I don’t know exactly why USA Today’s article about New Orleans and the COVID-19 outbreak aggravated me so. You can read it for yourself here: “Death rate soars in New Orleans coronavirus ‘disaster’ that could define city for generations.”
At first, I thought it was the tone. I read it again. The tone is serious and even – it wasn’t that. I thought some more. Was it too opinionated? Did it editorialize? I read it again. Though I sense a bit of conjecture in the overall message, the story is presented in a straightforward, journalistic style (more or less). I read it again. Most of the statistics presented are completely true – in the best of times, New Orleans has problems. Simple figures on poverty rates, access to affordable housing and the number of hospital beds are not the sum total of a city. Our city is more resilient than most.
But what kept on coming to my mind was an undercurrent — the unsaid and unintentional – “Shame on New Orleans.” Or “Isn’t New Orleans pitiful.”
Perhaps neither message is actually present in the article, but I have heard both often during my 17-year residency in the Big Easy. That’s 17 years of calling this place home and raising a son here. Seventeen years of living out the Gospel in the city – loving its people and working to make this place better. And my paltry efforts to help are overshadowed by many other Christians who have given their lives away to help the least, the lost and the broken. I have been touched by how well people in New Orleans love their neighbors and give back to their city. Countless secular non-profits are also working tirelessly to make this city better. The USA Today story posted shortly after New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees pledged $5 million to help the city and the state recover. That is on top of all the ways Brees is already helping our city financially on a regular basis. We rarely hear these positive stories about New Orleans in the national media.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, national media and self-appointed commentators acted as if the residents of New Orleans were just waiting around for help … doing nothing. I even heard people contrast the “good” responses of residents in other natural disasters with the “bad” response of New Orleanians following Katrina. The narrative was simply false. It was based on the preconceived notions of New Orleans and some of the discussions had racial and/or classist overtones.
The truth was much different. We received great help from outside. We are thankful for it and we could not have recovered without it. But we were all involved in the rebuild as well – New Orleanians of all races, all social backgrounds, and every social stratum. We were working before outside help came and we were still working when outside help was no longer available. God was glorified in this city and the Gospel went out. I expect the same with COVID-19.
The city moved quickly to encourage social distancing – in a city known for social closeness. I believe their efforts have saved lives, though we could certainly do a better job at distancing. I am concerned that many other places in the U.S. will experience serious outbreaks due to their slow action. We need to pray for our leaders (in New Orleans and wherever you live). We also need to give them the benefit of the doubt on their decisions – this crisis is unprecedented.
I am also confident that the church members, ministers, missionaries, and seminary students (at New Orleans Seminary and Leavell College) in this city will present the hope of Christ during and after this crisis. I believe God will be glorified. There is hope in the midst of this struggle.
Make no mistake, I am not saying this virus won’t take a historical toll on New Orleans. COVID-19 is a significant challenge. We will lament this and mourn over this for years. After reading it again and again … there’s really nothing wrong with the article, but it still bugs me. We don’t want your pity. We do want your prayers.