A lenten wilderness in New Orleans

We arrived in New Orleans on the first Sunday of Lent – a day often associated with the temptation Jesus faced in the desert (see Matthew 4: 1-11) – and there was a real sense of wilderness in the city as we ventured into the 9th Ward. You may recall that this was the poorest area of town and the most devastated by the failed levees. Two and a half years later there are still block after city block of mostly abandoned homes and businesses. For some this is because their homes have been rendered uninhabitable by water damage, mud and disease. For others there simply is not enough money or energy left to repair things. Wounds and crime have kept others from returning and some have made a fresh start in Mississippi, Michigan or even Massachusetts.

Whatever the reason people have not returned, it is obvious that half the pre-Katrina residents are missing from New Orleans and in the most damaged areas of town their absence breeds a quiet sadness and fear everywhere you look: random fishing boats lie discarded in vacant fields, former three story apartment buildings are not only empty but still caked in mud and garbage and countless homes and business continue to bear the rescue efforts “street markings” of spray paint telling when a building was visited, who did the inspection and how many dead humans or animals need to be removed. Like scar tissue after a wound, the pain of New Orleans is not far from the surface in this paradoxical place.

We went to the French Quarter on our free day – the historic “crazy” party center of New Orleans – where great food and fine jazz was in ample supply. The “Quarter” was only minimally damaged by Katrina and is working hard at recovering its tourist business: Bourbon Street balcony apartments were listed for $250K for Mardi Gras weekend, luxury French Quarter condos are selling for $2.5 million and most of the restaurants and clubs were reasonably full with out of towners on an off night. Shop keepers told me that every month more and more of the tourist trade is returning and even the NBA did their part by bringing the “All Star Game” to town. (Some of basketball’s greats even joined us for a few hours building houses for Habitat for Humanity!)
Curiously, the vibrancy of the French Quarter and the agony of the 9th Ward are bringing the challenge of a Lenten spirituality into greater focus for me this year partly because both are real, but also because both have claims on my heart. Two songs by U2 come to mind: “Vertigo” and “Please.” In U2 BY U2 Bono speaks of contemporary life as vertigo – it feels like a blur of drunken sensations that almost make you sick –and when you try to get some air all of a sudden you’re staring at some sexy girl with a crucifix around her neck – or maybe it is Satan – who whispers seductively: All of this… all of this can be yours if you just give me what I want no one will get hurt! Hello, Hello! Hola!I'm at a place called Vertigo (¿Dónde está?) [Where is it?]It's everything I wish I didn't know but you give me something I can feel! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5T0WLJpbdU&feature=related)
But it is not just out there – beyond us – it is also within and among us, too. “Please” puts it like this: So you never knew love until you crossed the line of grace - and you never felt wanted' til someone slapped your face - so you never felt alive until you'd almost wasted away - you had to win, you couldn't just pass, the smartest ass, at the top of the class - your flying colors, your family tree and all your lessons in history. Please... please... please... get up off your knees. Please... please... please...please... So you never knew how low you'd stoop to make that call - and you never knew what was on the ground until they made you crawl - so you never knew that the heaven you keep, you stole! Your catholic blues, your convent shoes, your stick-on tattoos, now they're making the news, your holy war, your northern star, your sermon on the mount, from the boot of your car. Please... please... please... get up off your knees. Please-yeah... please... please... leave it out!?! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3INwn7zp7nQ)

I love the jazz of this city – we went back Monday night to listen to more – and it was a blessing. And we ate some more of the good Creole food and wandered through the beauty of some art galleries, too. But the naked pain so close by kept haunting me – and well it should! No matter that the city has existed for centuries within this tension. Sure, it is where black, white, red and brown have lived, worked and played together in relative peace for generations – indeed, it was the city where all the major whore houses were registered and published for “the sporting life” tourists of the day with the acceptance and blessing of the city fathers and mothers – and it was a haven for bohemian artists like Faulkner and Capote and the birthplace of jazz. Beyond a doubt, New Orleans embraces paradox – and I think it is even fair to say that the events before, during and after Katrina simply exposed the complexities of these paradoxes – but they come with a price.

Which leads me to Job who, after ranting at the One who is Holy about the cost of being faithful, is answered from out of the whirlwind: “Where you there when I laid out the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began…?” (Job 38-41) In other words, do you have any idea what the vision of the Lord encompasses? It is complex - paradoxical - and spans life and death, justice and shame, joy and despair and everything in between. To which Job, humbled by his mystical encounter can only say: “Before I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know… but now my eye sees… and I shall repent.” Before it was all in my head; now that it is a part of my life everything is different.

There is enough blame, shame and pain to go around in New Orleans – no one has clean hands – so what strikes me as a blessing this Lent is the simple fact that healing can happen in a broken place. Everywhere we went, when shop owners or people in the grocery store found out we were down for a week from Massachusetts to work on rebuilding some houses with Habitat for Humanity, everyone said: “Thank you… you are a sign of hope for us.” It was humbling and joyful – ugly and sad – complicated and very, very simple all at the same time this work of reconciliation and compassion. It was “Vertigo” with the plea to “get up off my knees” and own what it is like to have to crawl. In one of my readings for this Lenten sojourn I came across these words from Thomas Merton: "The Christian must not only accept suffering: he/she must make it holy. Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration."

Rather, Lent is a journey into the beautiful mystery of compassionate solidarity with those in the most ordinary and broken places; it is the commitment to discern the living presence of Christ within and among us; and it rests on the faith that sharing by all means scarcity for none. Frankly, it would have been easier to have stayed home and sometimes when my hands ached from driving nails or carrying wood - or simply being baked by the New Orleans sun - I really wanted to be home. And yet today I return thanks for those who helped me go into the places I would rather not go and meet my God. Like Jesus told his old friend, Peter, after the shame of the cross: “Brother, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt around yourself and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will lead you to where you do not wish to go… so come: follow me!” (John 21) "Please, Lord, get me OFF my knees!"

(Thanks to Di for the pictures!)


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