Saturday, September 3, 2005

Katrina: “We don’t live like this”

Of the many affecting scenes on television these past few days, there were two in particular that haunt me. Two black women, one young and one old, were both in their fourth or fifth day of living like animals in the streets. The younger one, sobbing uncontrollably, was offered (after a five-day wait) an MRE. She sobbed, “I want to go home. I want to eat my own food. This is not the way we live.” (Note the word “we”.) The older woman was especially arresting in her dignity; she was filthy, she was semi-literate, she was overweight, but when she said through tears, “We don’t live like this,” it seemed that she was speaking for her whole community of people who, though poor and badly educated, nevertheless worked hard to maintain a semblance of decency in their homes. She was speaking for thousands who kept their floors swept, their flowers watered, their pots shiny and their Mardi Gras decorations in boxes. These are not people who go to the bathroom in the street, who eat with hands unwashed for days, who live below the divide between the worthy and the unworthy.

As many of the best articles about New Orleans have observed, this is a city which is as much as 80% native. Perhaps more than in any other American city, the people of New Orleans have preserved their traditions and their history among themselves for generations. And there is something else. Among my many friends there is a woman who, though not a native, has lived for two decades in the Garden District and has grown to love the city deeply. I asked her to talk about its unique qualities. I particularly remember her saying, “The people here understand suffering.”

All the more reason that they should not be asked to suffer one day longer, any more than we can help. May Our Lord walk among the homeless of New Orleans, but even more, may he open the hearts of all Americans to help them to arrive some day at a time when their traditions and histories will include these words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food; thirsty, and you gave me a drink; homeless, and you brought me home again.”

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