September 06, 2005

The Secret is Out!

And now, a word from my good friend, Rev. Tillet:

Underneath the glittering statistics about “American wealth” there has always been the reality of the bare subsistence of the “have nots.” The fact that only one percent of US citizens control over eighty five percent of her wealth has always been shocking but distant statistical information. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has made that huge imbalance a reality for the entire world to see.

Now the secret is out that despite all of its pretensions of wealth and a fair and open society, a significant percentage of our fellow citizens have been living a third world reality for some time and were only one disaster away from being destitute, desperate and dangerous. The reality that many of our fellow citizens have been living just above squalor for years has been either the best kept secret or the most ignored reality of our economic “boom time” expansion. And now something as basic as the lack of resources to avoid an approaching Category Five hurricane has brought it all to light. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the option to grab their credit cards and hop into their cars or onto a plane to flee the coming storm. As a result, the “least, the last and the lost” are all that remains of a once proud city, and Hurricane Katrina has laid the lie of American opulence bare.

The key question now is: what will our nation do about it? Will she be satisfied to apply a flimsy bandage to a gaping wound and then rebuild the tenement-quality living for her own third world citizenry? Or, worst still, will she follow her historical commerce-first penchant and use this as an opportunity, to commandeer the abandoned land and turn it into high priced condominiums and office buildings? This is the time for the nation to correct a systemic wrong that continues to afflict the descendants of America’s shameful legacy of chattel slavery. Unfortunately, the history and legacy of this nation has always been about commerce before community and profits before people. The chickens have come home to roost. And lest we regard this as a unique or isolated incident, there are countless other urban and rural areas in the nation that are one disaster away from a similar level of suffering, neglect and anarchy.

In spite of our flowery pronouncements, the laws on the books and Amendments to the US Constitution, the shameful legacy of Jim Crow Apartheid in America is always with us and we have nowhere to hide or to hide the problem! And now that the secret is out, the recourse seems to be to blame the victim. One need only surf on the Web to find pictures of hurricane survivors with vastly different, yet telling captions. In two photos with people wading in waist-deep water we read that the African American person was carrying what he had “looted” from a store (who “loots” diapers and water, anyway?) while the white couple was carrying food that they had “found.” Say what? The offending photos and captions have since been removed, but the underlying and constant racist messages they relay remains. I doubt that if a majority of the hurricane victims were white they would be referred to in third-world terminology as “refugees.” I’m sure they would then be proudly referred to as “hurricane survivors.” And human nature being what it is, let any group of people be forced to wade around in putrid, contaminated water with no food, water or relief and anarchy will ensue, whether they are in New Orleans or Kennebunkport, Maine.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a disaster bearing down on you and yet to have no viable option or means to escape it. Most people did not remain in their homes because they wanted to. They remained because they could not afford to leave. The continuing legacy of Apartheid America creates and sustains people who are too poor to leave yet are the most ill equipped to stay. An article written in my own local Annapolis newspaper, The Capital, by a native of Louisiana who is returning home to assist his family, referred to the situation in New Orleans as what happens when “the best” depart a city and leave it to “the worst.” I never knew that being born poor or in challenged family circumstances made one “the worst.” Conversely then, it would seem that living on the wealth built upon the suffering and sweat of people stolen from their native land and abused and neglected for centuries and then left to rot in urban ghettos makes one “the best.” That is curious and dubious logic.

When Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (Mark 14:7) he wasn’t saying that it was acceptable for people to be poor. He was saying that unless human beings learn how to overcome their sinful disposition to be selfish, arrogant and greedy, the victims of those sinful attitudes and actions would always be poor and would always be among us. I think Proverbs 28:13 gives us the direction we need to take to move to a new level of community and mutual accountability. It says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” Until our entire nation understands that it has committed crimes against humanity – its own citizens, no less – and confesses and seeks forgiveness and makes restitution for those sins, we will continue to remain stuck in a moral quicksand of our own making. There’s no need for further obfuscation, blaming the victim or cover up. The secret is already out. The next step is up to you…and God (and the world) will be watching.

Prepared by Pastor Stephen Andrew Tillett
Of the Asbury Broadneck UM Church, Annapolis MD

I recently read that some of the evacuees didn't want to leave because they were afraid they would have to pay for the helicopter ride out of harm's way.

I think that about says it all.

[UPDATE] when I last spoke to Rev. Tillet, he was organizing a bus trip down to the Mississippi Delta. In talking with my mother this weekend, she told me that he'd collected roughly 4 truckloads of clothes, canned goods, & the like to distribute among the afflicted. I believe they're on their way down there now. If you'd like more information, or, if you're near Annapolis and would like to contribute or even join them for the trip, try contacting him at his church.
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