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Bishops asked to join 'We the People' leadership

Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed

[Episcopal News Service, New Orleans] "We the people" leadership, of churches, grassroots organizations and community activists, are making a difference and sparking recovery in New Orleans and can become a model for urban America, Dr Gus Newport told the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops September 23.

"I have never seen such devastation, and I've been in war zones," Newport told the joint gathering of bishops and spouses about his first few weeks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is the program director for the Vanguard Public Foundation, a San Francisco-based foundation which seeks an end to racism, and promotes civil rights, economic justice, gender equality and community empowerment.

"Every evening, I would just cry, and wonder why there were no mental health experts here to help people get through this. When Columbine happened, that area was saturated with mental health professionals. How can a society like ours not think about mental health professionals, it's just plain racist," he said.

He praised the leadership of Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins for community involvement and appealed to other bishops to go back and tell the story of New Orleans, "how two years after the hurricane, the majority of people are still not back in their homes. Why isn't the national media here, covering this story?" he asked.

Citing what he called a combination of failure of government and leadership to combat racism, classism, poor public policy, greed and inadequate planning, he added: "I also remind you that the majority of the cities of the United States are in similar conditions. They are time bombs waiting to explode. In the case of New Orleans, Katrina was the detonator."

"We feel that collectively we have the possibility of doing a project here that could be used as a model for the country. Each of you could apply it in local areas where you live," he told bishops, adding: "I've been saying for years that we have in the United States, a third world in the first world."

Newport, along with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, is working to put together coalitions of people to help youth, to improve public education, to press for affordable housing, and is asking bishops to consider a resolution that would focus pressure on the United States Congress for a renewed vision and leadership.

He told the gathering that present conditions were created after World War II when, in about 80 percent of the nation's cities, manufacturing and other jobs were outsourced to cheaper labor markets, interstate freeways were constructed and in many cases were built in the heart of black economic districts, effectively killing them and disenfranchising cities. At the same time, he said, real estate developers built suburban shopping malls and most of the white middle class moved away.

"That in a sense removed all the economies from the inner city, all you had left were philanthropy dollars and then they wonder why there's so much crime and violence. It's failed public policy." Newport said. He added that the New Society and Model Cities programs of the Lyndon Johnson presidency failed because "they built a lot of substandard rental housing and didn't complement it with adequate commercial development."

Now, he added: "These cities are time bombs waiting to detonate. In the case of New Orleans, the infrastructure was extremely flawed, there was a poor tax base, the levees hadn't been fixed for years. We wonder sometimes where are our priorities as a society.

"How can we spend trillions of dollars going into war in Iraq at the expense of a country so deteriorated, where our public school system is in such a state of decline?"

He cited irregularities with local, state and national agencies assisting in the hurricane recovery. "Insurance agencies won't write insurance policies any longer. The one public housing facility they had is in better shape than anything else, and they won't let the residents back in, even to get their personal belongings. They're going to tear that down."

Newport called upon bishops to tell the story of New Orleans, to investigate the circumstances in their own dioceses and to form coalitions to become "we the people" leadership.

He paraphrased the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who spoke to the bishops earlier in the week. "Stop and think about what your own archbishop said. 'Our job is to make sure the least amongst are recognized, the very old and very young can live in peace, if that's what we're pursuing we got a lot of work to do in the middle.'"

"We can all forgo politics; we need a comprehensive approach that will allow us to engage people to identify their dreams and visions of what they'd like to see in their communities.

"We don't want to any longer just build and rebuild by putting all the poor in one place. It would be nice if we could mix the classes and build houses where you can't see difference."

There is hope, however.

Jenkins told the gathering that the diocese is forming a commission modeled after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to help in the recovery process.

He added, however, that, "One of the great pushbacks against it is coming from the religious community."

"If you see the planning process, some 2-3,000 people coming together and responding, you'd recognize that people really want to make a difference. Right now, they don't give a damn who's representing them as leaders as long as doing it correctly if black, white, whatever."

"We're looking at clustering effects, developing youth programs, places where young people can come and do music, give them alternatives to violence.

"We're not talking about examining past practices. We're talking about showing what this has done to our society so we can build a sound foundation on which to move forward so we as a country of people can live in peace and maximize our potential. Hopefully it will take place all across this country."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is senior associate for parish life at St. George's Church and Academy in Laguna Hills, California. She is also a correspondent for the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal News Service.

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