Thursday, August 31, 2006
Heaven Help You (Because Nobody Down Here Will)
I'd love to find the most sensitive and articulate way to broach this subject, being that it's one that has the unique and inherent ability to get me called all kinds of not-very-nice names. I have a feeling though, that as with all discussions of this particular topic, there will be no avoiding a certain amount of disastrous misunderstanding and bitter rebuttal.
Oh well -- whatever.
Now that a week's worth of media genuflection is coming to a close in honor of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (not to be confused with the week's worth of media hand-wringing in the wake of the John Mark Karr fiasco), I'm left to ponder a couple of questions. They're questions not so much about the coverage as about the people being covered; those whose lives were so hideously affected by Katrina, and those who have -- through obligation or a simple desire to do good -- taken it upon themselves to help the desperate and needy. I would never dare insult anyone willing to step forward with a helping hand in a time of need, but for some reason there is one inarguable curiosity which has made itself clear in the aftermath of this massive storm which deserves a closer examination, or at the very least a raised eyebrow or two.
Obviously, Katrina shined a very bright light on the disparity of treatment between rich and poor in this country -- moreso I believe than simply black and white. Yet the racial makeup of those affected is playing a major part in just who's helping in the rebuilding effort, how they're helping, and why.
Eariler in the week, I watched an interview with Bruce Gordon, the president of the NAACP, as he rightly bemoaned the lack of governmental support for the reconstruction effort in New Orleans's devastated Lower 9th Ward. As he walked through a neighborhood that looked frighteningly like pictures of Hiroshima in the days after the bomb was dropped, he spoke of the need for others to take up the mantle of responsibility for putting the pieces back together again. Mentioned in the first few words out of his mouth: the church.
So perhaps, putting all the verbosity aside, my question is as simple as this: why do Black Americans -- especially the underprivileged -- seem to consistently turn to the church for help in solving their problems?
You might be tempted at this point to open that thesaurus and begin looking for as many synonyms for "asshole" as you can find to pepper your comment with, but please understand that this observation doesn't come from upper-class whitey, sitting on-high, rebuking all the little people and their immature ways; it's a legitimate question which I've wondered about for quite some time.
Years ago, when I was a producer at a Miami television station, there was a local boy who became somewhat of a cause celebre. I can't remember his name for the life of me, but his actions are rather unforgettable: by the ripe old age of eleven, he had a rap sheet taller than he was -- a fact which our reporters and others in the market delighted in pointing out, then parroting ad nauseum. The boy -- who happened to be black -- was pretty much on his way to juvenile detention, then inevitably to jail for life -- until someone stepped in to take him under his wing and hopefully show him another way. That man was Jesus. Well, not Jesus himself -- but Jesus acting through a local pastor who made a special arrangement with the police and the courts to take young what's-his-name out of the system and into the arms of the church.
For weeks we followed the boy's progress. We watched the church group -- dressed in their Sunday best -- sing hymns to the Lord to thank him for delivering the soul of the young sinner and putting him on the path to righteousness. We watched that pastor, looking not entirely unlike the laughably over-zealous bible-thumping character Arsenio Hall created in Coming to America, as he proudly showed off the new and improved young what's-his-name, and touted the transformational power of Jesus Christ.
We then watched as the kid stole a car and went right back to jail.
I remember thinking at the time that if I were a young boy with a potential to get into trouble (no snickers please), it would bug the hell out of me that the leaders of my community -- its most powerful citizens -- weren't people who could give me life lessons grounded in the real world: doctors, lawyers, judges, civic leaders (that is, civic leaders who weren't also church leaders).
If I were that boy, the message you'd be sending me by surrounding me with pastors and their flock is simple: only God can help you kid.
It was a questionable enough solution for one misguided boy; it borders on incomprehensible for an entire community.
I don't doubt the church's ability -- nor do I cast derision upon its willingness -- to play a charitable role in the lives of millions in need. What I have an issue with is the black community's seeming insistence on laying a substantial part of the burden in any crisis squarely at the feet of Jesus Christ.
Once again, the message this sends is obvious: everyone else has abandoned you -- so you have to now put your ass in the hands of a being you can't see or hear, cross your fingers, say a prayer, and have faith that things will turn out okay. Praise Jesus.
A caveat of this, I hinted at before: it seems a prerequisite that to become a civic leader in the black community, one must at least be religious, and at most be an ordained pastor or minister of some kind.
It goes without saying that government was sleeping on the job and fully relenquished its post in the days leading up to, during, and following Hurricane Katrina. It let an entire city down; it let an entire city drown. In the absence of tangible, real-world help -- a reliance on myth and superstition is bound to flourish.
The message to the community though is unfortunate.
It'll take much more than faith to help the people of the Gulf.