In the Aftermath of Katrina: A Bomb for Gilead?

In the Aftermath of Katrina: A Bomb for Gilead?

By Rev. Dwight Webster, Senior Pastor, Christian Unity Baptist Church, New OrleansRev. Dwight Webster
Rev. Dwight Webster

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

~ Jeremiah 8:20-22 (NRSV)

The winds of Katrina blew into every-one’s living room. It was a metaphor for everything that is wrong with America.

~ Ron Dellums, Black America Town Hall Meeting, Oakland, CA (3/4/06)



The flooding of New Orleans was not an act of the divine Creator, but the failure of the human creature. The failures of the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, Red Cross and others were not acts of the Almighty – they were, rather, the actions of the “high and mighty.”

The diversion of National Guard troops who could have been home guarding the nation and money that could been directed to levees and coastal land preservation was not an act of an angry, vengeful god, but that of petty political potentates more interested in the preservation of their power base rather than how to get the power back on – not merely Uptown and the French Quarters, but throughout a suffering city.

Before Katrina

• Over the years dollars have been deliberately diverted from the levees and coastal restoration

• Over the years dollars have been redirected to a search for the right man in the wrong country with non-existent weapons of mass destruction

According to Mtangulizi Sanyika of the New Orleans African American Leadership Project:

• 35-40% of African Americans in New Orleans are living in poverty

• 40-50% are underemployed

• 62% of Black households earn less than $25,000 per year

• 31,000 children are undereducated

• iess than 20% own their homes in some neighborhoods – not so in the Lower Ninth Ward where an ownership of 60% was the case

• less than 15% of the businesses are owned by African-Americans

• Blacks die from every type of illness earlier than others; homicide and imprisonment are disproportionately high, and the overall quality of life is among the worst in the US

With United States military expenditures in the hundreds of billions, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. warn us that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (April 4, 1967)

Instead of the billions of dollars going to support the war in Iraq, a modern-day Marshall Plan should be undertaken and directed toward the entire Gulf Coast – and to New Orleans in particular. The statistics make it clear that the devastation, displacement, and disenfranchisement of New Orleans are of such a magnitude that the situation demands its own redress.

The Plan should be aimed at changing policy such as that which is governed by the Stafford Act to be more comprehensive and consistent in doing what it takes to bring relief, recovery and restoration. Each of these areas is still at issue for so many in New Orleans and in the diaspora. People are still in a state of emergency. People are on the verge of homelessness. People are dying for a lack of adequate medical treatment, financial resources, and hope that they could ever be made whole again. It is in the nation’s enlightened self-interest to engage in informed advocacy on behalf of the region of the country through which 20-25% of its own oil resources come. Initial charitable gestures and grants were necessary, but only first steps for the so-called greatest nation on earth.

It is one thing to deal with issues of rescue, relief and recovery, but quite another to deal with the justice issues involved in the right of return for restoration, rebuilding, and redevelopment. This involves mega-money and the need for fair and equitable distribution – not just doling out no-bid contracts to well-connected friends. There is the need for the State of Louisiana to distribute recovery money without using a patently insulting and paternalistic welfare model that keeps recovery money out the hands of grown men and women who should be allowed the option of handling their own business affairs. The homeowners are not children. And what of relief for renters? There should also be the meaningful participation of the now dispersed population to vote and have a say in how the city and region comes back. This country managed to facilitate multi-state Iraqi voting – why not for its own citizens?

For those who are looking to do something of substance that really helps the situation, I submit the story of the "Good Samaritan." In this story found in Luke 10:30-37, a paradigm and a threshold question are put forth: Who is my neighbor, and what obligation do I have to one found battered and abandoned on the Jericho Road? Some suggest that love is what is required when one meets one. But when we meet more than one, justice is required and questions about what is going on with the Jericho Road in the first place must addressed and answered. The prophet leads us to the Great Physician to let us know that there is a Balm in Gilead.

Charity is inadequate. Pity is unhelpful. Compassion fatigue is understandable, but unacceptable. Divine right action and divine imperative issue from two great, guiding scriptures:

What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.(Amos 5:24 NRSV)


Rev. Dwight Webster is the founding Pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, LA, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He and his wife Trudell have four sons: Dwight-Nathaniel at Florida A&M University; Toussaint in Morehouse College; Kwame, at Oberlin College; and Amir, a ninth grader at Head Royce School in Oakland, CA, where the family resides in diaspora in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Most recently, Rev. Webster, together with Civil Rights veterans C.T. Vivian and David Jehnsen, formed Churches Supporting Churches, an adopt-a-church program for post-Katrina pastor/church and community long-term recovery in New Orleans. He is the co-founder of the Jeremiah Group, a broad-based, faith-based ecumenical organization, affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, that "seeks the welfare of the city" of New Orleans.

For more on the struggle for recovery in the Gulf visit: ; ;