Thursday, September 22, 2005

If I Forget You, O New Orleans

I wrote the following article for the SBL Forum. SBL stands for the Society of Biblical Literature. Thanks to my new friend Leonard Greenspoon who edits this online journal.

"If I Forget You, O New Orleans" . . . Hurricane Katrina And My Vocation As A Bible Teacher

Michael M. Homan

My family and I proudly called New Orleans home. I use the past tense because our future is anything but clear. We are not natives of the Crescent City, as we moved there five years ago when I accepted a position to teach Hebrew Bible at Xavier University of Louisiana. But in this time, New Orleans has become a big part of who I am. Some of this is literally true because I'm now 40 pounds heavier due partially to my weak resolve and mostly to tantalizing dishes such as alligator sausage cheesecake, fried oyster po' boys, crawfish étouffée, and muffalettas. In fact, our family immediately embraced the regional tradition of eating red beans and rice for dinner every Monday, which sounds healthy — until you learn about the presence of other ingredients such as andouille sausage and tasso.

But mostly my link to the Big Easy is spiritual. Time moved slower there, making the city's rich history all the more humbling. As a major port city in the Southern United States and as a center for the slave trade, New Orleans became a vibrant center of multiculturalism. The mixing of these diverse traditions created incredibly rich cultural gumbos and produced jazz, America's greatest artistic achievement. Throughout our city we had the privilege of hearing some of the world's finest musicians in intimate venues. Trust me, to have heard Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers at Vaughn's on a Thursday night would have dramatically changed your world. And as my daughter was so fond of saying, "New Orleans sure knows how to party." Mardi Gras was much more than the decadent picture painted by MTV and "Girls Gone Wild." The elaborate parades were actually fantastic fun for children. We as a family annually participated in the Krewe of Barkus, a Mardi Gras parade for costumed dogs. It was fun to live in New Orleans.

I recognize that New Orleans also had major drawbacks. The city was famous for corruption and extreme Bacchanalianism, though the latter didn't bother too much a fat man fond of beer, such as myself. However, the biggest problems in New Orleans stemmed from the extreme poverty and poor public education system, both of which I believe were ultimately tied to issues of race. I saw the repercussions of slavery and racism on a daily basis, and it was not a very flattering image for my country.

And today New Orleans lies in ruins. Following the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding caused in part by negligent politicians, both my university and my house sustained devastating damage. Toxic sludge has covered my neighborhood, leaving piles of detritus and the smell of death. I personally witnessed the storm, and I watched the water rise over the next two days from the second story in my home. Five days after Katrina, I escaped New Orleans with my dogs, met my family who had the means and sense to have earlier evacuated, and headed north to Omaha Nebraska where we have family. I wrote in my blog about my experiences related to Hurricane Katrina, and I was amazed by the insightful letters I received linking the experience of New Orleans to biblical passages such as Psalm 137. Another letter arrived from a scholar whom I much admire, and he commented: "All the great tragedies of history must be real for you in a way I hope I never know." Nobody in my family died because of Katrina; though honestly, I do better understand tragedy.

As a student and teacher of the Bible, I believe that this disaster has parallels to the destructions of Judah in 586 BCE and 70 CE. And the residents of New Orleans, and much of the surrounding area in the Gulf Coast, are now experiencing an exile of their own with unknown futures. My wife Therese was a public school teacher, and she lost her job the day of the hurricane. I am still officially employed by Xavier University, though I don't know how long this will last. My school is hoping to open in January, but some have said that is quite optimistic. I have heard from many of my students, which was quite a miraculous feat because all communications within the university used Xavier phone numbers and email addresses, none of which have worked since the storm. A few of my students, especially freshmen, are not planning on returning to Xavier, as they intend on finishing their degrees at other institutions. I'm terrified that student enrollment will drop so drastically that I will soon be without employment. My family and I are also fighting assimilation. We continue to try to keep our New Orleans dietary laws, and thus far we have been able to keep eating red beans and rice on Mondays. But it seems forced and unnatural. It also turns out that Nebraska is not a good place to find crawfish and gumbo crabs.

The year 2005 will be remembered as the year of the catastrophic tsunami and hurricane. And as a Bible scholar and theologian, I have been asked by others, and I've asked myself, how could God let such awful things happen? Unfortunately, several extreme religious groups have suggested that both the tsunami and hurricane were sent by God to punish sinners. This "cause and effect" approach to theodicy has parallels to the Deuternomistic Historian and Augustine, but it disgusts me. Instead, I believe that horrible things happen to good people and that the world is ultimately an unjust place. Moreover, I believe that if God continues to receive credit for miraculous medical cures and even winning lottery numbers, then God ought to be held accountable for catastrophes. There are plenty of biblical precedents for God's behaving in ways that appear to be unethical by human standards. After all, this is the God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son and the God who called for genocide against the Amekites and Midianites. Christians believe that this God later offered the life of His Son to save the world. Thus I find a strange comfort in the Book of Job, where God explains that the rationale behind Job's horrible tragedy could be comprehended only by those present on the day of creation (38:4). I suppose that evil is necessary if we are to witness goodness. During the past few weeks, I have seen plenty of both.

To deal with my depression, and perhaps to increase my melancholia, I made a CD of some of my favorite songs from New Orleans. There's Louis Armstrong singing "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" and the great Professor Longhair with "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." It makes me quite homesick to listen to these songs. And to paraphrase and misquote one of my favorite authors, "For it is difficult to sing the songs of New Orleans in a foreign land. If I forget you, O New Orleans, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set New Orleans above my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, against the Hasterts the day of New Orleans' fall, how they said, 'Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!' O daughters Katrina and politicians, you devastators! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!" (Ps 137:4-8, well sort of ...). That last part seems spiteful, and honestly I have no goals of revenge. I've now been in a sort of exile for two weeks, and I am heading back to New Orleans as soon as possible to try to retrieve some documents and to see what I can do to help. I've read about neighborhood clinics set up to help the people who never evacuated; that sounds like noble work, so I'm doing my best to round up the supplies that they've requested.

I do hope that this country will do a better job dealing with issues of class, race, and poverty. And I am convinced that my experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will make me a better teacher of the Bible, though when and where I'll be teaching are still up in the air. I hope and pray that Xavier will open in January. That would be something to behold. The emotions would be overwhelming, and I imagine many tears will be shed, not unlike the exiles from Babylon who returned to Jerusalem and cried when they saw the rebuilt temple. I would imagine that at Xavier in January, never before would students be so appreciated. I think I'll hug each of my students and tell them how thankful I am for the chance to teach them. At least for now, that is how I foresee my part in rebuilding the great city of New Orleans.

Michael M. Homan, Xavier University of Louisiana,


Anonymous said...
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Tim Bulkeley said...

Michael, thanks for writing the SBL Forum oiece posted here, it reminds me how I felt after the evacuation from Kinshasa, and so I feel for you. The experience of catastrophe (whether manmade or natural) certainly makes the texts we work with resonate differently.

God bless.


Amanda M said...


Always enjoy your posts!

Quick question - since you know your bible stories, I'm looking for a book that I read several years ago - it's the re-telling of a bible story about losing everything, and rebuilding. I thought the author was Orson Scott Card, but I looked up his books on amazon and that wasn't it...But the story was about everything, absolutely everything going wrong that could, beyond imagining, and then about rebuilding lives and starting over, and exceeding all expectations. Job maybe? But I think it was someone else.

Sorry, as a lapsed Catholic I don't know my bible... sigh.

All of my heartfelt best to your family in rebuilding your city and lives.