Hope For New Orleans

By William H. Chafe
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nearly 16 months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains devastated. In the Lower Ninth Ward (primarily black and poor), mid-city (mixed-race and middle class) and Lakeside (richer and whiter), houses are boarded up and ruined; shattered windows reveal rooms full of debris; perhaps one in 10 places has a FEMA trailer parked outside, as a few returning residents desperately try to reclaim what they have lost. Thousands of small businesses have disappeared. Even in the French Quarter, which was left largely intact after Katrina, shopkeepers despair of being able to survive given the decline in tourism. Repeatedly, people declare: "I have not received a single dollar of federal aid."

Yet in this season that celebrates the birth of a child in what today would be called a homeless shelter, a remarkable resiliency of spirit remains in New Orleans. Yes, only half the population there in August 2005 has returned. The suicide rate has increased 300 percent, and less than half of the schools and hospitals that existed 16 months ago are functioning.

But energy, engagement and love persist, creating tiny ripples of hope, from thousands of individual acts of courage -- ripples that can, in words Robert Kennedy uttered 40 years ago in South Africa, "build a current" able to topple the mightiest walls of oppression.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, more than a hundred volunteers gather in a Catholic school (St. Mary of the Angels) to help secure -- with the community -- a foothold toward starting anew. Some are college students, others grandparents and hippies. All have come to live and work with local residents. Most spend their days gutting houses so that returning residents can be eligible for federal rebuilding funds. Tearing down sheetrock infested with toxic mold is dangerous work. Others toil in the kitchen, helping members of the "Rainbow Tribe" -- a commune -- prepare Brunswick stew, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken for 150.

No one sees this as a lark. The unpaid staff briefs workers on the hazards they will face, insisting that respirators fit snugly so that no toxins are inhaled. The kitchen crew tests every dish to be sure it has reached a temperature high enough to eliminate any chance of food poisoning. Everyone is deadly serious -- and also clearly moved by the importance of the mission. They are white and black, male and female. They respect the integrity and autonomy of the neighbors they are there to help, committed not to fall into old hierarchies of white and black, male and female.

In the civil rights movement, such people called themselves a "beloved community" -- people transformed by an ethos of love and justice into becoming soldiers for justice. If redemption can follow tragedy in New Orleans, these volunteers -- in partnership with community residents -- will be the ones to make it happen.

But the signs of hope are not just in the courage of people in the Ninth Ward. They are there as well in the celebration of community among those less afflicted by poverty, people who have come back to New Orleans out of love for their city in order to make it the kind of place they want their children to grow up in. They have their own rituals.

On a Sunday, in a small bar, 30 neighborhood residents gather for a weekly get-together. White and black, gay and straight, old and young, they listen to their favorite jazz quartet and vocalist. They hug, laugh, cheer. They welcome strangers in their midst, anxious to talk about what they've been through. A father dances with his young daughter. The cook mingles with those eating from the buffet she's prepared, embracing her friends. In its own way this, too, is a "beloved community" -- people sustained by a history of caring about each other and about something in New Orleans that has made their spirits fresh and engaged.

From one perspective, the future of New Orleans is bleak. Surely no governmental body, least of all FEMA, has given anyone reason for confidence. But this is no ordinary place, and these are no ordinary people. Rooted in their history is a vision -- admittedly utopian -- that affirms the possibilities of living in biracial peace; prizes grace, hospitality and humor; and fights like hell against bureaucrats who refuse to acknowledge the human potential for rising above self-interest and cynicism. Maybe -- just maybe -- there is reason to hope.

William H. Chafe, a history professor at Duke University, writes about race and gender. He recently returned from a weekend as a volunteer in New Orleans.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company