By SISTER JAMIE T. PHELPS, OP, CNS | Published September 22, 2005
Those of us from New Orleans who were not at home when Hurricane Katrina struck looked on with amazement and outrage at TV coverage that revealed the government’s slow responses to the cry of the poor.
As the director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, I had left the city on business the Thursday before the hurricane and was to return the following Monday. I had to divert my return flight to my permanent residence in Chicago.
Watching the chaos on television, I was very anxious about my program assistant, Netanya Watts Hart, my dean, Alvin Richard, and the people in my office. But I learned that my program assistant was with her church family. She and her husband decided not to evacuate. They stayed together with their pastor and others for a while, then waded out to the convention center.
Someone in their group had worked at the center and had set up a tent that protected them from the sun’s harshness. They were ready to die. They believe so much in God and that, with God, there are no accidents.
Eventually they were evacuated. Netanya didn’t call me until I registered her with the Red Cross. She was safe in a Houston suburb. She had made sure that she had identification documents in a plastic envelope.
As I continued to watch the coverage I searched the faces of the poor, disabled, elderly and people who refused to leave. Where do the poor go? How can they leave without their families — extended families and the church communities that have become the anchors of their life?
Institute members made calls searching for friends, students, colleagues and wondering: Did they get out or are they among those who died?
We celebrated when we heard of successful evacuations and of the whereabouts of the students, staff and faculty of the institute, which articulates the distinct black Catholic theology and spirituality so essential for effective ministry in black communities.
Xavier University has 4,000-plus registered students. All but 400 were evacuated before the storm hit; the others were safely evacuated to other universities.
Television images unmask the masked systemic patterns of social injustice. Those who see with the eyes of faith are raising their voices against the racism and classism that were being revealed after the hurricane. Ordinarily we see and do not see, we hear and do not hear, blinded by our self-absorption, materialism, individualism and economic greed.
Ordinarily, the poor of the Gospel are despised, viewed as disposable. For some, their dark and brown skin marks them stereotypically as subhuman: criminals, looters, thugs who lack intelligence and morals.
Sociologists warn of the decline of family values, yet these despised, marginalized black, brown, yellow, white and poor people of the South were those who refused to leave their elderly grandmothers, fathers and mothers. They refused to abandon those children and adults who were hospitalized or handicapped by mental or physical illnesses.
The storm unmasked the evil, but it also revealed the loving concern of many people.
People of faith clutched their children and Bibles when Katrina hit, relying on the power of God in their midst. Vietnamese Catholics took refuge in St. Mary’s Vietnamese Catholic Church. Many black Catholics sought refuge in Corpus Christi Catholic Church.
We forget that New Orleans, the Big Easy, embodies the rich traditions of black Catholics. While others perceive the city only as a party town, still others have not forgotten the rich history and legacy of the faith and fortitude of African slaves, native Indians and the French. These gave birth to a new culture (Creole) and new classical music (jazz, blues), poetry and Southern soul.
As we near the close of the year dedicated by Pope John Paul II as the Year of the Eucharist, we have witnessed in this tragedy people who know profoundly the power of prayer and Eucharist to bind us together as one bread, one body, one family of God.
Adrian Dominican Sister Phelps, psychiatric social worker and veteran educator, is a professor of theology and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans.