Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Katrina, the Earth, and God Almighty

Sunday, April 30, 2006



Psalm 46: 1-11

Matthew 18: 1-5, 10-14

Rev. Dean Snyder


The National Council of Churches has challenged every pastor in America to spend at least one Sunday thinking about and talking about what hurricane Katrina has to teach us about the stewardship of the earth. I doubt that it will happen, but the challenge intrigued me.


What might it mean if every church in America spent at least one Sunday thinking about the stewardship of God’s good creation and what we can learn about it from what has been one of greatest natural disasters that our country has ever known: Hurricane Katrina coupled with Hurricane Rita in 2005?


More than a thousand people died in the aftermath of the hurricanes. There are several thousand people that have been reported missing and still not found these many months later.  80% of one of our nation’s most significant cities was flooded with water.  80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded. People were scattered throughout the country and many have not yet been able to return to their homes.  The federal government is telling us that Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in the history of our nation.


I am very pleased that Foundry is responding. We are sending a VIM team, a Volunteer in Mission team, to the gulf area to help in cleaning up houses the last week in June. I understand from Jim Walker that there are still places available to be part of the VIM team if there is anyone that can give the last week of June to go down and be part of a team that will clean out the devastation from the impacted homes. All of us can help support the VIM team by spending money at their silent auction which will be beginning soon. 


Ann Wilcox and a group of Foundry people have been meeting with some Katrina evacuees who are still here in Washington. They have been meeting on Wednesday nights to build community to provide friendship and support for these evacuees who are still living here in our city and helping them find resources for the possibility of finding work and other kinds of help. 


Our Religion and Race group has spent some time studying and thinking about the racial aspects of what happened after Katrina. 


Our Bishop John Schol recently spent a week traveling throughout the gulf area. He spent some time working with his own hands to repair homes. But he spent a lot of time visiting places where VIM teams and others were at work.  He has told us that he saw two things during that trip.  One was that he saw great devastation far beyond anything he would have imagined had he not seen it with his own eyes. The second thing he said he saw was the church at it best: the United Methodist Church at its best, but also the Christian church at its best. The churches are the soul, but also the hands and the feet of the recovery from Katrina.  The churches are making all the difference.


But what the National Council of Churches is asking us to do is something in addition to these responses that we make with our hands. The National Council of Churches is asking us to ponder and to think about and to meditate on the question of what we might learn from Katrina about the stewardship of the earth. 


And so, I have been pondering it and there are three things I want to suggest to stimulate your own thinking. And then a question I want to raise.


I offer three things to stimulate your own thinking. The first one is: how ignorant we have been. I say this especially of myself and others of my generation. How ignorant we’ve been about the work of our creator and the intricacy and marvelous interconnectedness of all creation. We have just fooled around with pieces of it without knowing what we were doing.


I grew up on a farm, but we weren’t active farmers any more. As I grew up on the farm, one of our goals was to dry up and fill in every piece of wetland on that farm.  We thought wetlands were a mistake that somehow God had made, the creator had somehow made, that we needed to fix.  Just now, we are discovering how important wetlands are. I used to think it was important because I like birds and wildlife. But it turns out that wetlands are important for tame life or whatever the alternative is for wild life. Wetlands are important for all of us.


Part of the reason that the devastation of Katrina was so devastating is because in Louisiana alone we have corrected or lost over a million acre of wetland.  Half of that million acres of wetland that we have lost we lost only in the last 50 years. We have done away with it. We as a nation are still losing about 20 thousand acres of wetland every year. So, when a storm comes or a flood comes, there is no place to absorb the water.  I know what happened in New Orleans had much to do with the levees, but it also had to do with the fact we have done away with the natural ways that the earth deals with natural things such as storms and hurricanes. There was no place to absorb the water. There was no system as wetlands are to filter out the pollutants of the water.  Part of the devastation of Katrina has to do with things that we have done, where we in our ignorance and our arrogance had no idea of how we were fooling with intricacies the creator has made. 


I know that there is a lot of debate about global warming.  But the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argues that global warming has tended to increase hurricanes and storms by one category level.  Katrina began as a category 5 but wore itself out. By the time it hit New Orleans it was a 3.  NRDC argues that were it not for global warming, it would have been at least one category less and its impact would have been significantly less. The same is true for most storms.


I rode with Peter DeGroote to the retreat in Rehoboth Beach last Friday. Peter has a new car and it’s a hybrid. It’s the first time I have ever ridden in a hybrid. It flashes this number giving the miles per gallon it is getting. Most of the way between Washington and Rehoboth, including that enormous amount of time we spent trying to get to the bridge, that thing was flashing something like 70 miles per gallon, which is 2 or 3 times what our 6-year-old Honda Accord gets per gallon of gas.


What impact would it have on the release of carbon monoxide to the air, if we just stopped making any other car but hybrids?  Over the course of a few years, as our cars ran out and needed to be replaced, we could cut in half the amount of gasoline we use and the fuels we release into the air. It seems logical to me.


But I think one of the greatest lessons here from Katrina about us not knowing what we are doing has to do with the release of toxic chemicals and substance that happened during Katrina. 


According to the Coast Guard, there were at least 575 spills of toxic chemicals and petroleum due to Katrina and Rita, due to us.  We’re the ones who had it there. People came home to their flooded communities not just finding mud and dirt as you would expect, but finding toxic chemicals and sewage.  The EPA studies of the 9th Ward of New Orleans after Katrina discovered arsenic levels 75 times higher, not 75% higher, but 75 times higher than the acceptable level for residential communities. The homes and the factories of the gulf coast were filled with hazardous materials that people hardly realized were there until Katrina let it loose.


One of the things I have been thinking about in my own unawareness is how little I know about my own home and what’s in it. Jane knows more, I am sure, because she pays more attention to these things. But, I don’t know what’s in my basement. I don’t know a lot about what’s in the stuff under my sink. I don’t know much about the stuff that I use to kill the grass in the bricks of the sidewalk outside of my home or the stuff I put on the lawn outside the house. I know that there is a drain gutter outside of our house and I know that whatever goes down that drain gutter flows right to the Anacostia.  I know the way the Anacostia looks, but I don’t think much about what I contribute to the Anacostia or eventually to the Chesapeake Bay or to the lands around the Chesapeake Bay. I love to go there and look at birds – birds that I may be killing because, I don’t know, I’m not paying attention to what is in our house.  I wonder how many of us pay attention. I wonder how many of us know what toxic substances are in our homes that we’re using. I wonder how many know what toxic substances are in this church.


So, Jana Meyer, our Minister of Mission, and I were talking about this. And Jana has offered to work with a group of people to study and educate the rest of us about how to live in ways that are less intrusive and destructive of the earth. This is sort of a Green Mission Group that would study and educate the rest of us about the substances we use in our homes, about recycling, about what recycling can accomplish, how to do it and what it would mean to do it. They will educate us about anything else they can come up with to help us to live personally in ways that would be less harmful, to be more conscious, to be more intentional because Katrina has shown us that we are doing things that we don’t even know we’re doing because we haven’t paid attention.


If three people, at least three people, would see Jana after the service and say, “I will give myself to this task of helping educate Dean about what he is doing to hurt the earth and educate this congregation and other people,” we will begin a Green Mission Group.


Katrina didn’t cause any of this. Katrina is part of the rain that falls on both the unjust and just that Jesus talked about. What it has done is to expose things that we have done that we’ve hardly known we were doing, that have interfered with the natural processes of the good earth that takes such good care of us.


The second area of my reflections about this is that Katrina has exposed the racist nature of our treatment of the environment. We are still wrestling with this and we need to wrestle with it. The National Council of Churches is using a new term that has emerged since Katrina called “Environmental Racism.” Pollution and other negative impacts on the environment disproportionately impact poor communities of color. 


3 out of every 5 African American and Latinos live in communities where there is a toxic waste site.  African Americans and Latinos are 13% more likely to live in communities that do not meet the clean air standards of our nation. African Americans and Latinos are more likely to live in places that are going to make them sick than white people are. 


Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice says that Katrina has shoved in our face three critical learnings that we all need to deal with. One is that Katrina has shown us that we are vulnerable to economic, to environmental disasters. Katrina has shown us that America still suffers from gross economic inequalities and these inequalities largely coincide with race. Katrina has shown us, she says, that these two issues are linked and that the results can be deadly. 


Here lies the root causes of problems that we have seen in New Orleans and the gulf coast, she says, that result in the environmental and economic vulnerability of people of color and poor communities. The term that aptly describes this intersection of race, class, and environment is “Environmental Racism.”


Those of us who have lived and worked and ministered in the city have known this.  We make poor people live in places that are not healthy.  Katrina has made it harder for us to avoid facing it. The Washington Interfaith Network, the coalition of churches that we are part of here, has discovered totally unlivable conditions within a mile of where we are sitting today. Within a mile of where we are sitting today, teens from Washington Interfaith Network have visited apartment buildings where the inhabitants, the tenants, are almost entirely Hispanic.  They have discovered conditions that are unbelievable, including bathrooms that have an inch of black mold on the ceiling and the wall. The landlords do not bother repairing because the Hispanic people living in these apartment buildings have very few options. Our disregard and poor treatment of the environment impacts people of color and poor communities way out of proportion to the rest of us. Our treatment of the environment is racist.


The third area of learning that I want to lift up is one that doesn’t come from the National Council of Churches, but one that has been very much on my heart these last months with regard to Katrina and the earth and the environment. And it is this: science is really important; information is really important; learning the truth about our earth is really important; science and scientists are really important.


One of the reasons they are important is because the scientific community has always had a deep commitment that has said that truth is not for sale. The truth is the truth. Now we know that scientists are human and science is imperfect.  But this commitment that the scientific community has said that no matter who pays the bills, no matter who pays my salary, the truth is the truth. We have a commitment to discover the truth whether those who pay us would like it or not because the truth is the truth.  The scientific community does not do this perfectly but the commitment itself makes a big difference. 


It feels to me that there are more questions today than ever before in my lifetime about whether it is still true that science is not for sale. It is more so now than ever before in my lifetime that people are asking, and I’m asking sometimes, the question of whether it is still possible for science to be neither Democratic nor Republican.


Science and scientists have always had a commitment to say that they do not work for politics. They do not work for viewpoints. They work to discover the objective truth.  I think there is nothing more critical and more important in our time and in our society than scientists who work for truth and nothing else. The commitment sometimes feels threatened to me. The churches have by and large not helped because we’ve acted as though we had a revelation from God that supersedes truth, and that supersedes scientific findings and discoveries. So, people don’t really need to listen to the findings of science because what’s really important is the revelation that we have from God. But the revelation that we have from God has to do with what the heart of God teaches us about love and justice. We have to apply that by using the best knowledge that the minds that God has given us can discover. 


There will be no way out of the problems that we have taking care of our earth and the impact on people, unless we say to the scientists of our community that we expect you to tell us the truth no matter what. If science is undermined and its commitment to truth is undermined, our society’s ability to live justly on the face of this earth is threatened. 


I think that scientists are the prophets of our time. The Old Testament prophets were not fortune tellers. The Old Testament prophets were truth tellers who said if you do this, this is what’s going to happen. If you do that, then this is what’s going to happen. It is the role of the scientific community to tell us the truth about the earth. If we do this, that’s going to happen. If we do this other thing, something else will happen.  


All of us need to listen and attend and process through the lens of our faith commitments to love, inclusion, justice, and the learnings that we get from science.  Faith does not give us permission to ignore truth. Faith does not give us permission to ignore truth.


But one question: where is God in all of this? Where is God in Katrina and the aftermath and all the natural disasters that occur on our earth and all that we have done to the earth?   What I’ve been thinking about a lot since Katrina and talked about a lot is the story of Elijah in the Old Testament, who in a time of frustration goes and hides in a cave like many of us do when we are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.  While he is in the cave, outside the cave there passes a hurricane, a great wind. There is an earthquake. There is a fire. Elijah doesn’t discover the presence or the voice of God in the hurricane, or in the earthquake, or in the fire. 


After they’ve all passed, there is a stillness, a stone silence. In that silence God speaks to Elijah and says, “O, person of God, what are you doing here?” Elijah leaves his cave and goes back down into the world, into the struggle again.


It seems to me that God wasn’t speaking to us in Katrina. Katrina is part of the rain that falls on the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. God is speaking to us in this time of silence after Katrina.  God is calling us to leave our caves of isolation and self-absorption.