(RNS) When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore six years ago, it brought in its wake untold property damage and emotional distress to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but also something deeper.
“Where,” countless people asked, “was God?”
Some conservative religious leaders warned that Katrina was a divine rebuke for abortion or perhaps a warning from God that the U.S. still hadn’t taken enough precautions to prepare for a terrorist attack.
For William Mackintosh, a retired Presbyterian pastor who survived the exodus from and return to New Orleans, God played an active role throughout the disaster, but was not punishing America.
In his recent book, “Katrina: Where Was God?” Mackintosh probes the problem of human suffering in an effort to comfort readers with his family’s firsthand account of escape and return.
“I thought this would relate far better than the usual theological discourse when very learned and systematic answers are given by theologians,” Mackintosh said. “I am writing to explain the faith, to express it in language that an average person can understand.”
The book records the journals of Mackintosh; his wife Ruth; Ruth’s mother, Grace; and her brother, Louis Gallo.
The primary focus of the text is the travel narrative of the trip to Virginia and back to New Orleans. “Ruth kept notes everyday,” Mackintosh said. As the book was written, those notes were fleshed into journal entries and bound together.
Gallo, Mackintosh’s brother-in-law who was originally from New Orleans, provided a temporary landing pad in his cramped house in Virginia for the three refugees from New Orleans.
Mackintosh said he compiled his family’s story not only for posterity, but also “to show the frustrations, anxiety and despair that occur with this type of disaster,” Mackintosh said.
“His lessons are as old as evil itself: that from suffering springs joy, from destruction, renewal, from anxiety, brotherhood and sisterhood,” The Times-Picayune newspaper described the book.
While wall-to-wall Katrina coverage highlighted dramatic rooftop helicopter rescues or ominous alligators lurking in flooded streets, Mackintosh said he also wanted to capture the everyday struggles of a failing car engine or sleeping in a car to protect a lifetime of possessions.
“These are illustrations of frustration that work on the nerves,” Mackintosh said.
But the most important reason, Mackintosh said, was to try to answer the question in the book’s title.
“God doesn’t send suffering, he allows it,” Mackintosh said, “and God enters into suffering and shows us how to use it.”
Mackintosh believes suffering and disaster allow believers to learn and practice trust in God, as well as provide a chance for people to be heroic and to help others.
“How do you know the heroic unless you have heroes that encounter suffering and rise above suffering?” he said. “It enables the person who suffers to find escape and success.”