Unmasked in New Orleans

It was only mid-February, and evidence of the upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations were in abundance.  I was attending a denominational meeting in New Orleans and was completely startled by the dynamic tension of this amazing city. 

New Orleans has many nicknames.  The Big Easy refers to the relaxed atmosphere of the city: no blaring horns, no frenetic people rushing around, and jazz music pouring out of hundreds of clubs and bars.  The Crescent City indicates how the city developed, with the population growth following the curve of the Mississippi River.  The City that Care Forgot demonstrates a light-hearted, carefree attitude that invites visitors and citizens alike to leave their burdens behind and not take themselves too seriously.  Many people call New Orleans NOLA, or NO.  And, of course, New Orleans is known as The Birthplace of Jazz

The first person Gary and I encountered at the airport shuttle counter said to Gary, “Hey, baby, here’s your ticket.  Enjoy the Big Easy, baby.  Bye, bye, baby.”  I thought to myself, “Wait a minute!  I’m the only one who can call him ‘baby.’”  I soon discovered that everyone calls each other “baby” inNew Orleans.

Alas, the livin’ is not always that easy in the Big Easy.  Evidence of Hurricane Katrina is everywhere once you move outside the downtown area.  There is a price to pay in building a city on a swamp, and in late August 2005, 80% of the city flooded because of the failure of levees due to design flaws and inadequate maintenance.  The geographical swath of the destruction was equivalent to 7 Manhattans, with $75 billion in estimated damages and 220,000 homes and 350,000 cars destroyed.  It’s tempting to think that all is well now, more than 5 years later.  It is not possible to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster, however, without actually experiencing it.  The Big Easy will never be the same again.   

The stories are both inspiring and harrowing.  I highly recommend reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which is the amazing story of a New Orleans couple, Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, who experienced one slice of hell after the hurricane.  Staying behind and attempting to save his properties as well as those who were stranded by rising water, Abdulrahman, an immigrant from Syria and well known business owner, became a victim of the ineptness of the rescue effort and the War on Terrorism.  Zeitoun celebrates the resilience of the human spirit at the same time as it exposes our inability as a country to manage a disaster of this magnitude and the horrible things that happen when people are under stress.

If the truth be told, “The City that Care Forgot” did seem to leave behind a large segment of New Orleans even before the flood.  2000 census data showed that about 131,000 residents, or 28 percent of the population, lived at or below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent nationally. The median household income inNew Orleans in 2000 was $27,133 compared to the national median of $41,994. 

The pre-Katrina population of New Orleanswas 480,000.  Today it is 343,000, more than a 25% reduction.  When the city was evacuated, a large number of people never came back.  Others returned after the waters retreated, only to pick up and leave again because they could not cope with the devastation.  Many poor residents have moved away because fewer than a quarter of the city’s 4,200 public housing units demolished by the storm have been rebuilt.  From 2000 to 2010 the black population was reduced from 67.3% to 60.2%.

No major metropolitan area in the United Stateshas ever gone through a change like this in such a short amount of time.  The reduced population of New Orleans is wealthier and whiter.  There are 200 more restaurants than there were pre-Katrina.  The city is in recovery.  Quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints rallied the city when they won the Super Bowl in 2010.  Returning residents brought new sports like rugby and lacrosse toNew Orleans.   

New Orleansis an exciting city culturally, the people are very friendly, and the presence of tourists is an economic boost.  Hundreds of volunteers around the country continue to repair and rebuild homes.  Yet many schools are still closed, and vast numbers of buildings are shut up or bulldozed.  There are also unsafe areas of the city.  Gary and I walked to a United Methodist church near the French Quarter which was completely boarded up, with cages on windows and doors locked.  We wanted to visit the church and knew that people were inside, but we simply could not get in.

Nowhere is the dynamic tension of New Orleansmore readily apparent than in their Mardi Gras celebration.  Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” or “Shrove Tuesday” as many of us know it.  Originally celebrated in Europe in the Middle Ages as a final farewell to food and drink before Lent, the Mardi Gras traditions of masked balls and dances were brought toNew Orleans by French settlers more than 300 years ago.  In 1875 Mardi Gras became a legal holiday inLouisiana.

In New Orleans the Mardi Gras season officially kicks off on the day of Epiphany, January 6.  Private social groups called “krewes” create and pay for elaborate floats for 60 different parades during the 2 weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday.  Tomorrow there are a dozen parades on Fat Tuesday itself.  Most of the krewes are by invitation only, and clubs must sign an agreement not to discriminate in membership. 

Mardi Gras is actually a satire on royalty, where people pretend to be kings and queens by wearing masks and jewelry and throwing trinkets to the peasants from their floats.  The krewes also sponsor elegant private masked balls.  Anyone visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras season will see ordinary people walking around wearing masks and beads, banners hanging from buildings, and the official colors of Mardi Gras displayed everywhere: purple (symbolizing justice), green (faith), and gold (power).  Mardi Gras has been called the greatest free show on earth. 

Dynamic tension is part of the Mardi Gras charm.  It’s an odd tension.  The masked balls are private, but the parades are public, open to all.  The krewes pay for Mardi Gras out of their own pockets, yet the entire city and world are invited to enjoy the revelry.  In the midst of incredible tragedy of the Katrina aftermath, Mardi Gras still took place 6 months later.

I was especially intrigued by the masks.  They are at once gorgeous, grotesque, intense, silly, tragic, and comic.  Everyone who dons a mask is equal, for no one knows who is behind the mask.  Everyone is king or queen for a day.  As maskers on parade floats toss beads, doubloons, and small stuffed animals to the crowds, fantasies of power, prestige, and status fuel the fires of celebration.  Yet on the very stroke of midnight, it’s all over, police clean the streets, and the krewes begin planning for the next year. New Orleans is unmasked. 

Indeed, the mask comes off on Ash Wednesday, and each one of us is exposed for who we really are.  The emperor has no clothes.  We can no longer hide.  We are not kings and queens after all.  We are mere servants and sinners to boot.  Such is the dynamic tension of Lent, where the very act of “giving up something” asks the question, “Are you willing to drink the cup?  Are you willing to spend these 40 days changing yourself and changing the world rather than indulging in your own pleasures?” 

The mask over the face is replaced by ashes on the forehead.  The gluttony and overindulgence of Mardi Gras are replaced by the fasting of Lent.  The fantasies of royalty are replaced by the reality of sin and grace.  May you experience a holy Lent: unmasked, undone, and unwavering on the journey with Jesus. 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.


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