago working for better community policing and fair housing practices, than he does sitting in the White House wielding phenomenal cosmic power.

Even thinking about this, just being elected President has essentially exempted Barack Obama from ever again really being part of truly tackling poverty. Hopefully he'll follow the example of Jimmy Carter and invest his post-Presidency in the tangible work of helping people, even if he can only do it second hand - but he's not going to be able to volunteer in a homeless shelter or develop real relationships with people who need community - he'll have TV cameras and armed guards following him the rest of his life. It's almost as if we've gotten it backwards - protecting the people at the top of heap as if they're our greatest, irreplaceable treasures and treating those people getting their hands dirty in the midst of the mess as essentially faceless drones.

Maybe that is the difference between Katrina and poverty - the President wields a lot of power to help in one instance and very little ability to do anything about the other.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29th, 2005. On September 5th, I was on a plane taxiing past Air Force One in Baton Rouge. We went down to assess the situation, set up a base of operations, and begin planning the protracted, unprecedented response my denomination could take to help with recovery. I saw a lot of things that still seems like movie creations. I experienced a lot of stuff and have a ton of crazy stories from just a few days on the periphery of chaos. But it was simple to see how money was going to help. Money goes a long way when you need to build homes and roads and levees.

At the same time, the people who really made a difference in New Orleans are the people who are still there; the ones who moved in. Those people who found hurting communities and set up life among the broken. New Orleans may be an extreme example - although I know people who've been there ten years and will likely never leave - but it's not so far fetched in our own communities.

My family had the opportunity to move to Middletown - a growing, largely middle and upper income area of Delaware. We intentionally chose a neighborhood with diversity and need. I won't say we're living amongst poverty, but there are certainly demons present that need some attention. The longer I live, the less convinced I am we can do any good addressing such things from our safe little enclaves. We have to dig in; and it's gonna get messy.

I remember shortly after Katrina, people were literally volunteering their homes, taking in displaced families from the Gulf Coast. Most of the reporting on these stories involved those people who really regretted their amazing acts of generosity. It's tough living with people, especially people suffering the effects of trauma, people from different cultural backgrounds and social classes. People with different expectations. Life together is really hard. But it's also the answer.

Maybe it starts with some short term. There are hurricanes and floods and tornados every year - and there are lots of organizations that will gladly facilitate your help. But be prepared for the pull - the tug towards community - not just other people, but people with needs, the same way we have needs.

Human beings are meant to live communally. We're designed to be tied together through good and bad, to walk with each other and to tackle problems together. Throughout history, our greatest successes have been those time when we've banded together for some great cause. Those great successes don't start on a grand scale, though, they start from getting to know the guy next door.

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