by Ansel Augustine (D.Min. 2015)
On Tuesday, August 30, 2005, my life changed forever. Although Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi the day before, the levees in my hometown of New Orleans broke on that day. I was evacuated with some of my frat brothers to Florida. I had no transportation out of town, and left with them on Sunday, August 28th. We were glued to the TV as we watched images of New Orleans filling with water. I was trying to catch glimpses of my neighborhood to see how bad the damage was. The rest of the next two years was filled with locating youth from my youth ministry at my home parish, St. Peter Claver (prior to Katrina it was the second largest Black Catholic Parish in the country with over 1,500 families attending), moving from city to city to locate families to bring them back home, living on the streets, in a car, in the church, in various people’s apartments/homes, etc. It was all a bad dream. Even the numerous funerals that had to be planned felt like it was unreal during the aftermath of the hurricane.
There was a popular bumper sticker that came out after Katrina that said, “Be a New Orleanian: Wherever you are.” It is true; we carried the spirit of our city wherever we went. To this day, I still carry the memories of the 19 people I lost in the storm with me. I carry the spirit of my dad/mentor, Fr. Michael Jacques, SSE, who died a few years ago due to the stress of rebuilding and maintaining our church. I carry the spirit of all my ancestors who sacrificed much so that I could “be.” I carry the spirit of my young people that I fight for so that they can have a “better way” of life than I did growing up. Yes, we’ve come a long way in 10 years, but we still have far to go.
Many people still reflect on the images of people stranded in New Orleans after the storm. Katrina put the poverty that was rampant in New Orleans on the world stage. During the 10 year anniversary, many politicians and leaders spoke of the “rebuilt” city and how New Orleans was better than ever, but in reality, poverty is rampant still. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is growing. Many people are moving into the city and raising the cost of living in many neighborhoods, thus pushing long-time residents out of their neighborhoods. This is the new “storm” ravaging the city that many don’t talk about, but it is up to us, as people of faith, to be a “voice for the voiceless” and to make sure all have a fair chance at a decent life.
Here we are 10 years later, still trying to get a sense of normalcy. Due to population shifts, many of our local churches and schools were closed and merged. Many places that made New Orleans home, “Ain’t Dere No Mo’” (as the popular song states). The new struggle that we are fighting today is gentrification and the fight to maintain our local culture and way of life that made New Orleans the unique city it is. I am a proud member of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. Mardi Gras Indians, otherwise known as the Black Masking Indians, are indigenous to New Orleans. The origination of our tribes can be traced back to when slaves would run and hide in the bayous. There they would receive help and shelter from the Native Americans. Thus the two cultures intermingled and formed what we celebrate here in New Orleans. It is culture such as this, the jazz processions (known as Second Lines), the food, etc., that is at risk to be lost with the people and places being “changed” to accommodate wealthier newcomers. Let me be clear, we have always been known for our hospitality. We welcome everyone to come here and enjoy what we have, but since Katrina hit, many people took it as an opportunity to change the face of the city and move “certain folks” out.
Although my ministry work is nationwide, my main focus is on the youth of the city, but due to constant poverty, lack of resources (which leads to the high rates of violence), higher cost of living without jobs that can accommodate, many of the youth leave as soon as they can. The other side to this coin is that New Orleans is #1 IN THE WORLD for mass incarceration. The for-profit prison industry is targeting our minority youth. This is the new injustice that many of us are fighting against. We must continue to “fight the good fight” so that all humans, no matter their background, are treated with dignity as the children of God they are created to be. My ancestors sacrificed for this and I fight this fight to honor the loved ones I lost in the storm.
Ten years ago, I did not know how God would work it out, but I knew that He would. That’s what my faith told me. It wasn’t easy. There were many times I wanted to give up and start life over, but I knew my family and youth were depending on me. Even today, as I see the gentrification occurring through my city and many of us are still struggling with PTSD, depression, and various other mental health issues, I ask myself, “Was it all worth it?” But I do have faith that we are part of a bigger plan and that, as Fr. Mike used to say, “Ansel, life is not about you, but about what God does through you.” So that is why many of us stay and fight. We love our city. We love our culture. We love what we know New Orleans was and what it can be for ALL of her children…10 years down, a lifetime to go.
Dr. Ansel Augustine is an alumnus of the Graduate Theological Foundation having earned his Doctor of Ministry in 2015. Dr. Augustine is Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is on the Faculty of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Visit his GTF Alumnus Profile to read more.
(All photos courtesy of A. Augustine)