The Diverse People of This City

One reason this city has always held such a fascination to Americans is due to so many flavors of nationalities–people from all over the world live here. Case in point.

Saturday, down in St. Bernard Parish, the annual “Los Islenos Festival” was held, even though most of the members of this group are living elsewhere since Katrina. In the 1700s, residents of the Canary Islands moved to this most eastern of our bayou parishes and their people have been here ever since. The parish started the festival some 30 years ago to honor this part of their heritage.

And why were Canary Islanders of all people moving here? I’ve not been there, but we’re told that the islands making up this little colony in the eastern Atlantic has some of the loveliest scenery on the planet. It turns out that Spain–owner of the Louisiana territory at that time–paid the Islanders to move here to protect the colony from the British, the Canary Islands being a Spanish territory.

Drive up the highway a few miles and we have neighborhoods populated by thousands of Vietnamese. West of New Orleans is a little fishing village named “Des Allemands.” French for “The Germans.” We have the Irish Channel and St. Patrick’s Day parades and all kinds of Italian events. And did we say we have Cajuns?

We have several Korean Baptist churches in New Orleans, one Chinese, one Vietnamese, two Haitian, and at various times have had works with a number of French-speaking congregations as well as West Indian, Middle East, Portuguese-speaking, and such. And that’s not to mention the dozen or so Hispanic churches.

Mostly, what you will find in our churches is a blend of members whose lineage can be traced to exotic locales on the globe but are now just Americans. I’m confident other large cities have the same situation–Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles–but it’s so gratifying to see congregations whose makeup looks a lot like Heaven must.

The mayor probably will not want to read the editorial pages today. He is the subject of two huge op-ed columns by James Gill (headline: “Spontaneous Nagin needs a new trick”) and Jarvis DeBerry (“Dear Mayor: There’s no law against notes.”) Both columnists are holding forth on Mayor Nagin’s latest escapade in which he addressed the (black) National Newspaper Press Association and blamed unknown forces for this city’s changing demographics. He was certain that “they,” whoever that is, organized the dispersal of our population after Katrina to change the electoral process and that “they” are studying the model to be employed in other cities where blacks are in the majority.

At first, when it appeared that no one had taped Nagin’s speech, he denied he had said what the Washington Post reported he’d said. Later, when it turned out that the speech was video-taped and there it was in beautiful color, he said they had taken it out of context.

James Gill writes that much of what Nagin said to the journalists was right, but where he erred was in stretching an unpleasant truth. It is true that blacks get the short end of the stick, it is true that the mass evacuation of our population was not considered all that bad by a lot of people, and he’s not the first to suggest that had our population been all-white we would have gotten better and quicker help from the feds. But to suggest that this is all a planned conspiracy from some unknown cabal, that is plainly foolish. “To believe that he’d have to be off his grassy knoll,” Gill concluded.

DeBerry–an African-American himself–suggests that even speakers as bright and gifted as Martin Luther King planned their comments and often used notes. Then he writes: “You’re not going to be King on your best day.” He adds, “That’s not meant to insult, only to point out that historical figures with oratorical gifts far superior to yours have used scripts and practiced their presentations. Why don’t you?”

In another section of the paper, Columnist Chris Rose says he googled the sentence “Ray Nagin is an idiot” and found the phrase had been used 133 times in various publications. Rose’s column is entitled “Shut up and lead,” perhaps a takeoff on the Dixie Chicks’ “Shut up and sing.”

Rose suggests that the reason our mayor is flying around the country speaking at all these events is that he is preparing to run for some as-yet-unnamed political office after he leaves City Hall in 3 years. “And the truth is, propped up by a constituency that returned Cleo Fields and William Jefferson to office, he’ll probably find yet another office to disgrace with his insouciant neglect.” (I looked it up. It means “carefree” or “careless.”) Then Rose says, “Insurance commissioner, anyone?”

Explaining the references: Cleo Fields was video-taped taking large amounts of money and stuffing into his pockets in the investigation that nabbed our former governor Edwin Edwards for selling casino rights and sent him to prison, but Fields was never charged with anything, and then was re-elected to the state senate. William Jefferson you know about. Four insurance commissioners in a row went to prison in this state. Not a pretty thing.

This week the editor of our paper responded to charges some in Alabama are making against Louisiana as both states try to woo a huge German company to relocate here, either to the Tombigbee River near Mobile or the Mississippi River area between here and Baton Rouge. The company says it’s now between these two locations, and both states’ governors and legislators are hopping around dreaming up perks to offer. That’s when some Alabama officials casually mentioned to the Germans that our state has a history of corruption and they should steer clear of Louisiana. Our editor responded that Alabama’s governors Seigelman and Hunt both were convicted of malfeasance in office and a scandal now brews in the state legislature over Alabama’s two-year colleges. Pot calling the skillet black. Neither state has a lot to brag about when it comes to political histories. I grew up in Alabama in the days of Jim Folsom and left that state in the days of George Wallace. My adopted state counts Huey P. Long and Edwin Edwards among its former governors.

The Jewish community of New Orleans has come up with a promotion to entice up to 1,000 Jewish families back into the city. The New Orleans Jewish Federation is providing moving expenses of $2500 and low-or-no-interest business loans of $15,000 to their people who wish to relocate to this city and take advantage of growth opportunities.

Prior to Katrina, the city was home to some 10,000 members of the Jewish community, a number now down by perhaps 30 percent. The metro area boasts 19 congregations and agencies of this faith, and even though all escaped major storm damage, due to dwindling membership their finances have been supplemented by national organizations. Those subsidies are ending this year, and local congregations are scurrying to find permanent remedies.

Sunday morning I attended the early worship service of Riverside Baptist Church, a mile from my house. Pastor Jim Caldwell advertises this as a casual-dress affair where Starbucks coffee is served. Worshipers meet in the church’s Life Center, sit at round tables, and after a half-hour of music with guitars, keyboard, and drums, hear a message from Jim and Associate Pastor Greg Finch. The men sit at the front of the room and using the tag-team approach, go back and forth sharing the message as their scriptures are projected onto the large screen.

Greg says he attended the Los Islenos Festival in St. Bernard yesterday. He spoke of interesting conversations with festival-goers and of the array of food that was offered. Later in the service, Greg brought in insights from foods he had eaten somewhere else. Finally, I could not resist. I drew him a cartoon.

Let’s put it this way: Greg is obviously one who loves to eat. So the cartoon showed him and Pastor Jim at the front and someone in the audience saying, “Pastor Jim’s job is to exegete the scripture. Greg’s job is to relate it to food.”

He does that so well. As one who enjoys good food and a cup of great coffee, I’ll be going back.

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