Saturday, January 28, 2006


I commend to you a website: It is a group in New Orleans that is working to get the word out that New Orleans didn't just flood after Katrina because it is below sea level and why rebuild a city below sea level, anyway? The site directs the reader to articles in major newspapers about the real reason why the city flooded: because the levees that were supposed to protect the city from storm surges even greater than Katrina were not built to the original design specifications, and huge, really stupid, engineering mistakes were made. One engineering consultant described it as the biggest engineering disaster in the United States.

I mention this because this weekend we are seeing stories about the twenty-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster. (I can hardly believe it's been twenty years. I remember I was sitting in an editorial staff meeting when someone brought the news to our editorial director and he announced it to the room. I knew this man wouldn't make up something like that, but I didn't want to believe it.) And at its heart, the Challenger disaster came about because someone decided to save money by using cheaper materials or parts, and in spite of having it pointed out that this was a bad idea, this "someone" went ahead and authorized it anyway. And seven people died and the space shuttle program got shelved for years. (The cause of the Columbia disaster was a little different, but it sent the engineers back to designing a new way to do things, too.)

At any rate...someone in the Vicksburg, Mississippi office of the Corps of Engineers questioned the plans for the levees back in 1990 and was told that, essentially, "this will do." But this didn't do. And this little mistake cost more than 1100 lives, with bodies still being pulled out of houses as of this week.

And there are people in Congress who are questioning whether to spend the money to rebuild the levees the way they should have been built in the first place, and President Bush is balking at providing federal funds to rebuild rental properties (by the way, New Orleans has far more tenant-occupied properties than homeowner-occupied properties; we are talking about not covering 180,000 homes here).

What makes me angry is that we would not be in this situation if the levees had been built the way they were supposed to be built in the first place -- the way we THOUGHT they were built, but you can't tell what the interior structure is like from looking at them on the side of the road.

My slogan for a sign I have yet to create, to carry in some future demonstration about the levees:

If you build it
They will come

This city is in shambles. It probably will not recover economically in the remainder of my working years. It makes me angry, and it makes me sad.

Do you worry about terrorists attacking your city? Time and again as I drove through flooded neighborhoods in the weeks after the storm, I shook my head and thought, not even terrorists could do this much damage. It boggles the mind.

San Francisco came back after the 1989 earthquake. In time, New Orleans will come back too.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Well, the whole world knows by now that Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, made a little extemporaneous speech on Martin Luther King Day that blew up in his face. The world thinks Hizzoner is an idiot, but there are a few folks in the city who say he was just "telling it like it is."

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation it wasn't. There was a little something in there to offend just about everyone. Martin Luther King having a conversation from beyond the grave with the mayor? "Surely God is mad at America"? And then there was the Chocolate City thing. One editorial writer in the Times-Picayune tried to explain to the folks who took it as a reference to Willy Wonka that it really was about a song from 30 years ago about majority-black cities. But I fear his voice has been lost in the crowing of "Mayor Wonka and the Chocolate City."

It was hardly stop-the-presses news that, B.K., New Orleans had been a majority black city for more than 25 years. So is Atlanta (the city, not the metro area). So is Detroit. And probably quite a few other major American cities. And because New Orleans was a majority black city, when 80 percent of the city flooded after Katrina, the majority of people affected were, indeed, black. Not all -- quite a few mostly white neighborhoods got flooded out too.

But what was also true B.K. is that New Orleans had a shocking percentage of its population living below the poverty line -- I don't know the exact figures but I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of the people. And a lot of those living below the poverty line were black. And a lot of them got flooded out and can't afford to return to the city. Housing is in short supply and what there is, is expensive. (Supply and demand.) People who didn't have flood insurance, regardless of race, are scrambling to figure out how to rebuild their homes.

So Mayor Nagin, when he talked about the Chocolate City, was trying to say that he believed the city would be majority black once again when it is finally repopulated. I wish he would have come up with a different metaphor, one encompassing the many races and ethnicities that make up this city. Someone suggested Rocky Road ice cream would be more fitting, a mix of chocolate, marshmallows, and "nuts." New Orleans has always been famous for nutty people! (For the uninitiated, I suggest you read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.)

Ray Nagin is not a professional politician. He was an executive with Cox Cable before he became mayor. I hope they will give him his old job back, because I think he just ended his political career with that speech. But considering all he has been through in the last five months, I wonder if he would even want to be re-elected. I sure wouldn't want to be mayor of New Orleans right now, although it appears there is no shortage of potential candidates.

Back when Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta, in a moment of exasperation with the white business community, he called them "a bunch of smart-ass white boys." First thing you know, every business executive's desk in Buckhead sported a coffee mug with the initials "S.A.W.B." Already people are selling T-shirts that promote Mayor Wonka and the Chocolate City.

This morning, I tuned in the local PBS station (it's good to have them back on the air) and discovered they were having their big fund-raiser on the Sunday before Valentine's Day. Guess what? It's called the Fourth Annual Chocolate Sunday, a to-do at a swanky downtown hotel where people pay $$ to sample chocolates and support the station. I wonder if Chocolate City will help or embarrass them?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Going to the movies

I have a confession to make. I really, really didn't like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Too much torture, not enough theology. This week I saw a movie that did for me what Mel Gibson's intended to do but fell short (in my humble opinion): the Disney version of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

Now, the movie wasn't really promoted as a Christian witness. It was more of a kid's movie with battles and other adventures. It's not a movie to convert someone to Christianity who has never opened a Bible. But oh, my, it had me in tears before the opening credits -- and THAT is saying a lot.

If you haven't read C.S. Lewis' seven books about Narnia, go out and do so immediately. They are easy to read and quick to get through, just the thing to do on a few winter's nights. Lewis supposedly wrote these books for his nieces and nephews, but they are easily appreciated by adults who are young in heart. And if you HAVE opened a Bible here and there along the way, you'll find the Christian allegory -- and maybe, just maybe, it will make more sense to you than reading some heavy-duty books on theology.

The Lion in these books is Aslan, son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea (we never do meet Aslan's father, but the reference is hard to miss). "He is not a tame lion," we are told throughout the books. And when the characters meet Aslan, they are in awe of him. In the movie, all bow before the Lion as he emerges from his tent. I darn near got off my seat in the theater to bow, too.

One of the children, Lucy, hid in a wardrobe in the spare room and discovered she could move through the fur coats stored there into a grove of fir trees in the snow, and that is how she and her three siblings ended up in Narnia. Lucy met a somewhat fearsome looking creature -- a faun -- by the name of Mr. Tumnus. She ended up going to his house and having tea. Now, I would worry about a little girl going to have tea with a faun. Later, her brother Edmund came into Narnia and ended up meeting a beautiful woman who gave him hot chocolate and sweets. You would think, from her appearance, that the beautiful lady would be more trustworthy than a faun. But the beautiful lady is the White Witch who has kept Narnia in a spell for a hundred years, where it is "always winter and never Christmas." But Edmund wants so much to please her that he tells her all about his sister's encounter with the faun. He ends up betraying Tumnus "for sweets."

Yo! Theology class! We have here a lovely allegory! In Genesis, the serpent persuades the man and woman to eat of the tree that God told them not to eat of. In the Gospels, Judas betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Here Edmund is persuaded by an evil witch who plies him with sweet treats to spill the beans, tell her all about his siblings, and betray Tumnus. Edmund, who we might think of as just a kid trying to please a grownup, presents us with Original Sin.

So the Secret Police capture Tumnus and imprison him and eventually the White Witch turns him to stone. When the Witch has a showdown with Aslan, she demands that he give her Edmund as a sacrifice. The Law demands it. Aslan and the Witch go off into his tent to negotiate. When they emerge, the children are told that Edmund's life will be spared. Sounds good, huh?

Except that night the Witch and her minions lead Aslan to the Stone Table, shave off his beautiful coat, tie him to the table, and kill him. And the two girls, Lucy and Susan, watch from a distance, crying. Do I need to spell out the allegory here?

After Aslan's death, after the Witch and her minions are gone, the two girls go to Aslan's body and weep until they fall asleep. It is the middle of the night. It is dark and cold.

And then, just before dawn, the Stone Table cracks (read: the veil of the temple torn in two, the stone rolled away) and death itself works backwards. Aslan is alive! And he is leaping around with the girls in the dawn light, and then they go off to defeat the White Witch. Spring returns to Narnia. The human children reign at the castle called Cair Paravel. The oldest brother, Peter, is High King. (Peter...get it?) And Aslan walks away, down the beach, but the children are told that he will be back, but they won't know when to expect him (do I need to spell that one out too?).

Well, maybe I have given the ending of the book/movie to you, but there are six more books to read! I doubt that Disney will make all seven into movies, anyway. "The Magician's Nephew," as I recall, is a wonderful retelling of the creation story in Genesis. And the final book, "The Last Battle," has its roots in the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testaments.

My tears at the beginning of the movie were for Lucy, such a little girl, being sent away from her home and her mother on a train to escape the Blitzkrieg in London. And it is Lucy who weeps in the last book, as night falls on Narnia. But I am WAY ahead of myself. Go read the books. Go see the movie. It's theology: law and sin and grace and redemption. And it's a wonderful story. And it's Disney, not Quentin Tarantino (or Mel Gibson). The violence is there, all right. But we don't have to see it in all its goriness.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Roof! Roof!

It's noisy in Cattown this week. Two of my neighbors are getting new roofs. Yesterday the crew arrived at 8 a.m. (better than 7 a.m., anyway) to begin taking off the old slate roof of my neighbor's house across the street. I know she was really proud of that old slate roof -- they don't make 'em like that anymore -- and sorry to see it go. But the slate roof on my house had to be replaced 40 years ago after Hurricane Betsy took most of it off, so my neighbor got 40 more years out of hers than my family got out of its slate.

And slate makes a LOT of noise when you are throwing it off the roof. There is a dumpster out on the street where they are throwing the roofing materials. Ah, dumpsters. When we were renovating the downstairs of my house two years ago, we took out plaster in seven rooms, including the walls of two staircases. We filled THREE dumpsters. And let me tell you, no matter who is paying for a dumpster, it is public property. I still would like to know who threw the sofa in mine. I know one of my neighbors was landscaping his front yard at the time, and he took the opportunity to hurl dirt and pieces of concrete into "my" dumpster. It was a no-brainer to figure out who did that; they were in his yard one day and in the dumpster the next.

I have a huge pile of trash in front of my house that has been accumulating since October. It started out as the remains of my alligator pear (aka avocado) tree that keeled over during the storm, fortunately in a direction away from the house, plus my neighbor's attic turbine that landed in my yard. It now includes a fig tree that keeled over (with a little help from the termites in its trunk), a box spring and mattress, and a lot of junque from the house. I keep hoping the city will come one day and pick it up. They are slowly picking up trash in the area, but the order in which they are doing it remains an arcane mystery. But in the meantime, until they do, there is that nice dumpster...

Naah. I am in no mood to pick up a mattress, much less all those tree limbs. But it is a temptation.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A new year

I am preaching this morning at a suburban New Orleans church. One of the scripture texts for the day is from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it is set in a time when the Jewish exiles living in Babylon were allowed to return home to Jerusalem. There has never been a time more appropriate for a text about exiles returning home. Over the last couple of weeks, the exiles from New Orleans have been drifting in with children in tow. The fall semester ended, and wherever the kids were going to school during the last four months, they are now coming home to New Orleans and its suburbs to return to their own schools (some of which are holding classes in locations different from where they were B.K.). The college students are coming back -- again, not all to the same campuses where they began the fall semester a few days B.K.

I read in the paper that the estimated population of New Orleans is now about 100,000, or a little less than a fourth of what it was B.K. But that population is crammed into the areas that didn't flood -- and 80 percent of the city flooded. Now, if I do the math, it still works out to about 20 percent of the people in 20 percent of the land area, but the crowds jamming the grocery stores, the malls, the restaurants, the banks, and the roads belie those numbers. On Friday I spent 40 minutes in the drive-through at the bank, and I don't think that police car parked on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground (median) was there to deter bank robbers -- it was to ward off fights breaking out over who was trying to get into which line.

The exiles are returning from Babylon, wherever Babylon happened to be. Last week I drove to Houston for the first time, giving an exiled friend a ride back to her temporary home. Going to Houston for the first time is like the story of the blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the leg and decides it's like a tree. One touches the tail and thinks it's like a snake. One touches the tusk, etc. I saw one small part of Houston and had to drive all the way across town on I-10 to get there, and I lucked out that I missed the worst of rush hour. (Also, it was the week between Christmas and New Year's, when a lot of people are on vacation.) I decided Houston was a lot like Atlanta, except the downtown connector in Atlanta probably has one or two more lanes. It's all about expressways. If you don't have a car, you're out of luck. And the friend I brought back to Houston doesn't have a car, which is probably going to be the chief motivator to bring her back to New Orleans. In New Orleans you can get around pretty well on public transportation -- and right now, A.K., the buses are free.

So, Houston. To this one-time visitor -- like a blind person's first encounter with an elephant -- it was a lot like Atlanta. Only without hills. And with a climate like New Orleans'. It was nice, but it was also good to come home.

So, a new year. 2006. My wish for the new year is "No more hurricanes." But doggone, one popped up in the Atlantic on Dec. 30, making a record 27 named storms for the year. And I keep reading that this pattern is going to go on for the next decade. Congress, please note. We need those category 5 levees. NOW.

Here's to a better new year.

Pastor Kathy