Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten Years After

The Biloxi Bridge after Katrina

In 2005, my father (83 at the time) was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the Villa Maria Retirement Apartments:  a low-income senior building, a concrete high rise, that was four blocks from the water and one of the tallest things in town. He lived on the top floor, with a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast and its casinos, which often shot off fireworks on Friday nights. Villa Maria was a mile, maybe less, from the U.S. 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. He adored living there. He’d been even happier living on his sailboat in Biloxi, but health concerns had forced him off the boat and into an apartment. He’d had quadruple bypass in 2001, and in 2005 he often used a wheelchair and was also on a feeding tube -- which he hated; the man loved his food and especially his drink -- because of swallowing problems after a stroke.

I don’t clearly remember the sequence of events leading up to Katrina. We were all concerned about the storm, but Dad’s building wasn’t under mandatory evacuation orders, and he had no plans to leave. I remember at some point hearing that storm damage hadn’t been that bad and being relieved. We weren’t yet worried about not being able to reach Dad; we weren’t surprised phones were down. Then, on Monday morning, my sister called me and said, “Susan, New Orleans is flooding. The levees broke.”

My father was ninety miles from New Orleans, but reports from the Mississippi Gulf Coast were grim, too. That bridge I mentioned?  It’s the one everyone saw on the news, the one reduced to rubble by the storm. What were the odds that Villa Maria, so nearby and with such a high profile, hadn’t also been demolished?  “He has to be dead,” my sister said. “I just hope it was quick.”

We started a frenzied search for information. There was no getting through to anyone in Ocean Springs, but I found an online bulletin board where relatives and friends of people who lived in the Villa Maria were posting queries and sharing whatever they’d heard. No one had heard much.

Then, on Wednesday, a friend of Dad’s drove by the Villa Maria, saw people there, and realized that the building hadn’t been evacuated, as he’d assumed. He raced up to my father’s apartment, handed Dad his cellphone, and said, “Call your daughters. They’re going to be frantic.”

Dad called my sister. She heard his voice and started crying.

To hear him tell it, the storm had been a jolly romp. “They told us to go down to the lobby, so I went down there in my wheelchair with my mattress and my pillow and my Ensure and a bottle of vodka, and I poured Ensure and vodka through my feeding tube, and I was fine!” Whatever gets you through the night, Dad. Remarkably, the Villa Maria had suffered only minor roof damage, perhaps because the strongest winds had flowed around it rather than hitting it head-on. Dad was back in his apartment within a day.

We were very lucky. Millions of other people weren’t.

I flew down to Ocean Springs for Thanksgiving that year. Ocean Springs itself had been largely spared, although all of the beautiful old trees had trash in their topmost branches: clothing, children’s toys, kitchen utensils. Dad and I went for a drive along U.S. 90, the road to New Orleans, taking a long detour around the ruined bridge. Before the storm, the road had been lined with floating casinos on one side and antebellum mansions, surrounded by venerable trees, on the others. All gone. We drove through a moonscape littered with unidentifiable sticks and scraps.  A few staircases rose alone into the air for a few feet. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to tell that the area had ever been populated.

Our drive back to the Villa Maria was very quiet.

Everyone I talked to in Ocean Springs had a Katrina story. Almost everyone knew somebody who had died; many people had harrowing evacuation stories. No one had anything good to say about FEMA. No one had anything bad to say about the National Guard, hailed as heroes and saviors. One woman told me she’d complained to a Guardsman about the Meals Ready to Eat that everyone had been given. “It’s too much food! I can’t eat all that!”

“Ma’am,” the Guardsman said, “MREs are designed for the nutritional needs of soldiers in combat. You’re sitting in your living room reading a book.”

My favorite National Guard story came from Dad’s friend Darlene, who taught art at a local at-risk school where most of the students were black and very poor. The Friday before the storm hit, she’d gotten her classroom ready for the beginning of school the following week. She’d cleaned, put up student artwork from the previous year to inspire her new pupils, and left a to-do list on the corner of her desk. 

School didn’t start the following week. Darlene learned that her school was being used to billet National Guard troops, and assumed that the place would be a shambles. As soon as she could drive safely again, she went to the school and asked if she could visit her classroom. Yes, of course she could.

The room was pristine. The to-do list was still where it had been on her desk, and the Guardsmen had used the blackboard to leave notes for the children, telling them how beautiful their artwork was. I’m not sure if Darlene cried when she told me this story, but I cried when I heard it, and I’m crying now, typing it.  

The Villa Maria instituted a new policy that in the event of a hurricane, all residents would have to evacuate and wouldn’t be able to return to the building until any repairs were completed. Because evacuation wouldn’t have been feasible for him, Dad decided to leave his beloved Gulf Coast. In 2006, he moved to live near my sister in Philadelphia. On his birthday that year, he sent me $300 and asked me to research Katrina charities and send the money to the ones I considered worthiest. In 2008, he moved to Reno to be near me and Gary. He died in 2009. He wasn’t technically one of the displaced because he left shelter that was still habitable, and he didn’t apply for or receive FEMA money, but there’s no doubt that he was part of the larger Katrina diaspora. He was never as happy as he’d been on the Gulf Coast. (After he died, our plans to scatter his ashes in the Gulf were defeated by another disaster, the BP oil spill. I was glad he wasn’t alive to see that; it would have left him sickened and despairing.)

Meanwhile, in 2006, my novel The Necessary Beggar won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and I flew down to New Orleans to accept the award -- one of ten given to adult books with YA crossover appeal -- at the ALA convention. We were the first convention to meet there after Katrina, in the infamous convention center which had gotten so much press, and which was now as bland and antiseptic as most facilities of that sort. On the shuttle ride from the airport, my driver pointed out storm damage, implored us to spend as much money as we could in the city, and thanked us fervently for coming.

Everyone thanked us for coming. Shop windows displayed signs: “We love you ALA.” The city was desperate for business. Many people at the convention took storm tours of the hardest hit parts of the city; I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could bear it, but I wandered through shops, searching for anything I wanted to buy, fighting my guilt when I found only a bracelet, a Katrina memorial t-shirt, and a souvenir voodoo doll for Gary.  

For several years after the storm, I occasionally met Katrina survivors in the ER. One patient told me he was from Biloxi, and we had a long, lively conversation. “Sure I know the Villa Maria! You can see that building for miles. I’m so glad your dad was okay.” Although we’d never met before, and although I’d never actually lived in those communities, it felt like a family reunion. The patient had gone through, was going through, agonies I'd been spared; even so, both of us understood things that other people around us didn't.  

My family was very lucky. My father was in the right place in the right circumstances; even with limited income and mobility, he was less poor and had more options than many of the people (black and terrifyingly poor, left without any money because the storm hit at the end of the month) who died when the New Orleans levees broke. We were grateful for our privileges and enraged on behalf of those who didn’t share them. We mourned those who had died and gave thanks for those who hadn’t.  

I live in the desert, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast. I know some people might challenge my belief that Katrina is part of my history, too. I’m white and affluent; I wasn’t there; the person I loved who was there made it through largely unscathed. Other people lost and suffered so much more. But I’ll always feel a connection to that terrible time, and I’ll never hear a hurricane forecast without thinking about Katrina.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Contaminated by Christ

Here's tomorrow's homily.  The Gospel is John 6:51-58.


Here we are, almost at the end of what I like to call the bread line: the five-Sunday series of Jesus’ proclamations about being the Bread of Life. Last week, Kirk told us that Jesus is the opposite of boring, nutrition-free white bread. Jesus is yummy. Jesus is chewy. Next week, we’ll hear how deeply offensive many of Jesus’ listeners found this part of his teaching, so much so that many of them, unable to accept it, walked away. This week, we’re in the middle, somewhere between fighting off boredom and being scandalized.

Many of you may indeed be bored with bread by now, and we’re beginning to see the beginnings of distaste in the surrounding crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Cannibalism was no more acceptable in the first century than it is now; Jewish dietary mores forbade it as firmly as everyday ethics do today. Jesus, as usual, was violating all the purity codes that allowed the religious elite of his day to feel safe, secure, and smug in their own good behavior. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Even if you interpret this symbolically instead of literally -- and Christians are all over the map on where they draw that line -- this is, well, startling. Even if it’s not disgusting, it’s weird.  

Jesus’ first-century followers weren’t the only ones to recoil. I know people who’ve left the church because thinking too hard about what communion was really supposed to be made them sick to their stomachs. Those of us who stay may still be cautious about how we take the Eucharist. Many of us, me included, intinct rather than sipping from the common cup, even though chalice bearers are trained to wipe the rim of the chalice and rotate the cup so that the next person in line won’t come into contact with the previous person’s germs.

The question is where we draw the line between communion -- where two different entities merge lovingly into one -- and contamination, where one entity infects and pollutes the other. Many in that first-century crowd were worried about contamination, about both spiritual and physical illness. Ever since then, contamination has been communion’s shadow.

In the earliest days of the church, when Christians were still actively persecuted, clergy took communion before everyone else, so that they would be the ones arrested if any spies were watching the service. That changed during the AIDS era, when many clergy began taking communion after everyone else had partaken, as a way of showing that they were not afraid of catching anything from the common meal.

Years ago, I read a book called Whitebread Protestants, a social history of food in American mainline churches, and learned how deeply the fear of all kinds of contamination has shaped Eucharistic practice. Welch’s grape juice was invented as an alternative to communion wine because temperance crusaders feared the physical and moral dangers of alcohol. The practice of intinction – dipping rather than sipping -- as well as the tiny, individual plastic cups used in some Christian services, all sprang up as a response to fear of germs.

One of Jesus’ missions on Earth was to dismantle purity laws. We’ve been busy rebuilding them ever since.

I don’t mean to minimize health concerns. Alcoholism is a real and terrible condition, and it’s why many Episcopal churches offer a non-alcoholic chalice, or emphasize that the bread alone is sufficient to make us part of the Body of Christ. Wheat disagrees with many of us, which is why St. Paul’s offers a non-gluten option. Germs are real. No one wants to give a neighbor -- or get from a neighbor -- a cold or the flu, let alone anything even more serious.

But even as we maintain our emphasis on health, I think we need to remember that hygiene often masks a fear of difference. Contamination is the card many of us play when we’re scared of communion, afraid that merging lovingly with other people will force us into contact with what we’d rather not face.

Back in 2000 or 2001, St. Stephen’s, the church I was attending then, became a host congregation for Family Promise. I believe St. Paul’s participated, too. For those of you who weren’t here then, Family Promise was an outreach ministry to homeless families, parents and children. Up to four families at a time, fourteen people, were housed for a week at a time in church or temple buildings. Sunday School classrooms were converted into bedrooms; volunteers supplied meals and donated bedding. Because many faith communities took part, each congregation only had to host every three or four months. During the day, children went to school and parents went to work or to a Day Center, where a social worker helped them locate jobs and apply for low-income housing. The goal was to get these families off the streets, and it worked. The program has, sadly, since closed in this area, but it’s still active nationally.

Some people at St. Stephen’s thought Family Promise sounded like a wonderful ministry. But when we had a parish meeting to discuss the issue, the room filled with fear. Let those people stay in our classrooms, where our children spent time every Sunday? The social worker explained that the families were thoroughly screened for medical problems -- no germs; for addiction -- no drugs; and for legal issues -- no crime.

Lice. What about lice? Were the families checked for lice? Our children would surely get lice from those children. Well, no, said the social worker, there was no specific screening for lice, but if lice did appear -- which was most likely to happen at the schools the parish’s children were already attending -- they’d be dealt with.

Lice! The homeless families instantly transformed into a parade of giant, two-legged lice traipsing into our parish hall and Sunday School rooms, infecting everything in sight.

Somehow, we voted to become a host congregation anyway. The families came. We never saw a single louse. We saw a single father supporting four children, including a newborn, while his wife was hospitalized. We saw a single mother with a broken arm who’d been living in a van with her month-old baby before finding the program. We saw two-parent families, each parent working two or three jobs, struggling to get back on their feet after medical and financial disaster.  We saw kids of all ages: kids doing homework and watching movies and having fun in our playground and looking forward to dinner. We ate with the families, asked how their days had gone, rejoiced when they shared good news. They’d found an apartment. Someone was starting a new job. A child had gotten an A on a spelling test.

The program was as life-changing for volunteers as for the families themselves. Many of the people who’d been terrified of lice at the beginning grew to cherish their time with these parents and children. “They’re just like us.” The fear of contamination had given way to communion.  Fear itself had been the most dangerous infection we faced, and by the will of God -- and the faces of new neighbors breaking bread together -- it had been overcome.

I came to believe that the initial fear was, in fact, the fear of similarity.  The homeless weren’t that different from the housed. Anyone’s family, after a layoff or medical emergency, might become homeless too. Facing that reality is terrifying. But volunteering with the program also showed us that if that happened, loving neighbors would be on hand to help.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus says. Wherever we draw the line between the symbolic and the literal in this statement, let us remember that we are called to be one body: infected with the love of God and each other, contaminated by Christ, spreading the dangerous desire to heal the world.

Take. Eat. Begin.