Thursday, December 01, 2005

Letters to My Congressional Leaders

Recently an editorial in the Times-Picayune urged all who love New Orleans to write to Congress to remind our leaders of promises made to New Orleans in the past, and why investing in the rebuilding of New Orleans matters. Even more recently, Norman Francis, the president of my university, encouraged those affiliated with Xavier to do the same. In my Theology 1120 course, as part of an exercise to get my students to be active and educated participants in government, I have them write letters to their elected officials arguing for some change to improve the world. So out of fear of being called a hypocrite by former students, and to possibly influence my government, and to be a cathartic exercise, I spent most of today writing letters to Congress. I wrote to a few people whom I don't much respect, such as the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and the Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. I wrote to a few people whom I admire, such as Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, and John McCain. I wrote to my representatives in New Orleans, including my two senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, and my representative in the House for Louisiana's Second District William Jefferson. I also wrote to Bobby Jindal, the congressman for Lousiana's second district. What I want to share here is the letter that I wrote to Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who has a pretty good chance at being elected president in 2008.

Dear Senator Chuck Hagel,

By way of introduction, my name is Dr. Michael M. Homan, and professionally, I am an Assistant Professor of Theology at Xavier University of Louisiana, situated right in the heart of New Orleans. Because the wall of the poorly constructed 17th Street Canal failed shortly after Hurricane Katrina, my university was severely flooded, as were my house and hundreds of thousands more like it. Unlike many other families, thankfully everyone in my family, and even our pets, are safe and healthy. My wife Therese Fitzpatrick, a teacher of gifted students in the New Orleans Public Schools, lost her job the day the city flooded, as did all of the other teachers in the New Orleans Public School System. When we evacuated a week after the storm, my family and I came straight to Nebraska, as it is where we have family, and it is where Therese and I both had the privilege to grow up. Nebraska is also where we were educated, as we both graduated from Nebraska high schools and UNO. Now my children are in Omaha attending Sunset Hills Elementary School, the same school that I attended more than 30 years ago. And while we would love to stay here in the great state of Nebraska, and it would certainly make our lives simpler, we believe that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is essential to the welfare of this country and the world. So Senator Hagel, I'm hoping that you will take a few minutes to read this letter, and my goal is to convey to you, a fellow proud Nebraskan, just how important it is for Congress to help in getting the great city of New Orleans, and Xavier University, back on their feet again.

My family and I moved to New Orleans just five years ago, but from the beginning we felt a special affinity for the place. It's history, cuisine, architecture, and especially the music all combined into a cultural gumbo that appealed deeply to me. In many ways being in New Orleans was like traveling backwards in time. New Orleans, unlike many cities, kept its historic neighborhoods intact, and resisted the trends towards cultural uniformity that currently plague this country. I'm not sure if you've ever had the privilege to visit New Orleans, but it is such a unique environment. The people there are genuine, honest, moral, and possess healthy appetites for good food and entertainment. They are very much like the people of Nebraska in those regards. New Orleans is also worth saving purely on an economic basis. I've read that 2/3 of the fuel in this country travels through our city in some form. I also feel that much of what happened to New Orleans wasn't purely due to inept local politicians. The damning of the Mississippi River played a key role in the flooding of New Orleans, as the river used to flood and leave silt deposits in wetlands and barrier islands that are now gone, making the city more vulnerable. We were promised by national engineers that our city could withstand a Category 3 hurricane. That wasn't true. I remember after the actual hurricane winds subsided being outside on my street talking with neighbors about how we dodged a bullet. But then the waters steadily rose over the next 24 hours until the brackish toxic water was 8 feet deep on my street, and it stayed there for nearly two weeks.

But more than just the city, the university where I work is vitally important to the world. Xavier is unique for many reasons, most notably that it is the only Historically Black University that is also Catholic, as we were founded by Saint Katherine Drexel. Xavier's mission is important to all of us who work there. The university's mission statement reads as follows:
Xavier University of Louisiana is Catholic and historically Black. The ultimate purpose of the University is the promotion of a more just and humane society. To this end, Xavier prepares its students to assume roles of leadership and service in society. This preparation takes place in a pluralistic teaching and learning environment that incorporates all relevant educational means, including research and community service.

In my opinion, this country needs places like Xavier, where the ultimate purpose isn't profit driven, but altruistic. At the end of October, 30% of the faculty were laid off. These were some of the most talented and committed teachers I'd ever seen, and many of them had tenure. We are trying to open again in January, but we desperately need Congress to help in at least two ways. We need to be sure that the city's levies can withstand at the very least another Category 3 storm, and we need financial assistance for the long road to recovery. I think it is very important.

Thank you so much for your time, Senator Hagel, and I hope that you will keep us, the residents of New Orleans, as well as the entire Gulf Region damaged by this year's hurricanes, in your thoughts, prayers, and also in your legislation. We very much need your help. Our future depends on you. And if you ever feel like coming south for Mardi Gras, Jazzfest, to visit Xavier, or for any other reason, please give me a call. I would love to show you some of my favorite places.

Sincerely,
Michael M. Homan

**Later note: when you contact these representatives you have to fill out an online form. They force you to choose a topic for your message. Outside of Louisiana, and of the approximately 30 people I wrote today, only Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona had Hurricane Katrina (or something similar) listed as a topic. For the others, I had to choose things like Homeland Security or Environment. I think this shows again that New Orleans can't expect help from the federal government. However, things like flu shots, capital punishment, gun control, and Court Appointees were categories on just about everyone's autoforms. Why won't our government help us?

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