Katrina and the uncomfortable truth

by Richard E. Stearns Perhaps the most disturbing comment I have heard over the past few weeks, as I have been glued to the 24/7 Katrina media coverage, came from a man who lost his home in New Orleans and was living in a shelter. It came in response to the controversial use of the word "refugee" to describe the thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He said: "'Refugee?' I'm not some poor African with flies on his face - we are not refugees, we're American citizens!" There is a profound and uncomfortable truth captured in this man's angry statement. The truth that all men are not created equal; that the 2.8 billion poor who live on less than $2 a day are not valued with equal importance; that their suffering is less important; that their pain can be tolerated; that their lives are somehow less significant; and that they don't have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the same way the rest of us do. Hurricane Katrina exposed this uncomfortable double standard to us. It is a double standard that suggests that we don't have a moral responsibility to respond to human suffering if it occurs in a different hemisphere and it is a double standard that showed us that the poor - even in America - are the most vulnerable of our citizens. Now our hearts have gone out to our fellow citizens these past two weeks. Their pain and suffering are real and as a nation we have come together in countless ways to respond to our neighbors in need. World Vision is responding to those needs just as we did after 9/11. I am here today in New York to urge the world leaders meeting at the United Nations this week to not forget the world's 2.8 billion poor people. They are asking us to look upon them with the same concern and sense of moral responsibility that we have demonstrated toward our own citizens. While in the past two weeks we have been critical of the slow response to aid all the victims of Hurricane Katrina, for the poorest of the poor, there is often no response. While we have pointed to the failure of FEMA - for the poorest of the poor, there is no FEMA to fail them. And while $62 billion has been set aside for relief and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast - the money needed to help the poorest of the poor cannot be found. Dear friends, let us pray this week that 2005 will be the year when the world opened its eyes to the poor; that 2005 will be the year of their emancipation proclamation - because the world finally decided to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. And let us pray that God will continue to bless our great nation because we have chosen to be a blessing to the word's poor. Richard E. Stearns is the president of World Vision United States. This article is adapted from a speech made as part of an interfaith delegation of nearly 20 American religious leaders calling on the Bush Administration to join other nations in committing to end global poverty and fully embrace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Organized in part by Sojourners, a memorial service, press conference, and afternoon of prophetic preaching on the MDGs marked the first day of a three-day vigil of prayer and fasting in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in New York City this week.


Blogger John McCollum said...

I'm completely puzzled by the indignant reactions against the use of the term 'refugee.' The man who says "We're not some Africans with flies on our face" demonstrates the same callous contempt for Africans that he accuses the others of having for African Americans.

Kudos to Stearns for the courage to stand up for all the world's refugees and untouchables, not just the ones living in America.

9/16/2005 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's a disturbing comment for ya. last night josh and i were in harbor springs. a quaint boating town on little traverse bay. smell the money. we were eating pizza at a cute little hometown favorite 'dive'. i hear from a nearby booth, "and what's with this hurricane. we have to, like, give all these poor people money just because they're poor. but i was thinking that it'd be great if one hit detroit because they'd rebuild it! come hurricane! come!" josh said that the depth of consideration and compassion was astounding.

9/21/2005 9:12 AM  

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