"Lord I Don’t Want to be Buried in the Storm": Religion, New Orleans, and Hurricanes



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by Emily Clark

 I, for one, do not appreciate the weather’s “sense of humor.” When weather reports last week began projecting Hurricane Isaac to make landfall right at New Orleans on the 7 year anniversary of Katrina, all I could think was: so not cool. These reports and news stories came with unsurprising reader comments – ranging from the sweet “Oh I will pray for them,” and the bland-but-true “New Orleans is such a great city,” to the infuriating “What kind of stupid rednecks live below sea level? They get what they deserve.” After I recovered from my *facepalm* I began to think about New Orleans, hurricanes, and religion.  

The first documented hurricane hit New Orleans in 1722, leveling the majority of the frontier hamlet/city. French engineer Adrien de Pauger arrived the year before with the task of planning, designing, and overseeing the city’s construction. Following the Great Hurricane of 1722 (as it became known), Pauger’s boss wrote: “this wind was followed an hour later by the most terrible tempest and hurricane that could ever be seen, that only ended this morning at four o’clock. It knocked down at least two thirds of the houses here and those that remain so badly damaged that it will be necessary to dismantle them. The church, the presbytére, the hospital and a small barracks building where our workmen were staying, are among the number that were overthrown, without there being, thanks to the Lord, a single person killed” (quoted in Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Building the Devil’s Empire). The church he references was the city’s first church, a wooden building that was likely a warehouse initially. With the second design and build (Pauger’s plan to the right), the first official St. Louis parish would be constructed. Religion and hurricanes have been with the city – molding it, changing it, remaking it – from its beginning.

In 1959, New Orleans street preacher, prophet, and folk artist Sister Gertrude Morgan recorded a short one minute forty-four second track at what would later be Preservation Hall. The song was titled “Lord I Don’t Want to be Buried in the Storm.” This song is about her desire to do the Lord’s work, though others may not heed this call. “I’ll be willing, Lord, to run, all the way,” she sings. She asks the Lord to remain with her even if she falters. Eleven years later she painted a full self-portrait with the same name. Dressed in all-white (symbolizing her prophetic status as the bride of Christ), Morgan holds a Bible under one arm and a small bag in the other. In acrylic or tempera paint, the words “LORD i DONT WANT TO BE BURiED iN THE STORM” take a place of prominence at the top of the painting. The image is dated “Wed Feb 18th 1970” in pencil (about six months after Hurricane Camille). Her cursive signature “Sister Gertrude Morgan” is to the left of her self-portrait. She paints herself fleeing the rising water in her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.


Another 1959 recording of Morgan has her preaching about storms and hurricanes, and this piece is featured at the beginning a recent Preservation Hall recording of “Blow Wind Blow.” She begins the track saying, “God sent all kinds of tornadoes, all kinds of hurricanes.” The short, twenty second clip of Morgan preaching is a caution to listeners to realize that the Lord is sending warnings (such as tornadoes and hurricanes) and that they should “make ready,” “consider your ways,” and “realize what time it is.” Given her focus on the Book of Revelation the “time” she is referring to is the time of the apocalypse. For Morgan, hurricanes can be a warning from God about the imminent apocalyptic ending of this world and creation of the new world. Another of her paintings features Noah on his ark with a reference to how God sent rain that time but it would be fire next. Morgan believed that when it came to natural disasters, humans have no control, only God. At the same time, she doesn’t seem ready to take a God-sent hurricane lying down. In her “LORD i DONT WANT TO BE BURiED iN THE STORM” painting, she is taking action, fleeing the flooded Lower Ninth Ward. 

Though her song indicates that she is willing and wanting to do whatever the Lord asks, the title of the song and painting contain a plea, a request for salvation from God’s wrath through nature. Morgan was so certain about many things in life: her status as the bride of Christ (“Tell em God’s wife told you that”); her role as reforming prophet (“wake up,” “ask yourself a question,” and “put down that dirty stuff”); and preacher with a sense of urgency (Shake ‘em up and wake ‘em up. Yes lord, power, power”). In regards to hurricanes, she seems less certain about her place among them. The Lord may send them, but she certainly doesn’t want to be buried or destroyed by one. 

(For a great essay on religion and natural disasters, read Paul Harvey’s thoughts on the Colorado Springs fire. If you want to read a good post on Louisiana religion and hurricanes, check out Mike Pasquier’s reflections on 2008’s Gustav and devotions to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. If you want to know more about Morgan, I’ve posted on her before here and here.)

1 comments:

generico at: September 5, 2012 at 8:15 PM said...

I, for one, do not appreciate the weather’s “sense of humor.” When weather reports last week began projecting Hurricane Isaac to make landfall right at New Orleans on the 7 year anniversary of Katrina, all I could think was: so not cool. These reports and news stories came with unsurprising reader comments – ranging from the sweet “Oh I will pray for them,” and the bland-but-true “New Orleans is such a great city,” to the infuriating “What kind of stupid rednecks live below sea level? They get what they deserve.” After I recovered from my *facepalm* I ...

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