Cover story -- New Orleans
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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

The long goodbyes

Leaving New Orleans and the Catholic church

New Orleans

This has been a Catholic city longer than America has been a constitutional democracy. The still-fading echoes of Latin plainchant haunt the French Quarter more subtly but more powerfully than the retailed incantations of Marie Laveau’s voodoo or the perennially popular jazz of Satchmo’s horn. Tourist traps in the Quarter sell surreal images of popular saints, and drivers of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets point out St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America, to wide-eyed young lovers honeymooning in the City That Care Forgot.

Living in New Orleans for nearly a decade, I too had a love affair -- with the city itself. I felt drunk with it, besotted. I rode on the wooden seats of St. Charles Avenue streetcars -- the oldest in the world. Along the line was Sacré Coeur -- Sacred Heart Academy -- opened in 1727 and the oldest girls’ school in the country. I felt the flow of the Mississippi River gently rock the ferry linking downtown to Algiers Point. I ambled down the Moonwalk, watching the Delta Queen paddlewheel its way around the bend even as huge Greek ships pushed into port. I strolled through Audubon Park, where ancient oaks shaded me from the tyrannical summer sun and the moon shone through lacy crape myrtles, dappling the dark ground with gentle light. New Orleans was a city like no other on earth.

But the city I was proud to call home is not so magical these days. It has been a full year since the Crescent City was attacked by Katrina’s vicious winds, levee breaches, and a flood of filth. Today, New Orleans is still treading water, trying to keep its head up even as it falls prey to currents of human confusion and discouragement.

And while it is still a thoroughly Catholic city, the once-familiar public displays of New Orleans-style Catholicism -- always colorful and often superstitious -- are fewer and less visible than before the storm. Not many blue-and-white-painted statues of Mary still stand in front yards, much less the ones crowned with tiny twinkling lights or back-dropped with old-fashioned bathtubs half sunken into the ground to form faux grottos. Far fewer pictures of the Sacred Heart stare solemnly through street-facing windows.

Perhaps most poignant, neighborhood grocery-store conversations of current events at parish churches are no longer standard fare: Being demonstrably Catholic is less common because New Orleans is passionately focused on its restoration and, in some ways, survival.

Departure and return

As Hurricane Katrina raged toward New Orleans, I evacuated with hundreds of thousands of other locals. Having experienced this routine yearly, for one hurricane or another, we all expected to return home a day or so later. We did not imagine that the city would suffer a near-fatal blow, or that we would not be returning for weeks, or months or at all.

I fled to Memphis, Tenn., and then stayed awhile in Little Rock, Ark. My teaching position was on hold at Loyola University New Orleans, which was now closed for the fall semester. I spent these weeks discerning whether to follow a call that I had been feeling for some time, to teach and preach. Just before Thanksgiving, after an agonizing process of second-guessing myself, I decided to pursue seminary studies in Chicago, nearly 1,000 miles from New Orleans.

During the bleak Midwest winter my days grew longer: I began sleeping less, and fitfully. I had been lucky to escape Katrina, and my home had suffered only minimal damage. But many hundreds of New Orleanians had died gradual and gruesome deaths; many thousands more had lost everything; and hundreds of thousands had been displaced. I knew I was feeling what is called survivor’s guilt, but I pushed forward. By the time my post-hurricane winter finally warmed into spring, I was ensconced in seminary life.

Then, one day, I attended a jazz Mass. Brass-band jazz. During Communion, the jazz evolved into Dixieland. And when we were sent forth with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I felt a wave of grief wash over me. I found a quiet spot and cried. The depth of my sorrow had finally made its way to the surface. I had loved New Orleans and my life there, and I missed it every day.

Before I could continue in Chicago, I wanted to -- had to -- go back to New Orleans to say goodbye.

So at Easter time, when I learned of an opportunity to return as a chaplain with the New Orleans Police Department for the summer, I immediately signed on, thus becoming a visitor to the city I once called home. Through scalding days and unquiet nights, the injured city escorted me, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, through my former life in that now-crumpled city, offering me voyeuristic glimpses into my lengthening past and unclear future.

I drove miles through a city nearly destroyed first by the wrath of nature and then by the confusion of its people, the corruption of its local leadership, and the indifference and ineptitude of the federal government. I found myself at all the old familiar places. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house I no longer owned, weeds now choking its once-flowering garden. I walked the corridors of Loyola University and said goodbye to empty classrooms where I had guided young students through the circuitous, chromatic history of Roman Catholicism. I spent long, quiet moments kneeling before the cross in my old parish church, recalling with awe that in one form or another I had worked for the Catholic church for nearly 25 years.

In the silence of that sanctuary, I acknowledged that for too long I had bristled under the Vatican’s disdain for and even condemnation of Catholics like me, who explored ways to reform practices that increasingly felt more hurtful than helpful -- excluding certain Catholics from Eucharist; reserving priesthood to unmarried but frequently uncelibate males; forcing couples to wait years for marriage annulments often tied more to technicality than sacrament. I found these and other practices scandalous.

But these alone did not account for the breach I had been feeling between faith in my God and loyalty to my church. I was no longer being sustained or even adequately represented by Rome. I often felt like a “Catholic Alice” being drawn through a looking glass to a mysterious, divine terrain where the Catholic church was venerable and bounteous, but not exclusive or even first among equals in the body of Christ.

Back in my real, Catholic world, however, my hands felt tied and my feet bound. For a long time, I had perceived my immobility to be the fault of the church; however, I was coming to sense that I was the cause of my own conflict, demanding that Catholicism give me what it could not give. If I felt immobile, it was because I had shackled myself.

What follows is a tale of two cities, New Orleans before the storm and after the storm. It is also the story of my two lives, in and out of the church. When I left southeast Louisiana a year ago, I relinquished two homes -- both beloved, but no longer habitable.

‘Baptized in dirty water’

It has now been a full year since Katrina crippled New Orleans, but the city is not recovering well. Despite media pictures -- illusions, really -- of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, just beyond the tourist-control barricades is a city on its knees, dealing with cruel and pernicious threats to reconstruction. The city is clearing piles of debris from its streets, fighting for claims payoffs from case-hardened insurance companies (some of whom continue to fight fraudulent claims), and dodging erratic gunfire from gang warfare, to name only three.

In the months following the storm, New Orleans’ agony was memorialized by local blues and jazz musicians such as Chris Thomas King, whose earthy lyrics are on a CD he calls “Rise”:

My old neighbor, you see she just floated
on by, face down in dirty water.
It’s so dark down here I can’t even see
the Big Easy wash away.
When the levee broke … it washed away
my happy home … I hope it washed
away my sins … baptized in dirty

Unlike so many thousands of locals, I was not trapped by the storm, drenched by toxic water, stranded on a rooftop in 95-degree heat, or without food and water for days. But even the storm’s aftereffects have profoundly altered my sense of reality. A few weeks ago, while making a phone call, I absentmindedly glanced through The Times-Picayune and its daily tableaux of Katrina stories and photos. Later that day, I picked up the paper again for a closer reading. A photo of what I had earlier assumed to be a Katrina-ravaged area was, in fact, a picture of a recently bombed neighborhood in Beirut. I flinched at mistaking an American city for a Mideast war zone.

That same night, I stood near a partially buried streetcar track on St. Charles Avenue and looked up at the spired bell tower of Holy Name of Jesus Church on the grounds of Loyola University. Quite out of nowhere sprang another set of mental images I had internalized. Looking at the church and campus with their Tudor Gothic architecture and deep green palm trees, I remembered an earlier time when tangled sketches had left me confused.

A door ajar

During the Holy Week before Katrina, I went on a silent retreat at the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, La., an irenic town established in 1776 in south central Louisiana, not too far from the Atchafalaya River. It is a romantic, forested place where the ear is serenaded by Cajun accents and cicada choirs.

My retreat director, a bemused, rotund Jesuit named Brian Zinnamon, began by hearing the reason for my retreat -- I had an important decision to make -- and he suggested I follow St. Ignatius of Loyola’s method of listing the pros and cons of a situation to help discern which path to take. Then, learning that silence is not my strong suit, the priest encouraged me to explore my spirituality through art. But art being even more foreign to me than silence, he suggested I start with something simple, like the objects in my room.

I was staying in a huge old building that had started life in the 19th century as a Catholic school for boys but now housed the Jesuit novitiate for the New Orleans Province. Down the hall from my room -- far down the hall on the other side of some double doors -- was a bathroom for women, surely a latter-day addition but quaint nonetheless.

My room overlooked the flower gardens, a walking path, and a tree well-traveled by squirrels. I inspected the room’s tall door and expansive ceiling. I peeked inside the narrow closet with its four-foot clothes rod and single shelf. The lone lamp, from the 1970s, shone brighter when I removed its shade. Across from the single bed was an unremarkable desk with a wooden chair that sat almost evenly on the gently rolling floor. Perhaps my drawing attempts would, after all, resemble art, because the room looked quite naturally like a Dali.

I felt something like a Dali painting myself. I was on retreat to discern where my path was leading or, perhaps more to the point, which foot should make the first step. The decision I faced was a momentous one, and I honestly was not in the mood to draw stick objects with colored pencils. But I did.

The pictures I drew of my room were simple ones -- the desk with uneven legs that rested on nothing and provided no means of visible support; a massive door painted too many times over the years; an open window looking out on spring flowers and lawns leading to an old cemetery. The next day, when I showed my childish sketches to Brian, he pointed to a particular spot on a door I had drawn in a bright blue.

“What’s this?”

“It’s the door to my room,” I answered plainly, knowing full well that spiritual directors never ask direct questions.

“What kind of door?”

“A very tall, heavy, wooden, several-times-painted, windowless door that doesn’t shut quite right.”

“What else?”

I looked again at the badly drawn door. I didn’t know what he expected me to see there.

“Why did you draw a door that isn’t closed all the way?”

I looked more closely. I had painstakingly drawn everything about that door, even down to the ridges in the square insets, but in my drawing it was slightly ajar.

“It looks to me,” Brian said, “like you’ve provided yourself with a very important clue.” With that, he sent me away in silence, not to speak again until the next day’s 45-minute allotment of spiritual direction.

I may have ceased talking after our meeting, but I did not stop thinking. I was at Grand Coteau for a reason: I had reached a spiritual jumping-off place, but first I wanted to be as certain as possible that there was no going back.

Whiter, older, richer

People who have been displaced from their homes always face a decision; so far, only about half the people of New Orleans have returned. Besides being much smaller now, the city is whiter, older and more affluent.

New Orleans’ median household income is higher now because of its whiter, older population. But that is not to say there is plentitude here: Hundreds of businesses are still closed, and the percentage of households receiving food stamps has bloated from 10 percent to 39 percent. Primary among the economic challenges is the astronomical rise in real estate prices and rental rates. One man complained he was being evicted from his $800-a-month apartment because his landlord got the chance to rent to a man who was getting a monthly $1,400 government housing subsidy. His story is anecdotal, but the point is that a lot of people cannot afford basic housing in a city where some 75,000 homes have been destroyed.

The population is older partly because few schools still stand in a city that even in the best of times never had anything more than an embarrassing public education system. The overwhelming majority of schools here are Catholic, but those schools likewise took a hard hit and are still struggling. One bastion of tradition, Jesuit High School, only recently got its ground-floor windows replaced after months of being boarded up.

The area is whiter because the furious wind and water demolished the matchstick houses of many blacks, who comprise the poorest of the poor here. Without insurance or adequate resources, these people have no homes to come back to. Gentrification of blighted areas in highly desirable riverside locations is further shrinking the pool of lower-working-class housing.

Of particular controversy is the likelihood that New Orleans’ infamous, perennially decrepit and dangerous, and now molding and rotting housing projects will not be redeemed, making it nearly impossible for the poorest blacks to return to the city.

On the other hand, many blacks and whites alike insist that restoring the housing projects would only recolonize poverty and crime and fuel the pandemic sense of hopelessness in the black community here. An emigration of blacks has resulted in newfound opportunities elsewhere -- better schools, higher-paying jobs, and decent affordable housing. Before Katrina, relatively few poor blacks had experienced life outside southeast Louisiana. Since the storm, many thousands of evacuees are discovering new ways of being black in America.

One African-American returnee told me that her daughter and granddaughter had put down roots in the Texas city to which they had fled. She misses them sorely, but she acknowledges the wisdom of her daughter’s decision. “We knew life could be better in other places, we just never really comprehended it, you know? But it’s so nice there! My daughter got a great apartment, and folks are just giving her everything she needs -- even a new bed! My granddaughter is in a white school there, you know, and the kids are so nice to her. They’re already inviting her to their birthday parties. It’s so nice there.”

Curious case of ‘Chocolate City’

Race relations in New Orleans traditionally have enjoyed an uneasy peace. Before the storm, the city was two-thirds black and followed the traditional Southern pattern: The vast majority of professionals were white, and as skin colors darkened, incomes fell. But there was a notable exception: City Hall. After the storm, powerful black leaders eyed the encroaching “whitening” of New Orleans.

In his now-infamous Martin Luther King Day speech this past January, the city’s attractive and spit-polished black mayor, Ray Nagin, encouraged blacks to return to the city so that it could remain “chocolate.” The remark was odd, because Nagin was coming up for re-election in a city where whites, much more than blacks, had elected him in the first place. Yet, he declared, “I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.” Of this he was certain: “It’s the way God wants it to be.”

Nagin later won re-election over Mitch Landrieu, the state’s lieutenant governor and heir of the oft-mistrusted Landrieu political dynasty. In June, the black-owned New Orleans Tribune -- supportive of “New Orleans’ middle-class African-American population” and of “closer working relationships between the races” -- editorialized that “asking blacks to place their fates in the hands of any white man in Louisiana was asking for blind faith.” The problem was not Mitch Landrieu, but any white man.

Nagin hasn’t been seen much in New Orleans since his re-election, and people doubt that his public relations activities around the country are producing much. A police officer in a district surrounded by miles of destroyed and decaying houses in the Lower Ninth Ward asked me: “What do you think of Ray Nagin?” I thought for a moment, and as I was about to answer, she waved her hand and said, “Oh, honey, say whatever you want. I’m black and I can’t stand the guy.”

After the Chocolate City remark, both white and black entrepreneurs responded quickly. One T-shirt proclaimed, “Dark Chocolate: When You Want the Very Best.” Another showed a top-hatted Nagin over the caption: “Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory.” Another quipped, “I’m just a marshmallow in a chocolate city.” At a popular local coffeehouse, a multicolored, chalk-written menu board touted “Ninth Ward Coffee,” which an affable employee described as “our darkest brew.” The Orleans Coffee Exchange designed a container, with an image of a Hershey’s Kiss-type foil dome, that offered a special new blend: “Chocolate City Coffee, With Nuts.”

But these days, there is no joy in Chocolateville.

Relaxing over coffee at a Denny’s on Father’s Day, with my own father hundreds of miles away, I overheard a black woman talking to an obviously close friend. “My husband had to fire those roofers. The work was so awful it needed tearing out and redoing!” The Crescent City is filled with latter-day carpetbaggers out for a quick buck, slapping together shoddy jobs at outrageous prices before moving to other easy marks. But this woman’s problem went deeper. “So we hired some Hispanics,” she said emphatically, referring to the huge influx of Hispanic day laborers. “Those Mexicans do a good job. Oh, yeah, they’re real hard-working. And I don’t mind saying it. You try to help your own people, but they don’t wanna work. So to hell with ’em. I say if the Hispanics wanna work hard and do a good job, we oughtta hire ’em.”

At the same time but in a different mood, a New Orleans Tribune columnist wrote that after the storm, “traditional black occupations such as roofers and painters were given to itinerant latino labors [sic].” Another writer echoed the complaint, adding to the Latino threat the also-disdained “white out-of-towners.” He concluded: “I want New Orleans to be bigger, blacker, wealthier.”

The truth is that whether by blacks or whites, anything that gets done here is getting done by the private sector, by people no longer willing or able to wait for help from government at any level. Louisiana’s corruption-as-usual politics, accepted before the storm with a rueful wink, has been complicated and intensified by the federal government’s drug-like injection of unfathomable torpor. There is a simmering rage against an infrastructure so fractured that untold dollars are seemingly being siphoned into payola like roaches slithering through rotting floorboards. Near one police district station where I was working, a man sitting on a broken bench and drinking a beer told me that New Orleans-brand politics survived the hurricane because “rats can swim.”

Obviously, everyone in New Orleans wants to save the Big Easy, but people here disagree on what forms being “saved” should take. Some want to recover the old city. Others want to forge a more progressive identity. Any life-changing decision is hard, especially in response to an unexpected reversal of fortune, and particularly when there seems so little promise of a consensus on how to proceed.

Question of self-identification

The Catholic church often has faced the challenge of change over the last 2,000 years, having to decide what direction the church should take. The early Fathers chose certain Gospels and texts over others, thereby forming the New Testament and condemning the Gnostics. The 16th-century Council of Trent declared seven sacraments to be valid and Martin Luther to be a heretic. Vatican II opened an old church to a modern world and in the process spawned more questions than answers.

There is good reason why the Catholic church, with 1.1 billion adherents, is larger than all other Christian denominations combined. It has matured with Western civilization, although its future is now manifest in directing the destinies of non-Western peoples. But the faith’s attraction goes far beyond history and real estate. Most Catholics have heard the old shibboleth: “If I weren’t Catholic I wouldn’t be anything at all.” There is profound meaning in that claim, because it reveals a level of self-identification and a way of living that often transcend rational comprehension. Regardless of how people feel about becoming, being, or no longer being Catholic, few folks can glide easily in and out of the worldview framed by this ancient faith.

The last 50 years, although a mere moment in the history of the church, have been marked by particularly momentous change. Human life is dynamic, and life moves quickly. The more quickly life moves the move dynamic it becomes. But old answers don’t always resolve new questions.

During my Holy Week experience in Grand Coteau, my retreat director guided me through a final, agonizing stage of discernment regarding my Catholic identity. The old answers were no longer adequate. I had worked for the church for many years, yet I was feeling more shut out than ever.

A year earlier, I had published years of research in a book titled The Papal “No”: A Comprehensive Guide to the Vatican’s Rejection of Women’s Ordination (Crossroad, 2004). I had gathered all the official documents relating to women and their vocations to priesthood. Those vocations could never materialize, the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano pointed out, because Jesus “does not communicate to women the message he received from the Father. It is a fact and we are bound to recognize it.”

During Holy Week in the spring before Katrina, I struggled for what seemed like the thousandth time to comprehend the late Pope John Paul II’s concern that “many voices” were raising the “fear that excessive insistence given to the status and role of women would lead to an unacceptable omission regarding men.” Somehow, I couldn’t work up much worry about men being left out of anything in the church, but I noticed something much more interesting: I was feeling less worried about women -- or at least myself -- being left out.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, at perhaps the most frustrating point in my decision-making process, my retreat director made a startling claim: “Think about it this way,” Brian said. “You’re not choosing between right and wrong. You’re choosing between two rights.”

I held my breath at this idea, so new to me. He then asked a question I had heard many times but did not fully understand until that moment. “Where,” he asked gently, “do you find God?”

Without knowing it, Brian had held up the same Alice’s mirror that I seemed to be encountering more and more frequently. This time, I gazed into that perplexing spiritual landscape on the other side to see who would peer back at me. Come to think of it, Brian probably knew who I would find there, even if I couldn’t yet fully recognize her.

The next day, Holy Thursday, I walked aimlessly around the grounds, inspecting names and dates on cemetery markers, watching an airplane-shaped cloud pass over the church, and listening to the quiet. In the early evening after dinner I fixed a cup of decaf and carried it outside to a comfortable chair. And as I lifted the cup to my lips I allowed myself to acknowledge an important insight. The decision I faced was not whether to leave the church but whether to stay gone.

In reality, I had been leaving slowly, by degrees, over several years. I had left silently kicking and screaming, not wanting to relinquish my birthright. And I had found another spiritual home where I was thriving. But it was only now that I admitted to myself that since I had already left the church, the real question was whether I wanted to return to it.

By the time I finished my coffee the darkening sky had brought on electric lights and the echo of Brian’s voice in my head: “You’re not choosing between right and wrong. You’re choosing between two rights.”

On Good Friday, I rocked to and fro on a white-painted swing in a small gazebo near the chapel. The early morning mist in southern Louisiana is intoxicating in its own right, but that particular morning was extraordinary. I “heard” 19th-century Carmelite Sr. Thérèse of Lisieux crying because she was not allowed to be a priest. I heard 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich’s famous words of comfort: “All will be well. All will be well.” In their presence, I accepted that I no longer had a place in the Catholic church, which does not “call” people like me. The church offered me nothing, and I felt called to pursue all. Fully accepting the conditions of my leave-taking, I felt overwhelming reassurance that all would indeed be well.

These days, in quiet moments and even some very noisy ones, I sometimes “hear” Brian’s voice. He died of natural causes at age 57 during the winter following Katrina. In typical Jesuit style, he is still reminding me that the “good” is wherever I find God, and that the real risk is to make the choice to search.

The return to abnormality

In abnormal times, abnormal feelings are normal, and New Orleans is a city of abnormal feelings.

When I returned for a summer chaplaincy internship at the New Orleans Police Department, the only dead bodies I had seen were the standard, mannequin-like corpses dressed for display in white-satin coffins. My first days on the job at NOPD introduced me to a different, violent kind of death: a murdered man slumped over in a pickup truck; the slaughter of five teenagers by a 19-year-old; a suicide by hanging.

Suicide here has tripled. It is especially high among the upper class, and particularly among white males in the wake of having lost vast possessions and power. But the phenomenon of self-destruction cuts across race and class.

One recent suicide victim was a tattooed young white man living in the kind of minimally maintained Uptown apartment that young bohemians love to pay too much for the privilege of renting. One night, he walked into a large cedar closet, noosed one end of a heavy leather belt around his neck, the other around a steel clothes rod, and suspended himself in a prayer-like pose, his face angled upward and his knees nearly touching the floor. After a long night of rigor mortis a young man looks hard, less human.

Nearly as much as the fact of his death, the circumstances of it troubled me. A few minutes after police removed the body from the noose, I stood on the sizzling sidewalk talking with his neighbors, who said he had been estranged from his Midwest family and had not seen them in some time. I shivered at the thought of any of my three children being ripped from me by violent death, most especially with no chance to say goodbye. I still cannot comprehend that kind of parental pain.

Closure is crucial to any kind of unexpected loss, whether it be a child, a home, a job, or any treasured person or thing. Even when separation is anticipated, it’s important to say goodbye. That’s why we have celebration dinners, going-away parties, and funerals. Closure is important, even in situations where the decision to leave has been intentional.

Each of us has to find our own way. No one knew this better than Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered mightily for his condemnation of religious leaders in Jerusalem and of overly strict religious laws that required unquestioning compliance. The thing is, either we make our own choice or someone else will make it for us. And in following our conscience, we follow the example of Jesus.

Rome would disagree, but I submit that it is not the result of choice but rather the choosing itself that is crucial to faith. Only then can we claim the right and responsibility of faith and response to it.

‘Proud To Call It Home’

This popular phrase has appeared on the same purple-and-white New Orleans bumper sticker for years, as has a tongue-in-cheek variation: “New Orleans: Proud To Crawl Home.” After the storm, with many other people, I placed a smaller sticker on the bumper of my Saturn, proclaiming, “New Orleans: Proud To Swim Home.”

It is impossible to let this reference to water pass without relating a truly unusual phenomenon. The city is losing 85 million gallons of water every 24 hours through damaged underground pipes, more water than is actually consumed in a day. This water loss poses health risks at public gathering places, where people are unable to flush toilets.

In its brokenness, the Big Easy still embraces life. And these days, in its fight for a share of the American pie, New Orleans suggests that the United States should be making levees, not war. The height of hurricane season here is Sept. 10, with most storms occurring in three-week windows on either side. Ironically, television commercials are encouraging people to take shelter from oncoming storms by moving out of FEMA trailers and into gutted houses. C’est levee.

Even in the height of hurricane season, the city is home to world-class professionals -- artists and musicians, academicians and physicians, writers and actors. In the last year, it also has welcomed building restoration companies, contractors, government and military operatives, and thousands of student and church volunteers. But now the area is prey to carpetbaggers, con artists and voyeurs. As a chaplain intern, I unwittingly crossed a line in the last category.

Riding with a young officer one day, I asked if she minded if I took photographs of certain areas. I asked her this because locals had endured waves of outside gawkers and were understandably weary of them. At first, she answered matter-of-factly, “That’s fine.” A few seconds later she added, “I mean, professionally I have no problem with it.” And in another couple of seconds, her voice rising, “But personally, well, you know.” And finally, Southern propriety aside, “People died here! Hundreds of people died here! And what’s left? Busloads of people taking pictures of other people’s misery!” I put my camera away.

Later, alone, I photographed a city I barely recognized, partly in defiance of misleading media images of New Orleans. Granted, except for the St. Charles streetcar line, which won’t be operational until Christmas 2007, the French Quarter, Garden District and Uptown are predictably faring well. These comprise the city’s largest tax base. But beyond those areas, the city is drowning in government red tape, crime, confusion and depression. In short, the rest of the city is a shambles. Far from invading anyone’s privacy, I intended my photographs to recall what New Orleans suffered and to honor the people who perished, thus helping to resist the collective temptation to romanticize massive destruction and monstrous death.

Fighting to avoid even more destruction -- from escalating street crime -- is the New Orleans Police Department. The mere mention of the NOPD demands an immediate acknowledgement of a particular stratum of corruption. But in the same breath it must be said that law enforcement officers are taking a big hit from the widespread anxiety in this city, anxiety that has deteriorated into lethal hopelessness and horrific violence in some quarters. For New Orleans police, there is no such thing as a safe traffic stop.

New Orleans police officers work under amazingly stressful conditions. Half the police districts are exiled from their flooded and wind-damaged stations, which are still sitting gutted and silent. No restoration work has begun. Officers in these districts are working in trailers. Outside, in the Louisiana sun, portable plastic stalls offer relief but no water for hand-washing. Even when I worked in districts still using their stations, I learned to carry my own supply of soap and toilet paper.

New Orleans officers are among the lowest-paid in the country; many must augment their regular shifts with overtime and detail work in order to make ends meet. Since some 90 percent of the officers lost their homes, many are still living in trailers and trying to find ways to re-settle themselves and their families even as they serve people determined to stay in the City That Care Forgot.

Among these ranks are a growing number of female NOPD officers. Granted, task force units and leadership ranks are still overwhelmingly male, leaving men in higher-risk, higher-paid, decision-making roles. This hierarchy mirrors that of the Catholic church, with one crucial difference. Female police officers are moving up the vocational ladder, pursuing their commitment to their calling in all its fullness. Catholic women -- 60 percent of churchgoing Catholics -- are gaining no such ground, and they have no structured venue for changing the system.

Male and female God created them

Today’s Catholic women are replaying the Catch-22 that plagued 19th-century black men and early 20th-century women in the United States, who struggled for the right to vote with no opportunity to make or even propose the very legislation that determined their legal status. Ironically, they are in the same position the church holds in the United Nations as official observers, able to work for change only by lobbying behind the scenes. If the United Nations treated the Vatican the way the Vatican treats women, and threatened to expel Rome for its policy-change lobbying, church leadership might learn what it’s like to be a Catholic woman.

Men, too, risk their standing in the church if they become publicly active in reform efforts. Several years ago, a friend of mine was “invited” to visit his local bishop, who served him coffee before asking him to please desist from putting the parish priest in an “uncomfortable position” by going to Communion. My friend, having waited more than two years for an annulment that never materialized, had remarried anyway, thereby disqualifying himself from receiving Communion.

There are several ways for the church to penalize or expel Catholics who lobby for change. The most extreme, of course, is excommunication, which rejects a person as Catholic unless or until that person formally admits and atones for the transgression. Persons are excommunicated not for sins of morality but for transgressions against faith -- heresy.

The New Testament Greek word for heresy is hairetikos -- usually transliterated in English Bibles as a belief opposed to orthodox doctrine. In fact, hairetikos literally means “able to choose,” a capacity sometimes unwelcome in any institutional religion. But I have discovered there comes a point when bishops and excommunications cannot muffle God’s call or stifle the desire to obey it. For me, that point was admitting that I was bone-weary of talking about ordained pastoral ministry, and that I just wanted to do it.

One of my favorite spiritual mentors is Caryll Houselander, a mystic who wrote while German bombs exploded over her London apartment. She believed we are called to bear Christ into the world. She saw all Christians as Christ-bearers. What a marvelous image for the faith journey -- conceiving and carrying the light of the world! What a wonder-filled annunciation to each other that the light is within us all, that we all bear and birth the light for and with each other.

Surely this is what Jesus meant when in a culture that made no legal provision for female witnesses, he told Mary Magdalene to go and share the good news with the other apostles.

Surely this is what Jesus meant when he brought in outcasts from the streets, opening the banquet to the underclass. He did not break bread and solemnly say, “Do this in remembrance of me, but only if you belong to the right denomination and mediate my grace according to exclusive membership.”

Surely when Jesus taught against divorce he did not intend to assign religious leaders to the job of finding or inventing long-gone “prequels” to marriages in order to now annul them.

I would never encourage anyone to leave the Roman Catholic church, but I simply could not keep seeing less and less of Jesus in the upper echelons of church hierarchy and remain a healthy Christian.

They paved paradise

In mid-June, New Orleans began towing more than 100,000 wrecked and rusting cars piled under bridges and strung along street shoulders. Cars that survived the storm, as well as new ones purchased in large number from surrounding states, faced two frustrating challenges: potholes “so big they could swallow a Louisialligator” and the dangerous absence of street signs, now gone with the wind. Many locals gave up waiting for the city to replace the signs and made their own out of corrugated cardboard or discarded two-by-fours. Some sported smiley faces. The streets here remain a hodgepodge, and they sometimes feel like an arena for Dodgem cars without the consolation of rubber bumpers.

Going into its second year post-Katrina, New Orleans is not an easy place to navigate. Red-lettered banners proclaim “We’re Open!” and “We’re Back!” but there are also signs of a struggling economy and a seriously diminished labor force. At this writing, the Wendy’s in the neighborhood where I’m staying is still closed. Burger King just recently reopened, boasting that it is “Open until 10 p.m.!” McDonald’s closes an hour earlier. What few grocery stores remain close early, too. If the 10 o’clock news comes on and you’re craving pizza, unless there’s one in your freezer you’re out of luck. And if the baby runs out of milk, you may be in for a sleepless night.

There’s a melancholy old song that is beloved in this city. The first line asks, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” Yes, I do. And now, I have an idea of what it takes to remain here through these long days of reconstruction. It takes a level of toleration for sadness that I do not have. Charles Kuralt once said, “There is melancholy in the wind and sorrow in the grass.” In many places around city there is no grass at all, because toxic water poisoned the ground, and even bushes and trees. But the nature of grass is to grow. What begins in crisis can culminate in celebration.

The body of Christ

I have also learned what it means to miss the Catholic church, and what it takes to remain there through long years of Vatican resistance to women and other perceived threats to the institutional faith. For me, there is too much melancholy there. My place in the Catholic church became a place where I could no longer breathe. Yet, the nature of the human being is to survive and thrive, even if it’s in new ways.

As I study for and approach ordained ministry, I take as my guiding principle the unity and variety of Christian expression found in First Corinthians. Paul pleads for diversity in unity in the body of Christ, which does not consist of one member but of many. Each has its unique contribution to make. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” The body is an organic whole made of many parts, and “the eye cannot say to the hand: I have no need of you.”

Running like a red thread through any story of faith is the dual necessity of finding one’s own way as a rational Christian and one’s place in the community. That requires, first of all, a strong sense of who God is for us.

Not long after the storm, a friend told me with sadness that her mother in another state had called to say that God destroyed New Orleans in punishment for its sinfulness. After a long lunch and enough chicory coffee to give us both the jitters, my friend and I decided that if God destroyed New Orleans for sinning, then we ourselves were surely next.

I believe God suffers with and in us. Indeed, God probably suffers most deeply of all. Throughout the Old Testament, when Israel sins, God suffers. Throughout the New Testament, when people fail to believe, Jesus feels anger and sadness. Seeing Lazarus in the tomb, Jesus weeps. He is frequently disturbed in spirit, and moved with pity.

But Jesus also insists that just as the sparrows in the sky don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, we likewise will be nurtured. Julian of Norwich assures us that Jesus looks after us with a “mother’s love in well-being and in woe.”

After my long struggle to recognize the new spiritual self growing within, after leaving the church for a faith tradition I find more open and welcoming, and after confirming that I have chosen a path that is good and right for me, I have adopted as my favorite expression of assurance Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Purposes of the heart

Someone once said that if the heart could think, it would stop beating. After a year, I have given my heart permission to re-explore its own landscape and judge what it sees there.

New Orleans. I have come to terms with leaving New Orleans and its trademark joie de vivre, even if that spirit feels a bit contrived now because there’s too much riding on it. The city still has the charm and allure of living life in the moment, but the risk seems greater now -- living in the moment means you don’t know what the next one will bring.

I hope the City That Care Forgot will find the courage to tackle its trinity of demons: illiteracy, poverty and crime. I hope it will discover workable housing solutions while bulldozers serrate thousands of ruined buildings, and that the heap of ashes known as the Ninth Ward will produce a carefully planned, widely supported and adequately funded phoenix.

A few locals here fear that the future New Orleans will look less like Europe and more like Branson, Mo. Tourism runs this place, and alternative sources of income are few and weak; but it is unlikely the Crescent City will fall prey to Wayne Newtons and water slides. Too many fiercely loyal locals would dispatch a posse to the Orleans Parish line. Yet at this point, safeguarding New Orleans’ flamboyant panache seems both an unaffordable luxury and a crucial necessity.

The Catholic church. Since that fateful retreat at Grand Coteau, I have carried with me the faith, but not the institution, of my heritage. I mourn the stillborn hopes of Vatican II but do not feel compelled to spend another 25 years struggling for their revivification.

I am discovering new and welcome expressions of faith on what feels like a journey of co-creation, or cooperation with God toward a purpose I don’t yet understand. At the moment, the most I have is a picture of who I will not be: nostalgic for what could have been, unhappy with what is, or fearful of what will be.

As the height of hurricane season bears down on New Orleans and seminary classes gear up in Chicago, I am at peace with the swirl of change around me. I’ve lost neither my Crescent City home nor my Catholic roots. They are both stored carefully in my heart, where they will always remain.

Deborah Halter is a freelance writer and a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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