As the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, I’ve reflected on my own experience with the devastation. After the storm, I drove from Fort Worth, where I was in seminary, to Shreveport, where Hirsch Coliseum was a makeshift shelter for those coming in buses from New Orleans and the surrounding areas. My graduation from high school was in the same room that had now become home to hundreds. Inflatable mattresses in rows, parents in zombie-like states, and children playing in the walkways — I can close my eyes and can be transported back there with a simple, deep breath.
While volunteering, we did whatever was needed: organize donated clothing, input information to the Red Cross database, pray with strangers, play with children and get to know their parents. It changed me in ways I am still discovering. Most deeply, it brought to my attention the reality that those in poverty lacked means to get out of the city when the storm came in. This wasn’t some other country. This was my home state, my country. How could this happen? No matter our country, state or neighborhood, we all live in systems of inequity that feel like they are beyond our control. Certainly, they are beyond our control if we were to try to dismantle them alone or all at once. Even worse, sometimes scripture is used to keep us from working against inequity and poverty.
When we hear that Jesus proclaimed that “the poor will always be with you,” (Matt 26) we can often resign ourselves to just taking care of ourselves. Those words can become a way to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to act. Upon closer look, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15, where it is proclaimed that because there are people in poverty, we have a hand open to help always. In Matthew 26, a woman in poverty anoints Jesus and helps him prepare for the cross. In that moment, Jesus’ own poverty is revealed and it is clear that even the most vulnerable among us have the ability to reveal God’s love.
In reading Matthew 26, it is important to know that God does not will people to suffer in poverty. Too often, humanity refuses to engage in the work to upend poverty. As Christians, we proclaim with Jesus that the poor will always be with us because that word of God catapults us into action. Could we say it this way: If there are poor, they ought to be with us; even more, we should be with them?!
Many things happened in the time I sat on the floor playing or talking at Hirsch Coliseum. Friendships developed with a family from Gentilly, a neighborhood in New Orleans. We worked together to find their mama who had ended up in a hospital in Monroe, LA. We made trips to the store together. We laughed and we cried. As it came time for me to head back to Fort Worth, I received a gift from the women of this family: a bud vase, a partially used body spray that made it out of New Orleans in one of the women’s purses, and a $5 bill with a note written on it – Katrina didn’t take it all. With that gift, I felt the oil poured over my head, anointing me to work for justice and always find myself with an open hand to help.
This Sunday, worship will be different. It is my hope that we will find ourselves reminded that we are all anointed to unravel the systems of poverty and racism that keep our culture divided, weaving ourselves together in love. We will not upend systemic poverty in our city in this one Sunday, but by working together we will find the energy to keep making choices that empower us to say poverty, death, and even the cross do not have the last word — God does.