Sunday, September 04, 2005

Were You There?

An old Black spiritual runs: "Were you there when they crucified the Lord?" A lot of people are asking the wealthy vacationing politicians: "Were you there in New Orleans when Katrina wiped it out?" The president was quoted as saying that he wished to be "thoughtful and sensitive" to the suffering and dying refugees, but that he also had his own life to live. That's why he continued his vacation instead of immediately responding to the crisis. All that the poor and displaced had were their own lives to lose. The disaster relief was terribly bungled by those entrusted with the protection of the American people, as the many floating corpses mutely testify. The government also knew well in advance what dangers threatened that area, but did nothing in the way of prevention .

Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked why so many people died in natural disasters in Third World countries, and so few in First World countries. She said, because they are ready, unlike those in the rich countries. Their souls are already close to God; they'll go to Him when they die. We're going to see a very high death toll in the Gulf Coast disaster. Perhaps it is because the dead, mostly poor and elderly people of faith, are among those ready to meet their Lord. No politicians are dying there; God is giving them a little more time to repent.

New Orleans has become a big toxic toilet bowl, and some people are wondering if it is worth even trying to rebuild it. Perhaps many of the refugees will end up with a better life elsewhere, and hopefully the dead are already living a better life. The one fortunate thing is that the raging hurricane has brought the wrath of God upon the myriad brothels, casinos, and other houses of sin that blanketed the area, so in a spiritual sense, the place has actually been cleansed. The disaster also has, as disasters often do, brought out the best and the worst in human nature, as we see rage, looting, and violence side by side with compassion, selfless labors and tireless loving care for the helpless and disabled. I just wrote yesterday about the joy and the music in creation. It may be hard to hear it in such circumstances, but knowing that it's still there means that tragedy and unremitting sufferings are not the last word on life. The cross can only be endured in the light of the resurrection. The hope that the deeper mystery of life is the all-sustaining love of God is something that must be held on to, lest we despair.

So what are we to do? One commentator noticed that most people are just waiting for gas prices to go down, and for the end of whatever economic fallout there might be from the hurricane, so they can get on with their lives -- just like the president. But what kind of lives are we getting on with? We must expect that disasters like this (and worse) are going to continue to happen, and one day it will not be to "them" but to us. We're not used to this, but we're going to have to be. One major relief organization stated that they usually serve the Third World countries, but hurricane Katrina has brought Third World conditions to the Gulf Coast. Think of it: millions of people live in those conditions all the time. We have to learn to look at life more from a spiritual than an economic perspective. We have to discipline ourselves to be ready to endure, and ready to help those who are unable to endure, whatever life sends. We have to be among the poor of spirit who are always ready to meet their Lord. It's clear that we cannot rely on the government and politicians to look after our best interests, when they are so shamefully caught up in their own.

Were you there? Most of us weren't, neither on Calvary nor in New Orleans, nor on the many Calvaries across the war- disease- and poverty-torn world. But we can pray, we can give alms, we can be available to help in whatever way we are able. We can carry our own crosses with patience and trust, counting our blessings but not the cost of giving ourselves in service of others. The real heroes in these troubled times are those who go out of their way to help those in need, for whatever we do for the least of Jesus' brethren, we do for Him.