The New Orleans Police Department chaplain knows suffering. Joe Cull spends his days, and many nights, on the porches and in the parlors of neighbors' homes as he listens to those who have experienced fresh trauma. He did so before and after Katrina. He does so today.
But observers may be surprised to know that this Katrina anniversary, instead of organizing a memorial per se, or staging a protest, Chaplain Cull has made another choice. Perhaps a radical choice. He has organized a celebration of hope called "Silent Heroes and Hidden Gifts of Katrina," an event designed to spotlight the positive in a city that still struggles to recover, a city where grief is breathed in, out with the moisture in the air.
"The focus continues to stay on the chaos and controversy which I guess is simply the nature of the beast," said Chaplain Cull in a recent interview. "I am not trying to deny the reality of all the suffering and terrible things that went on [during and post-Katrina]. But there is such a profoundly beautiful side to the people here in New Orleans and the events surrounding Katrina that is just waiting to be exposed."
While first responders will be honored, the loving actions of everyday people are also on Chaplain Cull's mind, especially the actions of those who on TV may have only appeared to be pitiable victims in distress:
"Witnessing a grandmother like Gwendolyn Martin Washington lay injured on a shadeless expressway and offer her umbrella to the two young children with her is an act of kindness and love I will never forget. True selflessness epitomized. A lesson everyone can learn from, no matter who you are."
A focus on the positive this anniversary can make some of us anxious, make us afraid that people will forget the crimes and cruel indifferences we vowed to rectify somehow. But in traveling back and forth to New Orleans, I've learned that while no one in New Orleans or the diaspora wants to be forgotten, no one wants their lives reduced to mere victimhood either, and they don't want their abiding faith, their progress, or their positive moments ignored or diminished. For too many who are trying to cope, it can be discouraging to encounter national news coverage of life post-Katrina and have the focus so squarely on disappointments. If recovery requires optimism, as my oral historian friend Mark Cave says, then we can help our New Orleans neighbors by seeking some balance in the news coverage. We can seek the light as much as we seek the dark.
"The amount of suffering that took place here during Katrina was definitely beyond the scope of anything I have seen before," said Chaplain Cull. "But this in my mind and heart makes the acts of kindness and generosity I saw even more profound."
I couldn't agree more. This anniversary, I am going to follow Chaplain Cull and celebrate love, heroism, and the progress that survivors have made, wherever they are. I am going to reach out to my friends and near-family and let them know that they are cherished. If you have family or friends in the affected regions, I ask you to reach out to them, if just to say hello and see how they're doing and to listen to what they have to say. Just letting them know that they've got friends who care is an invaluable gift. Let's them know that they are never truly alone. Gives them the support no government can give.
For more information on "Silent Heroes and Hidden Gifts of Katrina" please click: http://www.silentheroesandhiddengifts.com/page1.aspx
For more information on the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List, and to contribute the name of someone who died directly or indirectly, please click: http://www.katrinalist.columbia.edu/
To read the stories of Katrina survivors and those who came to their need, please click: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.
Follow Stacy Parker Le Melle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stacylemelle