A need to reach out

Posted: Sep 05, 2005 12:00 AM

My cousins lived in New Orleans. They worked telemarketing jobs, earning minimum wage, while raising three children.

Fortune had it that they left town for a wedding in Memphis, Tenn., right before Katrina paid her visit. Their home and everything they left behind is now gone.

They're now at a temporary way station with family in Alabama. Soon they'll be on their way to Georgia, where my sister will give them home and shelter while they regroup and rebuild. Our family around the country is wiring in funds to help them out of the hole and get started again.

Who is not watching the unfolding horror story on the Gulf Coast without a sense of humility? We look at our home, the job that pays our bills, the friends and family with whom we share our lives. How often do we say thanks? I'm sure most Americans today, as they watch the suffering of others, are quietly feeling gratitude for what they have and take for granted.

I'm also sure that there is a general sense of disbelief that this type of disaster can occur in our country. If the TV footage of lost and homeless souls was from Asia or Africa, we'd feel sympathy but distance. How, though, can it happen here?

There is a kind of voyeurism going on, as we see people walking the streets with everything they have. Television coverage is giving Americans a peek at a side of the country they rarely see _ the side that is poor, rural and black.

Crises bring out extremes in human behavior. The gray middle tends to disappear and we see the best and worst in what people have to offer.

So far, the good news is that we again are seeing, and I am sure will continue to see, another great outpouring of American generosity. Contributions are pouring into the Red Cross and other organizations.

On the negative side, we are already seeing the tendency to blame and politicize. This tendency gets magnified when the elements of race and poverty enter the equation.

DiversityInc, a firm that specializes in marketing diversity services, headlined its Web site with a story that the press was reporting blacks as "looting," but whites were "finding." Bill O'Reilly is jumping on the oil companies for gouging.

Listening to many of the victims themselves, it's hard to not hear political undertones. There is a sense of helplessness and futility being conveyed _ that somehow folks are suffering because others don't care or are indifferent to what is happening to them.

I lived through the 1992 L.A. riots. My business was destroyed. When people feel frustrated, hopeless and helpless, and that their future lies in the hands of others, they just start destroying.

Perhaps this tragedy _ which has thrust tens of thousands of individuals who have been living at the margins of our prosperous country onto our television screens and into our awareness _ will do something to us. Perhaps it will provoke more than Americans just reaching into their pocketbooks.

How, after all, will the money be spent? Will these homeless souls wind up in the American equivalent of refugee camps?

Certainly, government funds will have to play a large role here. But government is not going to solve this massive human problem. This is going to be a challenge that American communities and citizens must rise to.

Our communities have always done well with bringing in refugees from abroad. Organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Service and others have provided community frameworks for helping refugees build new lives in America. They provide sponsorship and help with housing, furnishings, food, clothing and assistance with finding employment, health care and education.

We must embrace these new refugees the same way. Through our churches and other social organizations, we should immediately start organizing means to identify and sponsor those in need. We should initiate an "adopt a family" program that will help these unfortunate souls to start new lives.

My cousins were lucky. They have been in touch with their family and friends, and we are taking care of them.

I am sure there are tens of thousands who do not have this good fortune. We need to reach out and embrace them. By doing so, we will help them rebuild and, perhaps also, integrate them into America as they never had been before.