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Indicted by Katrina

I’m embarrassed right now. I’m convicted, but not “convicted” like I just heard a rousing sermon. I mean that there is more than enough evidence to convict me of a crime. Me and a lot of other Christians.

I’m watching CNN. Scenes of devastation and despair flash across the screen. People are wading through water with garbage bags containing their only possessions that aren’t underwater. People are looking for shelter, desperate for food and clean water, in need of medical attention. Those who aren’t dead, that is. These are the people who have been left to rot in places like New Orleans and Biloxi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But these aren’t just any people. This isn’t a random sampling of Louisianians and Mississippians. These people are black. These people are poor.

Next I see the FEMA director expressing dismay that so many people stayed behind. He’s saying that he doesn’t understand why so many people would stay despite the warnings. If that’s not political spin, then this guy is a few fries short of a Happy Meal. The math is simple on this one. If you’re told to evacuate your home on short notice to get out of the path of a Category 5 hurricane, you can’t do it without one very important thing: money. You need money to stay in a hotel, perhaps for a very long time. You need money for food. You need a car. If you have a car, it had better be big enough for your family and their luggage. Then you need gas to run the car, and gas costs money. Nowadays, gas costs an obscene amount of money. Thus, the people left behind to suffer Katrina’s wrath fall mostly into one of two categories: people who are stupid or people who are poor. We can’t do much for the former, but we have no excuse for the plight of the latter. By “we,” I mean Christians. I mean me.

My temptation is to blame this on the government. It would be easy to make a list of ways I think our government dropped the ball on this one. I could rant for hours about how the richest country in the world can’t justify the existence of poverty so severe that thousands don’t have the resources to flee when nature throws an apocalyptic fit. I could quote Howard Zinn and wax liberal and self-righteous about how ethnic minorities have been forced into the lower economic classes through oppression. I could hold my own town meeting about all this except for something literally staring me in the face: I’m typing this on a Power Mac G5 with dual processors and a 20-inch flat-screen monitor. Six months ago, I thought I “needed” this computer, which costs as much as some used cars. As much as months of food. As much as plenty of gas, even at these ridiculous prices. Tonight, watching “the least of these” cry for help from rooftops, my definition of need is starting to change. And I’m ashamed that it took the flooding of the French Quarter for me to feel bad. Stuff like this is happening all the time, all over the world.

No, I can’t give our president a tongue-lashing over this. This is as much my fault as his, or anybody else in authority. I’m a Christian, and I hang out with a bunch of other Christians. Though we’re all middle class in America, we’re rich by international standards. And we have no excuse for permitting such poverty. Why? Because we all own Bibles. We even read them sometimes, though you don’t have to read very often to know that God commands us to help the poor. He doesn’t ask nicely. It’s not extra credit when I give change to a homeless guy. It comes with the job description of being a Christian. I deserve to be fired.

But I’m in good company, though that doesn’t let me off the hook. The Christian Church in the Western world has gobs of money. I’m not an economist, but I’m guessing we could eradicate poverty without exhausting half our resources. But we haven’t. There are probably a million reasons—from ignorance to greed—that we haven’t done it, but tonight I’m just going to focus on my part. I’ve spent too much and given too little. Yes, I give, sometimes to the point where it feels generous. But I seldom sacrifice. If I were willing to do that, it might have helped. No, it would have helped somebody, somewhere suffer a little less. If we all decided to sacrifice, then maybe only the stupid people having hurricane parties on Bourbon Street would’ve been left behind. But I’m not writing this to convict you. I’m writing this to confess. I have to start doing my job as a Christian if things are going to change.

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But I’m not naïve. I know that it will take more than all of us giving so much that it’s painful to write the check. There are gargantuan problems on both collective and individual levels. It will take a lot of work, a long time and drastic social change before we can kiss poverty goodbye. In fact, as Jesus said, the poor will always be with us. But I’m tired of making excuses for why my sacrifice won’t “really” help. With God’s grace, I’m going to try to change my financial habits and expectations. It’s going to be hard and it will hurt, but not as badly as my brothers and sisters down south are hurting.

God be with them.

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