We find ourselves wedged between twin tragedies this week. The wound of Katrina is still fresh and bleeding. Order is slowly beginning to appear out of the chaos, but painfully slow. The grisly business of counting up the dead is the most recent piece of the storm’s destruction.
Also the anniversary of Sept. 11 is upon us. Just four years ago thousands perished in a cruel and heartless act of terrorism. The image of planes smashing into buildings will forever be burned into the memory of this generation.
The two events reveal a critical truth—if we are to survive as a nation we must find a way to create and sustain a genuine sense of community. There are things that only a community can provide–good and necessary things that everyone needs. And it takes all of us working together to make sure those things are in place. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done.
Not because we are hard-hearted people—just the opposite is true. Even now millions of dollars are making their way to evacuees housed in shelters and homes across the country. School children are being assimilated into public schools so they won’t get behind. And plans are already being laid for new homes to be built for those who have lost everything.
We’re good with big tragedies, the trouble we have is seeing daily slow motion tragedies. There are millions of folks in our country who live in desperate poverty; about 20 percent of them are children. Long before Katrina struck there were families in America sleeping in shelters.
Critics will say that the homeless who were homeless before the storm and those who are homeless because of the storm are all victims of their own bad decisions. And there may be some truth to that. Clearly some folks refused to leave because they thought they could ride out the storm. But that doesn’t account for everyone. Many people did not leave because they had no way to leave and no place to go. The poorest of the poor are victims of the failure of community.
It’s not that we don’t know how to do it. On Sept. 11 hundreds of fire fighters and police officers demonstrated unbelievable courage trying to save people they did not even know. And the same can be said for the hundreds of volunteers and military and law enforcement people still at work all along the Gulf Coast. Their heroism is a monument to a sense of community that transcends any mere job description.
We know what to do, we just don’t do it. We expect folks to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. And that’s fine if you have boots. But not everyone does. Sometimes the boots are lost in nature’s storms that rip through neighborhoods, sometimes they are worn out by the daily grind of despair and hopelessness.
There is poverty, real poverty in our midst. If we want to, we can do something about it—but it will take a whole community to get it done. Let us pray on this anniversary of Sept. 11 that the sense of national unity that emerged after that tragedy, and the wave of compassion at work now in the aftermath of Katrina, will combine to create a new vision of what national greatness really looks like. In a truly great nation, no one should ever be left out in the storm.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn, Ala.