A Covenant to Serve: 'New Orleans' inimitable civic spirit has been revived.'

As I write this, I am two weeks away from making my 14th trip to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. I am reflecting on how in late August 2005, four-fifths of that city was flooded when three poorly-built levees broke beneath Katrina’s blows. The resulting death and devastation made grim headlines worldwide.

So did official Washington’s shameful, almost surreal failure to rush resources to the rescue. The disaster’s predominantly African-American, low-income victims were not treated as fellow citizens. Some politicians and journalists even took to calling these suddenly homeless Americans “refugees.”


Were it not for heroics by the U.S. Coast Guard, Katrina’s initial human, property and financial toll would have been much worse. And were it not for nonprofit organizations, ranging from little local congregations to citywide operations like Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the post-Katrina recovery process would have moved even slower.

It has been three-and-a-half years since biblical-sized floods blanketed the Big Easy. Poverty, crime and other ills that were bad before are bad or worse there today. Affordable housing, health care and other basic human needs are far from well met. Many Hispanic immigrants involved in hazardous clean-up or construction jobs continue to be exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Still, New Orleans now has about three-fourths of its pre-Katrina population. Even in these bad financial times, its economy is jazzy and growing. Its natives’ infectiously warm hospitality and inimitable civic spirit have been revived. Its struggling Hispanic residents have given the historic city’s demographic gumbo its first mighty 21st-century stirring. Volunteer-saints from all across the United States still go marching in to help.

As on my previous post-Katrina trips, I will not be alone. Over 100 spring break student-volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania will be with me. Though Penn is a proudly nonsectarian Ivy League university, founded by Benjamin Franklin, it boasts undergraduate student religious life organizations that make for a marvelous faith-based mosaic: Jewish students with the Hillel Center, Catholic students with the Newman Center and over a dozen other groups. I am proud that since September 2005, these groups and other Penn undergraduates and recent graduates have dedicated over 1,000 weeks of service in post-Katrina New Orleans.

But my Penn pride here also directly touches my Catholic identity. Speaking at Penn’s Wharton School of Business on Oct. 14, 2005, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans energized the predominantly non-Catholic crowd by telling how the archdiocese was opening its arms and its schools to poor children of every faith and of no faith. Non-Catholic colleagues who have never held a brief for the church were moved (in several cases to tears) by the soft-spoken archbishop.

Thereafter, in communications with me and other Penn colleagues, Jim Kelly, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities of New Orleans, laid down a civic marker: If Penn would make a five-year commitment to service-learning in the city, Catholic Charities would co-sponsor internships and other initiatives with Penn there.

An elite secular university located 1,100 miles away working in tandem with a Catholic nonprofit? Kelly termed the improbable secular-religious civic partnership “a covenant to serve.” Its early fruits are captured in a video with that title on a Penn Web site (www.foxleadership.org).

As Kelly has so eloquently stated, the covenant is not between secular Penn and its Catholic partners, but between both of them and the people whose lives were shattered and shuttered by the floods, people who now seek to rebuild their city and reclaim their communities.

The covenant continues. Starting this summer, five recent Penn graduates will be working full time in New Orleans on various Catholic Charities community-serving projects.

Maybe the partnership is not so improbable after all. Franklin started Philadelphia’s first library company, giving it a Latin motto that translates thus: “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” Penn’s founder emphasized deeds over words. He was also for supporting any faith that forged good works.

Sound familiar?

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9 years 10 months ago
Kudos to John Dijulio and Penn. My recent article Contemplating the Katrina Whirlwind: From "Apocalypse Now" to Solidarity for the Common Good" in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice gives fuller documentation of many faith-based endeavors in the post-Katrina recovery. It can be downloaded from http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/reports/index.htm Edward B Arroyo, SJ Jesuit Social Research Institute Loyola University New Orleans LA
9 years 10 months ago
Mr. Dijulio's comments complimenting Abp. Hughes' post-Katrina activities are mis-informed. The Archdiocese's Catholic schools were made available, tuition-free, for public school students who returned to a wrecked public system. (That system was already completely dysfunctional BEFORE Katrina.) However, that benevolence only lasted through the 2005-06 school year. In the almost three years since the storm, the Archbishop has closed both schools and parishes at an alarming rate, citing a post-Katrina financial crisis and a shortage of available priests as the rationale for the action. The Archbishop's favorite euphemism for this policy is "merge" -- schools and parishes are not closed, they are "merged" with other schools and parishes. We are not talking about flood-ravaged properties here -- many of the schools and parishes closed in the past three years were in areas untouched, or minimally affected by flood waters. In February, 2006, Abp. Hughes announced his plan to "close and cluster" a multitude of New Orleans' parishes. One of the parishes on the chopping block was St. Augustine Church -- a thriving African American parish for over 160 years, founded in the 1830's by New Orleans' Free People of Color. The announcement prompted something of a revolt, with activists keeping a round-the-clock vigil in the church (to prevent the doors from being locked), and at least one group of hurricane relief workers occupying the church’s rectory, refusing to leave until the Archdiocese of New Orleans promises to reopen the parish. On March 31, 2006, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton attended a St. Augustine vigil, spoke of St. Augustine's place in black history and, as fellow Christian ministers, asked Archbishop Hughes to reconsider the decision to close the parish. Apparently, the negative press coverage prompted a reconsideration. On April 8, Abp. Hughes held a press conference St. Augustine's Tomb of the Unknown Slave, announcing that St. Augustine Parish would remain open for at least 18 months, during which time the parish was required to meet 12 conditions for its continued existence. See: http://www.savestaugparish.org/timeline.htm In 2008, the Archbishop announced an even more extensive plan to close (merge) even more parishes, prompting an almost universal outcry among his flock. At St. Henry and at Our Lady of Good Counsel, thriving Uptown parishes whose churches were not significantly damaged by The Storm, the response was similar to that at St. Augustine, with vocal protests, and a sit-in vigil. This time, the Archbishop refused to reconsider, and had his staff call in the New Orleans Police Department to forcibly evict and arrest the protesting parishoners. See: http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/01/police_evict_parishioners_from.html Since the eviction, the parishoners from St. Henry and from Our Lady of Good Counsel have led a campaign petitioning the Vatican to replace Abp. Hughes. Abp. Hughes is now the first prelate in our community's long history to become an object of satire. In several carnival parades this past Mardi Gras, there were floats or groups of marching revelers devoted to ridiculing the Archbishop. See: http://noteworthyinnola.com/index.php/2009/03/03/archbishop-hughes-vs-krewe-detat/ Nobody in New Orleans is being "moved to tears by the soft-spoken archbishop" -- except maybe those who are standing outside their shuttered churches. Michael L. Martin
9 years 5 months ago
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