Water in Sacred Places



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PAUL HARVEY

In the new Journal of American History, Donald DeVore of the University of South Alabama explores the role of the black church in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans: "Water in Sacred Places: Rebuilding New Orleans Black Churches as Sites of Community Empowerment," JAH 94 (2007): 762-769, part of an entire issue devoted to the theme "Through the Eyes of Katrina: The Past as Prologue," featuring articles by Lawrence Powell, Ari Kelman, Reid MItchell, Alecia Long, Arnold Hirsch, and other notables of scholarship on New Orleans.

Devore traces the history of some black Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic institutions, including Franklin Ave. Baptist Church. It began as a white congregation affiliated with the SBC, went into decline, and in 1986 transformed into a successful African American congregation under the pastoral leadership of Fred Luter: "He utilized a pastoral style characterized by a gospel message that emphasized inspiration and teaching, relationships that fostered equality, and ministries that stressed community service and empowerment." The church was devastated by Katrina: "Water, often symbolizing a life-giving or life-renewing power in Christian traditions, had been transformed into a toxic reality that defiled the sacred sites of African American life." Devore concludes:

"The political stance of New Orleans's black Christians . . . should not be oversimplified or misread. Religious leaders know that faith-based initiatives alone cannot command the monetary resources necessary to rebuilt a shattered city. But they see no fundamental contradiction between federal aid and grassroots action. They also understand the imporatnce of religiously informed group solidarity in preventing the kind of psychological fragmentation that leads to defeat and despair. In the end, the outlines of a 'new' New Orleans may be less about politics and race or concrete and steel, and more about the prophetic and communal role of the African American church."

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