Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive "If I Forget You, O New Orleans"...Hurricane Katrina And My Vocation As A Bible Teacher

My family and I proudly called New Orleans home. I usethe past tense because our future is anything butclear. We are not natives of the Crescent City, as wemoved there five years ago when I accepted a positionto teach Hebrew Bible at Xavier University ofLouisiana. But in this time, New Orleans has become abig part of who I am. Some of this is literally truebecause I'm now 40 pounds heavier due partially to myweak resolve and mostly to tantalizing dishes such as alligator sausage cheesecake, fried oyster po' boys, crawfish étouffée, and muffalettas. In fact, our family immediately embraced the regional tradition of eating red beans and rice for dinner every Monday,which sounds healthy—until you learn about thepresence of other ingredients such as andouillesausage and tasso.

But mostly my link to the Big Easy is spiritual. Timemoved slower there, making the city's rich history allthe more humbling. As a major port city in theSouthern United States and as a centerfor the slave trade, New Orleans became a vibrantcenter of multiculturalism. The mixing of thesediverse traditions created incredibly rich culturalgumbos and produced jazz, America's greatest artistic achievement. Throughout our city we had the privilege of hearing some of the world's finest musicians in intimate venues. Trust me, to have heard Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers at Vaughn's on aThursday night would have dramatically changed yourworld. And as my daughter was so fond of saying, "NewOrleans sure knows how to party." Mardi Gras was muchmore than the decadent picture painted by MTV and"Girls Gone Wild." The elaborate parades were actuallyfantastic fun for children. We as a family annuallyparticipated in the Krewe of Barkus, a Mardi Grasparade for costumed dogs. It was fun to live in NewOrleans.

I recognize that New Orleans also had major drawbacks.The city was famous for corruption and extreme Bacchanalianism, though the latter didn't bother too much a fat man fond of beer, such as myself. However, the biggest problems in New Orleans stemmed from theextreme poverty and poor public education system, bothof which I believe were ultimately tied to issues ofrace. I saw the repercussions of slavery and racism ona daily basis, and it was not a very flattering imagefor my country.

And today New Orleans lies in ruins. Following thenatural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the floodingcaused in part by negligent politicians, both myuniversity and my house sustained devastating damage.Toxic sludge has covered my neighborhood, leavingpiles of detritus and the smell of death. I personally witnessed the storm, and I watched the water rise over the next two days from the second story in my home. Five days after Katrina, I escaped New Orleans with my dogs, met my family who had the means and sense tohave earlier evacuated, and headed north to OmahaNebraska where we have family. I wrote in myblog about my experiences related to HurricaneKatrina, and I was amazed by the insightful letters I receivedlinking the experience of New Orleans to biblicalpassages such as Psalm 137. Another letter arrivedfrom a scholar whom I much admire, and he commented:"All the great tragedies of history must be real foryou in a way I hope I never know." Nobody in my familydied because of Katrina; though honestly, I do betterunderstand tragedy.

As a student and teacher of the Bible, I believe thatthis disaster has parallels to the destructions ofJudah in 586 BCE and 70 CE. And the residents of NewOrleans, and much of the surrounding area in the GulfCoast, are now experiencing an exile of their own with unknown futures. My wife Therese was a public school teacher, and she lost her job the day of the hurricane. I am still officially employed by XavierUniversity, though I don't know how long this willlast. My school is hoping to open in January, but somehave said that is quite optimistic. I have heard frommany of my students, which was quite a miraculousfeat because all communications within the universityused Xavier phone numbers and email addresses, none ofwhich have worked since the storm. A few of mystudents, especially freshmen, are not planning onreturning to Xavier, as they intend on finishing theirdegrees at other institutions. I'm terrified thatstudent enrollment will drop so drastically that Iwill soon be without employment. My family and I arealso fighting assimilation. We continue to try to keepour New Orleans dietary laws, and thus far we havebeen able to keep eating red beans and rice onMondays. But it seems forced and unnatural. It alsoturns out that Nebraska is not a good place to findcrawfish and gumbo crabs.

The year 2005 will be remembered as the year of the catastrophic tsunami and hurricane. And as a Bible scholar and theologian, I have been asked by others, and I've asked myself, how could God let such awful things happen? Unfortunately, several extreme religious groups have suggested that both the tsunami and hurricanewere sent by God to punish sinners. This "causeand effect" approach to theodicy has parallels to theDeuternomistic Historian and Augustine, but itdisgusts me. Instead, I believe that horrible thingshappen to good people and that the world is ultimately anunjust place. Moreover, I believe that if Godcontinues to receive credit for miraculous medicalcures and even winning lottery numbers, then Godought to be held accountable for catastrophes. Thereare plenty of biblical precedents for God's behaving inways that appear to be unethical by human standards.After all, this is the God who ordered Abraham tosacrifice his son and the God who called for genocideagainst the Amalekites and Midianites. Christiansbelieve that this God later offered the life of HisSon to save the world. Thus I find a strange comfortin the Book of Job, where God explains that therationale behind Job's horrible tragedy could becomprehended only by those present on the day ofcreation (38:4). I suppose that evil is necessary ifwe are to witness goodness. During the past few weeks,I have seen plenty of both.

To deal with my depression, and perhaps toincrease my melancholia, I made a CD of some of myfavorite songs from New Orleans. There's LouisArmstrong singing "Do You Know What it Means to MissNew Orleans?" and the great Professor Longhair with"Mardi Gras in New Orleans." It makes me quitehomesick to listen to these songs. And to paraphraseand misquote one of my favorite authors, "For it isdifficult to sing the songs of New Orleans in aforeign land. If I forget you, O New Orleans, let myright hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof ofmy mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not setNew Orleans above my highest joy. Remember, O LORD,against the Hasterts the day of New Orleans' fall, howthey said, 'Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!' O daughters Katrina and politicians, you devastators! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!" (Ps 137:4-8, well sort of ...). That last part seems spiteful, and honestly I have nogoals of revenge. I've now been in a sort of exile fortwo weeks, and I am heading back to New Orleans as soon as possible to try to retrieve somedocuments and to see what I can do to help. I've readabout neighborhood clinics set up to help the peoplewho never evacuated; that sounds like noble work,so I'm doing my best to round up the supplies thatthey've requested.

I do hope that this country will doa better job dealing with issues of class, race, andpoverty. And I am convinced that my experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will make me a better teacher of the Bible, though when and where I'll be teaching are still up in the air. I hope and pray that Xavier will open in January. That would be somethingto behold. The emotions would be overwhelming, and Iimagine many tears will be shed, not unlike the exilesfrom Babylon who returned to Jerusalem and cried whenthey saw the rebuilt temple. I would imagine that atXavier in January, never before would students be soappreciated. I think I'll hug each of my students andtell them how thankful I am for the chance to teachthem. At least for now, that is how I foresee my partin rebuilding the great city of New Orleans.

Michael M. Homan, Xavier University of Louisiana,

Citation: Michael M. Homan, " "If I Forget You, O New Orleans"...Hurricane Katrina And My Vocation As A Bible Teacher," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.