A city remembered

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Fifteen years ago, my flight, the first I'd taken in some years, landed in New Orleans. Four or five thousand school food service workers were converging on the Big Easy for our annual convention, and I was one of them. It was soooo exciting. My best friend, who at the time was also my boss, was my seatmate on the plane, on the tour busses and at each of the memorable meals. New Orleans fills an entire room of memories in my mind.

It was a different world. I could have spent the entire five days riding around with our shuttle bus driver and learned all I needed to know about "N'awlins," including the correct pronunciation, our first lesson. A dozen well-dressed and well educated women obediently recited the odd pronunciation repeatedly -- until we all got it right -- during our trip from the airport to the then nearly brand new convention center on the bank of the Mississippi.

Groups of us took advantage of special tours and events when not in general sessions or in the various workshops designed to help us to hone our skills.

Dinner on a riverboat was one of many extra curricular activities, as was dinner on Bourbon Street on another night. We saw Pete Fountain and Dolly Parton in separate concerts, had beinets at Cafe du Monde and breakfast at Brennan's.

Sidewalk musicians graced the morning air as we made our way to the workshops and jazz filled the air as we walked along Bourbon Street nearly every night, the music fading as we neared the French Quarter.

It was a different world, completely foreign to anywhere I'd ever been, and I walked around wide-eyed from dawn 'til way past dusk taking it all in. I always hoped to get Danny there to see all that I'd seen, to experience "N'awlins" for himself.

Now it is the citizens of that unique and by our standards ancient and oddly beautiful city who are walking around wide-eyed, from dawn 'til way past dusk, looking for a way to go home, when sadly, there is no home to go to. It is a heartbreak.

No one could have imagined this level of devastation. No one could have imagined this level of desperation. And no one could have imagined the vast gulf that came to separate people, even when only a few feet from one another.

Images from the nightly news are striking, rescues and recriminations dividing the time almost evenly, but one young man's cry, "We have to steal from one another to survive!" haunts me even now, days later. As do the stories of rape and assault taking place in the Superdome and the convention center where tens of thousands of people sought shelter.

Here the people, left with only the shirts on their backs and what little they could carry through congested and flooding streets, prey to Katrina's wrath; now prey to the dark desires of human predators.

It makes no earthly sense. We live in a land so filled with blessings that opportunities to serve as the Good Samaritan, or to take on the task as our brother's keeper, are decidedly rare. Apparently so rare, we've forgotten how, or why.

How much good could have been done by that single young man, strong and passionate about life, if he had focused his energies on bringing people and resources together to the benefit of many, rather than seeking ways to serve his own needs at the expense of others? At a time when pulling together meant life or death, why did so many pull it all apart?

Our sense of entitlement as citizens of the United States, usually such a comfort when hard times hit, also proved to be an Achilles heel in this disaster. So accustomed to waiting for Uncle Sam to tell us what to do next, we apparently have forgotten how to do for ourselves, and so people sat in solitary small groups, without so much as a shared umbrella for shade, independently and individually, waiting for aid that, for whatever reason, was slow in coming.

What has happened? Where was the milk of human kindness. Now, fresh water, food, shelter, and rescues are finally in place and those stranded in stagnant pools are making their way out of this nightmare, significantly helped on the way by Christians brothers and sisters, who have left the comfort of their own homes to deliver a cup of cold water in Jesus' name.

It was worse than it had to be. And it was made worse by our own human self-centeredness, our own lack of compassion, our own sense of personal entitlement.

Would we fare any better here? Are we any better prepared, as individuals, to step up to the plate and serve our brother before we serve ourselves? Or would we too soon fall victim to the "I'm gonna get mine" mentality that I believe did more damage to human hearts than did the wind and the rain and waves of Katrina?

"But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'

"In reply, Jesus said, 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be doing down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?'

"The expert of the law replied, 'The one who had mercy on him.'

"Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'" Luke 10:29-37 (NIV)

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