September 05, 2005


Well, I survived my 6th Labor Day Parade. It was typical small-town fun, and I'll post a story about it later this week. But today, since it was asked for, I'll share my sermon on Hurricane Katrina.

I began the sermon by talking about relief efforts, and read an update from Week of Compassion, our denomination's disaster relief ministry. I then continued with what appears below. I realize that those directly affected by Katrina are not yet ready to deal with the questions raised in this sermon, and won't be for some time. But out here in California, I think we are ready, and the responses I got from people in the congregation after worship helped me realize that for us, it is not too early to talk about these things....

Daniel Bradfield
Fairview Community Christian Church, Trowbridge, CA
September 4, 2005

In 2001, Scientific American Magazine reported that "New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut of the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University, who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn't go very far."

Now, 2001 is just four years ago; not very long when it comes to large-scale planning and flood preparation. However, I remember reading similar articles many years ago, when I was just a kid in school. I remember reading about the vulnerability of New Orleans in one of those little science magazines that are passed out to schoolkids when the teachers need a well-deserved break from planning their own lessons. Even I, and my fellow school-age classmates, were made aware of the susceptibility of New Orleans to this kind of disaster.

And yet, those who had the power to prevent some of the suffering were clueless. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breech of the levees,"is what our president said this week, but that's just not true. People did anticipate it, they were warned about it, but little was done to prevent it or lessen its impact.

Actually, in recent years, our government has cut back funding for flood control. Our own system of levees and flood control here in the Sacramento Valley has been in the newspapers lately due to its desperate need for fixing and maintenance, and the lack of funds available to do the work. Many people --- many of you --- remember the disastrous floods that have ravaged this valley in years past. Now, with an increase in development, the lack of funds to maintain our flood control system means that the next flood here in California will be all that much worse.

But back to New Orleans. The president says he didn't anticipate this disaster. Apparently, his predecessor didn't either. Nor did the governor of Louisiana, or the mayor of New Orleans, or the director of FEMA, or any other significant authorities. Or, maybe they did anticipate it, but chose to do nothing. The question is, why?

If I, as a schoolkid in southern California, was made aware of the disaster that was likely to happen, one day, to New Orleans, why was nothing done?

Was it because people were in denial? That could certainly be true. A lot of people are in denial, over things like global warming or the threat of earthquakes or the possibility of nuclear war. If we don't think about these things, then maybe they won't happen.

Or was it a case of politics? Or a lack of attention? Building up a flood-control system and developing emergency plans is not a very glamorous way for a politician to spend tax money. People are more likely to re-elect a politician who gives them a tax break than one who increases their taxes to build levees to guard against a disaster that may not occur for many years to come.

Or was it something else?

I didn't have an answer to these questions until I turned on the TV Friday morning and saw the pictures. I get most of my news from National Public Radio, and hadn't really seen the images of the hurricane's aftermath. But on Friday morning, I watched about ten minutes of the Today Show, and the pictures were startling. There was something about them that made me uneasy, and I wasn't sure what it was until Matt Lauer said, "These look like pictures from Somalia, not here in the United States."

And that's when I realized it. This wasn't just a natural disaster that took place this week. This was the ugly face of a national disaster coming to the surface, a disaster that has been a part of this nation's history ever since its founding. The faces of those left in New Orleans and other affected cities were predominantly black and poor. And the real disaster, the greater tragedy here, is that they are the ones who, more than any other demographic group, have been made to face the full fury of Katrina and her aftermath; this, despite the assurances of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

And that, I believe, is the real reason why nothing much was done to lessen the impacts that a hurricane like Katrina would have on a city like New Orleans. Because those who would be hardest hit by such a disaster would be those who are poor and those who are black.

Clearly, this does not mean that all those who have been affected by Katrina are poor and black. But these are the ones who were hit the hardest. Leon Wynter, a writer and blogger, spoke Friday on NPR's All Things Considered. He said that "last Sunday's official evacuation looked like nothing more than the start of a very long weekend: people with available credit, mostly white, stuck in traffic."

Now this weekend, we get the pictures of those who could not leave, those who had nowhere else to go and no money to get them there. Leon Wynter compares them to third-class passengers on the Titanic, kept below deck while the first-class passengers were evacuated.

This is why I say that Katrina has merely brought to the surface what is the real, ongoing tragedy of U.S. History: the division between the rich and the poor, the whites and the blacks. This tragedy manifests itself when we give tax cuts to the rich, but deny social services to the poor, telling them that there isn't enough money for them. This tragedy manifests itself when we subsidize oil companies, despite their current record profits, even while the level of poverty in this country continues to grow. More families and more children than ever are living below the poverty line, in Mississippi, Louisiana, California, and every other state of the union.

In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, but we continue to tolerate living in a society that makes these distinctions, distinctions between the haves and the have-nots, distinctions between the races. Jesus calls us to seek reconciliation; we who have been reconciled unto God are to seek reconciliation with one another; but instead of reconciliation, we've maintained the divisions that have kept us separated for so long.

There will no doubt be more disasters. Here in California, scientists say that it's only a matter of time before "the big one," an earthquake the likes of which we haven't seen since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And who do you think it is who live in unsafe houses and apartment buildings, made of unreinforced brick and other substandard materials, because they can't afford to fix them up or move someplace safer? Who will bear the brunt of the next disaster? And will we care enough to do something about that now, or will we ignore the impending danger because they are poor, or black, or hispanic, 2nd and 3rd class citizens in the eyes of politicians and voters?

Jesus calls us to care for these, "the least of these." There is a great injustice in our land, because the least of these are not being cared for, and have not been cared for for a long, long time. And yet that is the worship, the fast, that is pleasing to God: to care for the least of these, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke; to share our bread with the hungry and give the homeless poor a safe place to live; when we see the naked, to cover them, and to not hide ourselves from our own brothers and sisters.... Do these things, says the prophet Isaiah, and your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.... If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Let our light break forth. Let the healing spring up quickly.


peripateticpolarbear said...

I try to make a practice of not commenting on sermons and prayers (not that I'm opposed to reading them, it's, well, complicated). But this one seems to be especially on track. :-)
Sorry about the spammer.

Danny said...

ppb, I went on vacation, and when I came back, I couldn't find you. Glad to know you're still around....I've deleted the spam comment. I'm considering requiring word verification, to see if that stops the spam, but I'm not sure yet if I want to do that.

[rhymes with kerouac] said...

I think your message was especially on track, too. We've been burning bridges for generations, all of us, bridges that might have - in this instance alone - saved untold thousands of lives.

Lorna said...

interesting sermon - at one point I was afraid you wouldn't link it to God at all - and it would just be a political speech - but how God wants and expects us to treat each other came in on cue and yes this was a good sermon

as always what fruit is bears is the final proof - you yourself were changed by the photos, if your congregation is too, and they spread the good news to others then we are on the right track.

It IS long overdue that we acted like little Christs - fed the hungry, clothed the naked and had compassion and love for the poor - I pray that out of Katrina that this can flow. Your sermon is part of that transition I believe.

thank you for sharing it

jo(e) said...

Wow, this was terrific.

I never get to hear sermons like this.

I want to belong to your church. (Sadly, it would be a really long commute.)