ACREC October 2009 meeting summary
New Orleans update
ACREC co-sponsored with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) a report and recommendation to the 218th General Assembly concerning the “Post Katrina” situation in New Orleans, Louisiana. In total there were 11 recommendations but one of the most important for ACREC was the second, which read:
Declare that in light of the Reformed tradition’s understanding of the role of government as the arm of a whole people acting to maintain the common good, the official responses of society’s agencies, public and private, to the disaster of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have been grievously inadequate regarding the needs of those affected by trauma, loss, and relocation in the Gulf Coast region and, in particular, to the African American citizens of New Orleans, the physically challenged, and the poor of that city.
The committee’s visit was an attempt to update its knowledge and awareness of the situation in New Orleans here some four years later.
The committee was briefed by the Reverend Jean Marie Peacock, associate presbyter pro-tem, Church Development and Disaster Recovery for the Presbytery of South Louisiana. In her visit the Rev. Peacock spoke of both kudos and disappointments. Kudos went to the presbytery’s Project Homecoming which has rebuilt more than 100 homes and is highly regarded because of its ability to rebuild with quality for only $35,000 where others incur costs up to $100,000. Kudos also went to AMERICORPS, the Young Adult Volunteers program and other volunteer groups and to all those helpful church folks wearing their familiar blue Presbyterian Disaster Assistance T-shirts representing a visible symbol of the church’s care and compassion.
Unfortunately, there are many disappointments. Here are just a few that were cited. Fifteen hundred people still remain in FEMA trailers, trailers that are hazardous to health. The recovery seems to be tied to resources with up to 70 percent recovery evident in affluent neighborhoods like Lakeview but only around an estimated 25 percent in the largely black and less affluent Lower Ninth Ward. For varying reasons state and local governments have been largely ineffective in advancing the process and unscrupulous/fraudulent contractors have added greatly to the woes of people already reeling from the devastation of the hurricane. New Orleans’ homeless rate is the highest in the nation, and immigrants are being victimized by employers who frequently take advantage of the undocumented. Jean Marie also spoke of the difficulty local residents face in trying to navigating what many characterize as an intractable system. Contradictory requirements and regulations make it impossible to do anything quickly and all such efforts seem to result in at least one dead end.
Racism greatly complicates issues in areas like education, health care and housing where services are markedly different for the African-American community. This point was highly evident when ACREC visited the Covenant Presbyterian Urban Ministry Institute and toured New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. The institute has seen significant increases in the lines for its food pantry since Katrina, as well as for the need to link people with medical, dental and optometric services. Weaknesses in the city’s education system make tutoring and reading readiness programs among the institute’s most important offerings.
The levee wall adjacent to the Ninth Ward has been rebuilt but the constant question in the minds of the local residents is “will it hold?” The neighborhoods surrounding the area where the levee was breached are still largely undeveloped. Streets and curbs stand eerily silent; they are bare of houses their lonesome plight vividly portrayed by the extensive growth of weeds. The ground is obviously fertile because the weeds are thick and numerous as is evident in the two pictures shown here, the 2006 “Before Clean-up” picture on the left and the 2009 “After Clean-up” picture below.
In this section of the city the people have been slow to return either because of fear, a daunting bureaucracy, or simply because they lack the energy or resources to start over. In New Orleans those who had the least lost the most. It is no exaggeration to say it will take years for the city to return to full occupancy.
When asked what ACREC should encourage the church to do after its visit to New Orleans, Peacock suggested that it should 1) continue to encourage volunteerism, 2) ask for Presbyterian investment in New Orleans’ rebuilding effort through sources like the Creative Investment Program and 3) use this experience to become more sensitive to the kinds of issues — economic and racial — Katrina has exposed, issues that have existed in New Orleans and all over the country for years.
Committee on Representation
The Reverends Stanley Bhasker and Molly Casteel visited with ACREC from the General Assembly Committee on Representation (COR). Bhasker has done quite a bit of research into the roles and responsibilities of COR, and he reviewed his research with ACREC. COR came into being at the time of reunion because of a particular need — to ensure fair representation of racial ethnic people in the church’s governing structures given the overwhelming presence of the majority population, and that concern applied to both elected members and staff. For obvious reasons the two committees have common concerns, and one of the areas explored at this meeting was the subject of proposed changes to the Presbyterian Form of Government. ACREC was asked and agreed to regularizing its interactions with COR.
Hispanic representation on the faculty and administrative staff of the Presbyterian theological seminaries
ACREC received a letter of concern from the Hispanic/Latino(a) Caucus expressing dismay in the fact that recent layoffs and dismissals have virtually eliminated Hispanic/Latino(a) representation on the faculty and staffs of the Presbyterian theological seminaries. ACREC was asked to write a letter of concern and consented to do so through the Committee on Theological Education. ACREC noted that each of the seminaries has stated goals of becoming truly diverse communities but they evidently make those goals low priorities when circumstances dictate hard choices. It is important that the entire church family be consistent in its recognition of diversity as a legitimate goal and priority and that it not acquiesce to a lesser standard when hard choices are involved.
Summary of actions
The committee received a variety of reports from its subcommittees and related groups and took many actions including the following:
- Voted to report significant findings from its visit to New Orleans to the 219th General Assembly.
- Agreed to inquire about whether or not the GAMC’s Health Van could be gived to the Covenant Presbyterian Urban Ministry Institute given the legitimate need that exists for the kinds of helpful services it would make possible.
- Voted to recommend that the General Assembly authorize a study of the nature of the church given the fact that the dynamics of society are changing at a rapid pace and that these changes have a notable impact on the church.
- Voted to send the General Assembly an update on its consideration of a term to replace the name Racial Ethnic. In 2004 ACREC recommended changing the term Racial Ethnic to Emerging Majorities but the Assembly referred the recommendation back to the committee for further study. ACREC is now proposing a definitive process and timeline for this referral.