Water brings to mind both death and life. Through baptism, Paul tells us, “we were indeed buried with him so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too might live in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4). In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem would explain to recently initiated Christians that “the saving water was both your tomb and your mother.” As a theologian, I am far more acquainted with the life-giving aspects of water than with its death-dealing ones, but the recent floods in my community of Baton Rouge have compelled me to reflect upon the latter.
Water can be powerfully destructive. In Baton Rouge and its surrounding parts, the Area Chamber estimates that over 100,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed by the flooding caused by the mid-August storm that dropped over two feet of rain in a day’s time. If that estimate holds, the damage totals over twenty billion dollars. Fresh in my mind are the images of friends’ and colleagues’ homes, filled with overflow from nearby bayous and creeks and, later, gutted to the studs. Last week, after helping a colleague to gut her home, I prayed with her, and her tears spoke silently of the suffering she must endure as she attempts to rebuild. And she is one of tens of thousands of people in our community affected in this way.
Many evacuated early, grabbing what they could, especially those memories that are irreplaceable—old photographs, letters. Others waited as the waters crept closer to their front doors. A young man from the diocese’s youth board told me that his parents had to be rescued by boat. Still others were transported by helicopter to area shelters, like those set up at the downtown River Center or at Celtic Studios.
The hardest hit are most assuredly the poor. Post-Katrina, many lower-income and minority families left New Orleans and moved to the northern part of Baton Rouge. The flood maps show that area as one of the most devastated. Cristo Rey Baton Rouge, a Franciscan high school dedicated to helping students from lower-income families, opened its doors for its inaugural year, only to see four feet of water fill the halls days later.
Still, the storm was indiscriminate. Area shelters show that black and white, rich and poor, young and old have all been affected. And as our plight fades out of media attention, overshadowed by political drama, we will still need help, and prayers. People will still be without homes. They will still be picking up the pieces. The experience of the “death” brought about by these floods will remain with us for years to come.
It is too early to tell what will be resurrected from the tomb of these waters, but the light of hope has pushed its way through the darkness in many places. At Our Lady of the Lake College, where I teach, piles of clothes, bleach, working gloves, and pry bars lined the halls of the liberal arts building. Teams of faculty and staff journeyed to each other’s houses to rip out floorboards and drywall. And this is just a microcosm of what has been happening throughout the greater community; I have never witnessed such an outpouring of charity from neighbors and strangers. The “Cajun Navy,” an unofficial group of local citizens with boats and a desire to “love thy neighbor,” rescued stranded neighbors before official authorities could arrive. Following suit, the “Cajun Army” is delivering food and gutting homes, and taking on more “recruits” each day. I’ll always remember the first Saturday after the floods had mostly receded. Already in the early hours, the streets were filled with pickup trucks carrying worried loved ones and wheelbarrows, everyone on their way to help someone else in need. These images give me hope that such acts of justice and charity that will carry Baton Rouge out of the waters to newness of life.
I have taught a course on Catholic Social Teaching twice now, but the ideas my students and I discussed have taken on new life in the midst of a community that is embodying these ideas in its very practice. Catholic social teaching speaks of the virtues of subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity recognizes that each person has the dignity of being an actor (and not only a passive receiver) in the pursuit of the common good—higher levels of government, therefore, should not subsume roles that more local levels can fill. After the events of the past few weeks, there is no one in Baton Rouge who doubts the power of the local community to provide for its suffering members.
Subsidiarity works in tandem with solidarity. A local community prospers because its members feel responsible for each other’s well-being. The common good requires communal effort—I will prosper only if I help my neighbor to prosper. I have overheard conversations at the grocery store and at the coffeehouse, on campus and at church, and this ethos imbues them all: We are all helping whomever we can, because this community belongs to all of us. Just today, one of my students told me that her clothes are located throughout the city; various families from her church offered to wash loads before mold could take hold. Despite the piles of molding furniture and personal belongings lining its streets, Baton Rouge has become an icon of solidarity. I pray that the effects of this resurrection will remain and extend beyond the confines of our community after Baton Rouge emerges from the waters.
Brian Pedraza is assistant professor of theology at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge.