When Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said that its mission was “to save the soul of America.”
Anyone who is still interested in that mission had better get involved with saving the city of New Orleans—not just the buildings, but the human community—because much of the soul America has left resided, until recently, in that poor, beautiful, and suffering city.
Suffering is nothing new to New Orleans. For 300 years it has been a city of almost constant sorrow. There have been fires, fevers, floods, and other natural horrors. And always there has been the unnatural horror of African slavery which, as the world recently saw, is not entirely in the past.
It is, in fact, the suffering of New Orleans that has made it great. People who don’t know the city associate it with the wild debauchery of the French Quarter during Mardi Gras (almost entirely perpetrated by out-of-towners). New Orleans is a city that parties; that much is true. But it is also a city that prays. It’s a city that has depended on sins of the flesh for its economic lifeblood (the bars, the casinos, the strip joints), but it is also a city that confesses its sins. At midnight on Mardi Gras, the party is over. The police clear the streets, and the public observance of Lent begins.
If you spent much time in New Orleans, you learned that, beyond the French Quarter, it was a city of families, neighborhoods, and churches. It is a city where, for three centuries, people of deep faith suffered terribly and offered those sufferings to God.