the good folks at NPR's "This I Believe" didn't accept the following essay for broadcast, but since i have this soapbox at my disposal, i reprint it here:
The City That Care Forgot (yet, some of us remember)
I believe, as simplistic as this may sound, that our capacity to continue to evolve as a species is directly related to our willingness to unselfishly reach out to our fellow human beings in times of crisis. And more than just reaching out, I believe that the lengths to which we are willing to go to alleviate the conditions that create crises in the first place, and how far we are willing to go to make things right after the fact, are just as important. I believe that nowhere in America today is that unselfish spirit of person helping person more in evidence, or more needed, than it is in the city of New Orleans.
This may sound odd, given the variety and seriousness of the myriad problems we Americans face in today’s world, but I believe – passionately and fervently – that if we, as individuals and as a country, refuse to respond adequately and appropriately to the tragedy that is present-day New Orleans, we just may be sacrificing a bigger piece of our collective soul than we’re aware of. Having spent the last year-and-a-half of my life, at no small amount of personal sacrifice, trying to make some sort of tangible progress toward responding to the city’s needs, I think I have a perspective that others may lack.
Everyone I meet is happy to tell me all the things they think they know about New Orleans – the government is inept at best, corrupt at worst; the people are all poor and ill-educated; it’s below sea level, so it’s just going to flood again; the police department is helpless to rid the city of guns and crack, or the people all too willing to use them – I’ve heard it all, and some of it’s true.
But I believe the city can come back, better than ever, if we all pitch in to help. In fact, for those who care to look, you can see it beginning to happen, and nowhere do you see it more clearly than in the vast numbers of people who have come here, on their own nickel, to help the city recover. I spend my days putting volunteers to work rebuilding homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I have seen first-hand what a powerful, life-affirming force this willingness to give can be, for the giver and the recipient. By shingling a roof, re-wiring a house, sharing a meal, listening to a story or offering a hug, and asking for nothing in return, we exemplify the capacity of the human spirit to conquer, against all odds.
In reaching out to Lower Nine residents, who had everything they owned taken from them in a single day through no fault of their own, these people, many of whom have become more-or-less full-time volunteers, have shown that capacity to touch the lives of others that I believe is so vitally important. And New Orleanians have recognized the importance of that selfless urge to help, and have accepted that help graciously, and welcomed us into their community with open arms.
This, I believe, is the fertile, common ground from which the City That Care Forgot will rise, and be whole again.