by Stephen Kriss, Director of Communication and Leadership Cultivation
In July I traveled with a group of four Eastern Mennonite Seminary students to bear witness to Mennonite Central Committee’s ministry of presence in New Orleans, now nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks that have reshaped the city.
Pam Nath, formerly a professor at Bluffton (Ohio) University, has served as MCC Central States representative in New Orleans since this more recent initiative began, building upon a generation of MCC presence that had a brief hiatus in the years before the storm.
Nath graciously opened her network of relationships with locals working toward justice and hope in this complex process of rebuilding a city.
New Orleans is a distinct place in the American soul and landscape, reflecting earlier French and Spanish rule. It’s unique in architecture, geography and racial-ethnic mix.
Before arriving, we tried to acquaint ourselves with the city’s history. We learned about the immigrant groups who built the city. More recent waves of Vietnamese found it to feel a lot like the Mekong Delta.
We glimpsed stories of slave trade and the city’s ruthless marketplace that separated families. At the same time, the Code Noir devised by the French was considered a “kinder, gentler form of slavery.” The city is full of complexity, complicity, and contradiction.
We watched Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and readily carried the visuals of thousands of people stranded at the Superdome, others marooned in their attics as flood waters rose. Locals were quick to point out it wasn’t the storm that nearly destroyed the city. Instead, levees and seawalls failed in dozens of locations, allowing water to pour into low-lying neighborhoods, flooding up to 80 percent of the city.
Listening to storm survivor stories is tough, recognizing this part-natural and part-human catastrophe. But far more agonizing were the ongoing stories of racial aggression and the contempt evident in patterns of civic behavior that undermine the flourishing of the city’s black majority population. One student said she frequently wanted to scream as we listened. The stories were so consistent, so prevalent, that many we spoke to had come to best understand the situation as a combination of storming and conspiring forces with seemingly faceless people dictating maneuvers.
The listening was exhausting. We came to recognize patterns of trauma in those we encountered.
I’ve traveled further to listen to people tell the difficult stories of oppression and conspiring forces before.
But these New Orleans stories were as intense and difficult as I’ve heard from anywhere in the world. In some ways, the listening was more disconcerting because we were still in the U.S.
Hard listening in New Orleans made us all wonder where those hidden stories might be closer to home.
We wondered whether we were missing similar struggles next door or down the block. My guess is that we are.
I wonder what it would take to have the kind of courage, time prioritization, and wherewithal to find them out and to bear witness more regularly with the neighbors near at hand. My guess is that hearing even closer to home will be even more difficult.
I suspect, uncomfortably, that in not listening and not knowing, we become silent conspirators for those under the heavy weight of ongoing struggle.
This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review. Reposted with permission.