On the Eve of Katrinaversary, 2014

August 28, 2014.

 

Tonight I will light candles.

I can’t light one for each of the deceased, and certainly not each of the displaced.

But I will light one for each of those groups,

for those who never came home.

For many, they have faded from consciousness.

But I must remember them.

And I will light one for my city,

my second home that sat in suspense

nine years ago tonight,

as the winds picked up

and the rains came harder,

holding its collective breath in the darkness

as those who had stayed prayed by candlelight in their powerless houses,

and those who had left tried vainly to sleep,

and failing that, sat glued to the TV, waiting.

 

I was one of the latter.

 

So I will light another candle for that memory,

for that early morning spent restless on my mother’s couch in Houston,

keeping the volume low as not to wake her or my fellow evacuee,

watching Anderson Cooper in his yellow raincoat

his perfect hair ruffling in the building storm

as the rains formed torrents around him

and street signs flew past

and trees lost their roots…

I watched.  And waited.  

And as the sun reached mid-morning in a cloudless Texas sky,

it started to peek out on the screen in front of me.  

Back home looked a little battered and beaten,

but all in all, not irreparable.  

The doomsayers’ predictions, it seemed, had been wrong.  

Relieved, I finally slept, thinking I would drive home in the morning,

help with the cleanup,

go back to work,

get back to my life.

 

But when I woke later that day,

I learned otherwise.

The sun was still out — but the waters were rising.  

Aerial views:

The muddy city filling up like a bowl,

full of river and salt water

like the streams from the eyes

of those of us who sat transfixed, helpless in our dry refuges, disbelieving what was before us,

and those at home who were climbing their stairs,

then their furniture,

then cutting through their ceilings,

then their roofs,

waiting and praying for help that, for some, never came,

and for many, came too late

for them to believe that they were cared for.

 

I will light a candle for the memory

of shock

of fear

of the unreal becoming brutally real

worse than the most twisted fiction

as it unfolded in the days to come,

chaos crescendoing and madness mounting

as our city was left to drown

in a putrid swamp of racism and corruption,

left cold in the oppressively humid, sweltering summer,

Black babies dying

as their mothers’ angry cries for help went unanswered,

poor white folks with nothing but the shirts on their backs

believing the cruel lie that the remnants of their property were more at risk

from those people in the Dome who didn’t look like them

than the power-holders in their towers who did.

 

I will light a candle for the miles of washed-out houses

still overgrown with vines and red tape

nine years after their owners were lost

in either the waters

or the system that, despite our best efforts,

is still built to preserve power

and block progress.

 

I will light a candle, too,  

for those who have forgotten

that the storm did not end

on August 29, 2005,

and the flood did not recede

when the waters dried up that fall;

who will go about their evenings

with clear minds and hearts,

blessedly free

of what my body and many thousands of others

still remember tonight,

the night that we waited:

Tense shoulders.

Clenched jaws.

Tight lungs.

Knotted stomachs.

Eyes dry from sleep deprivation and too many tears.

Hearts and brains strung out on adrenaline overload.  

Too cold from the fear that constricted our blood vessels.

Too hot from the anger that welled up inside us.

And so, so weary

from these years

of recovering, rebuilding, rehashing, reviving, reliving, redoing, renewing, retraumatizing,

remembering,

remembering,

remembering,

remembering.

 

And tomorrow,

I will get up,

and I will say a prayer for the anniversary;

and as I feel the ink of my fleur-de-lis tattoo

burning in my forearm,

I will go out into the world

among those who have forgotten

and do my work

and go to dinner

and see a show

and live my life,

fully aware that these are privileges

that many have not received

and for which I must be grateful — never guilty.

For guilt is useless.  We each had our fates.

And I will use mine for greater good

and treasure all it has given me

by reverently living my life

tomorrow.

 

But tonight,

I will light candles.

 

— SLW

My Summer in New Orleans: Reflecting on the Journey

I am sitting at my favorite coffee shop in New Orleans. This city has an abundance of great coffee shops, and I enjoy many of them, but Fair Grinds is my favorite. It’s a perfect mix of funky, reasonably-priced, ethical, and quiet. Its mission as a hub of community organizing and a social justice entrepreneurship tugs at my little activist heartstrings.

I’m sitting here staring at my computer screen, noticing the background noises of grinding espresso and chuckling patrons, noting the soft sunlight resting on my tabletop and keyboard, letting the memories of the past 8 weeks flow through me. My assignment, due at midnight, is a final reflection paper on my experiences here. I’m supposed to be writing about how this summer practicum has affected my spiritual and intellectual growth, and discussing “particularly formative” experiences. I have notes and snippets, ideas and connections. These will form into a cohesive paper, if I can just start writing.

But I’ve experienced so much, I don’t know where to start.

Do I start with the obvious, jarring thing that happened just two weeks ago:  A herd of anti-abortion extremists invaded my church’s worship space, and through that experience, I lived my way into the pastoral role in a new and embodied way?

Do I start with the more subtle, mundane, but equally sacred experiences: The routine I developed, which was a balance of schedule and flow; the way I was invited into my internship space, and how I occupied that space in response; the minutia of my days in and out of the office?

Do I start with the concrete, task-oriented, perfunctory framework in which all of these things occurred:  A play-by-play of my initial orientation with Deanna, my internship supervisor, and the projects we laid out for my summer; how those projects actually played out as priorities shifted in the process; the meetings and trainings I attended or led, like the PISAB “Undoing Racism” workshop or a discussion of the Bennett Scale; the conversations I had with Deanna and my professor Ellen; the practicum seminars; etc.?

Do I start with the informal, even accidental experiences that ended up at least as formative as, if not more so than, the practicum itself:  the performance of Godspell I saw at First Grace UMC the night of orientation; the unsettling encounter, outside of the church setting, with a woman I’d met that day; the Justice and Beyond meeting I attended in Deanna’s stead that became the anchor point of my work here; the day I volunteered at a community kitchen driven by dignity; the coffee conversations with colleagues?

What about the personal experiences, unrelated to the “official” work I did but profoundly connected to the fact of my being here? Do those factor in? My personal story is intimately connected to my professional development, and I don’t think I can separate the two if I am to talk about my spiritual growth. I can no longer compartmentalize parts of my experience; in fact, I refuse to do so. Each area flows into the next; pluck on one strand of the spider’s web and the whole thing reverberates with that movement. This summer I laid old demons to rest. I wiped stained and grimy slates clean. I reopened and healed deep wounds and liberated myself from the bindings of their scar tissue. I amended old trespasses and laid new pathways for redemptive action and recovery. I made meaningful new friendships, strengthened some old ones, and quietly let go of others. And in the spaces between and through these, by phone and internet, a good friend and I laid the groundwork for a beautiful relationship that has great potential to keep growing deeper, richer, and longer-term. Surely all of this counts as “formative experiences” in my spiritual and intellectual growth? I know it will make me a better minister.

If there is a way to sum up my learning this summer, it is as follows:

Namaste, friends.

Steven


P.S. Thank you to everyone who has supported my work and learning this summer through my GoFundMe campaign. I am truly blessed to have such solidarity from my community. The page will remain up and accepting donations as I transition into my student ministry role back home.