Lightning Flashes: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina & Community

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 09/15/2005

Dear Friends,

There are three sections to this article: how to use our disasters as lightning-flashes to illuminate our path, so as to move from mourning into action; envisioning new practical patterns of community as we rebuild ourselves; and shaping emergency relief toward transformation.

Shalom, Arthur


First, a moment of memorial — for the thousands who died in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington four years ago; for the thousands who have died in Iraq in the war that was "justified" by the fear spawned by those murders; and for the thousands who died and are still dying from the Katrina disasters of the last weeks.

All these deaths were rooted in the arrogance of human beings — some who thought through murderous terror to correct the wrongs they felt, others who thought that conquest abroad and enriching the powerful were more important than compassion at home and loving wisdom for the earth. All three events emerged from the intensifying world-wide political, economic, cultural, sexual, and environmental earthquake of our generation. There are only two ways to respond to such an earthquake: grasping to some place that from our past experience we hope is solid, immovable; or learning to dance in the midst of the earthquake toward a new planetary community.

The problem with grasping at the "solid" past is that in a truly planetary earthquake, there is no immovable object. Trying to force the quaking world back into familiar patterns demands far more coercion than the patterns of the past originally required. Thus forcing women, other cultures, other religions, and the poor back into their subordinate place, the earth back into its merely instrumental place, gay people back into their invisible place, requires far more coercion, violence, than was needed when they simply accepted those roles. The problem with dancing into the future is that we have no photograph of the future. That dance calls on us to trust, to place our faith in, the Holy Breathing-spirit of the universe. Here we can only pray: May the One Breathing-spirit of the world Who unifies all life bless us with the creativity and the compassion to act upon that unity, to breathe new energy into the work to heal our wounded world.

A planetary earthquake generates great flashes of lightning. Almost forty years ago, Howard Zinn said that perhaps once a generation, some event comes like a lightning flash, lighting up realities in our society that had been there all along, but hidden in the dark. Without that flash of light, we stumble and fall as the earth shakes beneath us, breaking an arm upon some unseen obstacle, bruising our heads, our brains, our minds. Once the glare of truth intrudes, even for a moment, we can see where our troubles lie.

When Howard Zinn spoke, Vietnam was that lightning flash. It lit up truths about aspects of America that at first glance had little to do with the war itself.

For us, Katrina/ New Orleans COULD become that lightning flash.

Whether it does, depends on whether we consciously take on the task of "raising consciousness."

That is supposed to be what spiritual teachers do, and how spiritual practices and rituals work. To raise consciousness. To make us more self-aware.

To light up the dark places in our souls and our societies.

That applies even, or especially, in the moment of urgent relief, compassionate caring for the suffering survivors. And it applies to the patterns of reconstruction, not only of the City of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast but to all the patterns of our society that fed the multiple disasters that erased these communities. The dark place just lit up for us is the degree to which those who control American life have been operating in a state of ARROGANCE, rather than PRACTICAL COMPASSION. Arrogance toward the poor, toward the earth itself, even toward the future. ("Forget those explicit warnings. Nothing will happen on 'our' watch. We can do as we please.")

Its only cure is connection with Wholeness. Turning from arrogance to compassion. Not only the instant compassion of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless — but also the deeper, the longer-range compassion of healing the earth, sharing our wealth, rebuilding so that the poor are not isolated, not made invisible.

We must welcome fully into our community all human cultures, all living beings, even those we have not conventionally thought "alive"—like the ozone layer and the proportion of CO2 in our air. Because they are all suffused with God; because, to draw on Jewish tradition in new ways, God's holy name YHWH can only be "pronounced" by breathing, "Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh" — because "the breath of all life blesses God's name," as the Jewish prayerbook says (Nishmat kol chai tivarech et shimcha).


Specifically, what might this mean? Some possibilities:

Deciding that our first national priority is ending our Oiloholic addiction: drastically cutting CO2 emissions through energy conservation, reshaping our cities so that almost everyone can easily walk or bike or Internet to work, rejuvenating our railroad system to European and Japanese standards, installing thousands of windmills—all in order to heal the wounded climate system that sustains all life.

Making a Newer Orleans the model city for the pink, brown, black, and green faces of God to live in community with each other — not by imposing on them a corporate diktat but by starting from the grass-roots up to plan new neighborhoods, restore old wetlands. Indeed, finding the Katrina refugees where they have fled and using both face-to-face and Internet connection to replan the city together.

Bringing home from Iraq all the soldiers of the National Guards of all the states and retraining them not for war but for dealing with disasters, issuing them lifeboats rather than machine guns, water-decontamination kits rather than armored cars, helicopters that carry water to put out forest fires—not bombs to destroy cities.

Retraining large parts of the regular U.S. military in the same way. Since the climate crisis of global scorching is already upon us, they will be needed not only in North America but in many other regions of the planet.

Raising the minimum wage to where 40 hours of work will lift a family of four above the poverty line — a living wage with livable hours. Forbidding anyone to do paid work for more than fifty hours a week. Supporting neighborhood folk festivals, paid family leave time, a paid year off to learn in mid-life. Reshaping the tax system so that no household ends up with an income of more than one million dollars a year.

Ending the occupation of Iraq, redefining its people (and all peoples) as our partners in the great adventure of moving the world from Oiloholic addiction to the moderate, long-tern use of oil as part of a sustainable energy system.

Treating all human beings and all earth as part of the One, the Whole.


If these are our long-term goals, what do we do in this moment that will serve them, embody them --- Seeking to meet emergency needs, do we use the top-down corporate structures of relief that spend large amounts on their own administrative costs and that have over and over in the past missed the very people who need it the most? — Missed the kinds of destitute and desperate people whom we usually keep in our dark places, suddenly made visible by the lightning flash of Katrina?

Or do we seek out relief agencies that are grass-roots-oriented themselves and consciously seek to serve the grass-roots — the poor, the disempowered, the desperate? The Shalom Center has gathered some examples of how to do the job the grass-roots way. We urge our readers to choose one of these. Below you will find these opportunities: (1) ACORN (with national HQ in New Orleans flooded); (2) Community Labor United and the People's Hurricane Fund; (3) LEAN, a Louisiana environmental group; (4) local religious & community spaces; and (5) a joint effort by The Shefa Fund and the Jewish Fund for Justice to funnel money to community economic development through a Delta credit union that serves the poor.

1) Saving ACORN: Tides Foundation Rapid Response Fund

One of the country's best progressive foundations is Tides, through which wealthy people who have progressive political visions have for decades banded together to fund decent grass-roots social change.

And one of the country's most serious grass-roots community organizer groups is ACORN, which has led many successful campaigns for living wage laws — and which was both headquartered in New Orleans and organizing local folks there. Tides has worked with ACORN for years. Now it has set up an emergency response fund for ACORN and other grass-roots groups in New Orleans and the surrounding region so that they can help grass-roots people. You can make an instant online donation to the fund by clicking the DonateNow button at —

2. Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of progressive organizations throughout New Orleans, has brought community members together for eight years to discuss socio-economic issues. They have been communicating with people from the Quality Education as a Civil Right Campaign, the Algebra Project, the Young People's Project, and the Louisiana Research Institute for Community Empowerment (RICE). They have set up a People's Hurricane Fund that will be directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees through the Young People's Project, a 501(c)3 organization formed by graduates of the Algebra Project.

(The Algebra Project was founded by Bob Moses. Moses was the extraordinary SNCC organizer in Mississippi in the '60s who more recently decided knowledge of algebra is crucial to Black equality today, and set up a very effective teaching program in Boston that he has spread into the South through his old connections.)

Donations can be mailed to:

The People's Hurricane Fund
c/o The Young People's Project
99 Bishop Allen Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139

3. LEAN — Louisiana Environmental Network, 162 Craydon Avenue, Baton Rouge, LA 70806.

LEAN members provided an airdrop of food, water, and medical supplies to the trapped residents of St. Bernard, Plaquemine and Washington Parishes. LEAN is also working hard now to raise more funds to allow local people, working with local government leaders to provide direct, immediate assistance with all the efficiency that comes from not being a bureaucrat or an outsider. LEAN won't just leave the area when the immediate crisis is over but will work to address the toxic cesspool and chemical contamination that will be left behind 'when the water finally recedes.

"At this time, the most needed items are tetanus shots, insulin, IV fluids, as well as financial resources to purchase and transport medical and food assistance directly to victims."

4. Local religious & community spaces

You can mail or ship non-perishable items to these following locations, which local sources report are REALLY delivering services to folks in need:

Center for LIFE Outreach Center,
121 Saint Landry Street,
Lafayette, LA 70506,
atten.: Minister Pamela Robinson,

Mohammad Mosque,
2600 Plank Road,
Baton Rouge, LA 70805,
atten.: Minister Andrew Muhammad,
225-923-1400; 225-357-3079;

Lewis Temple CME Church,
272 Medgar Evers Street,
Grambling, LA 71245,
atten.: Rev. Dr. Ricky Helton,

St. Luke Community United Methodist Church
c/o Hurricane Katrina Victims,
5710 East R.L. Thornton Freeway,
Dallas, TX 75223,
atten.: Pastor Tom Waitschies,

S.H.A.P.E. Community Center,
3815 Live Oak,
Houston, Texas 77004,
atten.: Deloyd Parker,

5. Economic Development: The Shefa Fund and Jewish Fund for Justice have cooperated to establish a Hurricane Katrina Recovery and Redevelopment Fund. and are drawing on the advice of American Jewish World Service, to make strategic grants for both community development and community organizing focused on the Delta's low-income communities. Theirr first grant will be to the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta/HOPE Credit Union, where The Shefa Fund has placed a Tzedec investment in the past. Shefa is waiving all grantmaking fees on contributions to this fund. We know that it will take years to rebuild these devastated communities and we want to make sure that the region's low- and moderate-income residents will have a place and a voice in these efforts. It matters that the Jewish community has a way to focus not just on relief, but on a visible way to support longer-term reinvestment and redevelopment for the low-income communities that need it most.

You can give on-line at