It is commendable for President Bush to apologize for the mistakes made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We welcome his pledge to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We celebrate his promise to address the injustices that were so profoundly exposed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans.
Both his apology and his promises will help us move forward as a nation. Yet, as his sisters and brothers in faith, we feel it is our duty to remind the president that an apology and promises will only go so far. Now, as a nation, we must acknowledge that this crisis has only exposed what lies just beneath the surface of prosperity and progress in this country. In America, we have a past that haunts us on every level of our existence. We now see all too clearly that a person’s race and class can often determine whether or not you are left behind in the Super Dome or escorted to safety.
As we look beyond the president’s welcome candor, we must now look to our government and to the private sector for a long-term change in behavior that recognizes and corrects the glaring inequities of American society in housing, jobs and wages, health care and education–the list is long and growing. Disaster relief and rescue must go beyond the flooded streets of New Orleans and reach into the desperate lives of the millions in poverty across our land–a disproportionate number of whom are African American.
Today, we stand on the threshold of what is a great opportunity. It is an opportunity to become the America that we have always dreamed of being. It is an opportunity to become the America that Martin Luther King Jr. so vividly portrayed in his “I Have A Dream” speech more than 40 years ago. It is an opportunity to stop making empty promises, to practice what we preach, to walk what we talk. It is way beyond overdue that America treats all its citizens as full participants in the economic and educational and cultural mainstream. We may have come to America on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.
In our rush to repair the levees and restore the neighborhoods of the Gulf Coast, let us not continue the injustices–and yes, the sins of omission and commission–of the past. Let us not continue to allow children to be left behind by under-funded school systems and inadequate healthcare. Let us not continue to allow poor people to live in neighborhoods that are environmental hazards. Let us not continue to allow honest, hardworking people to work for less than livable wages.
The Book of Nehemiah (2:18) records that the people of Israel, seeing that Jerusalem was destroyed, said: “Let us rise up and build. Then they set their hands to this good work.”
As the bishop of the Fourth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church presiding over Mississippi and Louisiana and as the President of the National Council of Churches USA, I say to you: Let us rise up and build! How we respond as a nation to this crisis can be the beginning of a new era of progress, prosperity and promise for a new America that will be true to its spiritual and ethical values and worthy of its leadership among the nations.
Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt Jr. is president of the National Council of Churches and Christian Methodist Episcopal bishop of Louisiana and Mississippi.