Faith over fear
From Katrina to Covid-19, reflections on lessons learned
By Ansel Augustine
“Fear is the opposite of faith.” I remember my “dad,” the late Fr. Michael Jacques, SSE, shouting this phrase during his homilies from the pulpit of my home parish, St. Peter Claver (celebrating 100 years in 2020). His words of hope, along with the songs sung by our world-renowned gospel choir, would ignite the faith within our congregation.
On Tuesday, August 30, 2005, my life changed forever. Although Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi the day before, the levees in my hometown of New Orleans broke that day.
I had been evacuated with some of my frat brothers to Florida. I had no transportation out of town and left with them on Sunday, August 28. We were glued to the TV as we watched images of New Orleans filling with water on August 30. I was trying to catch glimpses of my neighborhood to see how bad the damage was.
The next two years were filled with locating youth from my youth ministry at my home parish, St. Peter Claver. (Prior to Katrina it was the second largest black Catholic parish in the country, with over 1,500 families attending.) I went from city to city to locate families to bring them back home, finding them while I was living on the streets, in a car, in the church, in various people’s apartments or homes, etc.
It was all a bad dream. Even the numerous funerals that had to be planned felt like it was unreal during the aftermath of the hurricane.
There was a popular bumper sticker that came out after Katrina that said, “Be a New Orleanian: Wherever you are.” It is true; we carried the spirit of our city wherever we went. To this day, I still carry with me the memories of the 19 people I lost in the storm. I carry the spirit of Fr. Michael, who died in 2013 due to the stress of rebuilding and maintaining our church. I carry the spirit of all my ancestors, who sacrificed much so that I could “be.” I carry the spirit of my young people whom I fight for, so that they can have a better way of life than I did growing up. We’ve come a long way in 15 years, but we still have far to go.
Now a new “storm” has ravaged the community and our world. Covid-19, more commonly referred to by local folks as corona, much like our evacuations during Katrina, has created a “new normal” for folks.
Throughout the world, but specifically in New Orleans, there have been many lost due to the virus. The tourist economy has been stifled due to popular festivals being cancelled. Our local mayor, along with mayors of other majority black cities, have been going against other state officials in opening the city, due to the fact that black and brown populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Finally, much like Katrina, many have not been able to get closure because funerals for those that have passed have had to have limited attendance.
Despite the effects that this pandemic will have on the world, especially in how younger generations will interact with the world as they get older, there have been moments of hope. Much like Katrina, communities have come together.
Although recently unemployed, many of the culture bearers, like those who create the ornate suits and outfits that are seen during popular Louisiana festivals, have come together to make masks for the communities as an immediate response to the initial shortage of masks.
Many churches have come together with other community organizations and politicians to organize food giveaways for those in need.
Also, our musicians have shared their gifts, whether online or in person, using social distance protocols, to help spread hope and love in a community where music is a source of love.
Various nonprofits have come together to create grant programs to help the culture bearers that have been affected by the festival cancelations.
Just as in Katrina, there are many people who are fearful. There are many who are stressed, depressed and anxious, because they do not know when, or if, this pandemic will end.
Various news outlets report the great disparity (which was also made prevalent during Katrina) between the rich and the poor. Also, like Katrina, many feel those in all levels of government are tone deaf to the actual needs of the community and are politicizing this event.
But there is hope. Fifteen years ago I did not know how God would work it out, but I knew that he would. That’s what my faith told me. It wasn’t easy. There were many times I wanted to give up and start life over, but I knew my family and youth were depending on me.
Even today, in the midst of this pandemic, I see the gentrification occurring through my city, and many of us are still struggling with PTSD, depression and various other mental health issues due to the effects of the pandemic.
I ask myself, “Was it all worth it?” But I do have faith that we are part of a bigger plan and that, as Fr. Mike used to say, “Church, fear is the enemy of faith!”
So this is our source of hope, knowing that God is still in control. No matter where you are as you read this, remember our God is still the same, yesterday — today — tomorrow. To those who are struggling with loss, be thankful for the experiences you have had with a loved one, and honor their memory by helping others. This is how we, as a community, will survive and thrive. This is where God shows up and shouts out in our lives.
This is how we, as a community bounced back from the devastation of Katrina, and how we will bounce back from this pandemic. It is from the flood that we valued how much our culture, our community, our faith (which we at times took for granted) meant to us.
Hopefully from this pandemic, we, as a world, will realize how much the body of Christ needs one another and can overcome this together and respond out of faith over fear … 15 years down, a lifetime to go.
Dr. Ansel Augustine is the executive director of cultural diversity and outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington. He is the former director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is on the faculty of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana.
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