There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There's a thousand different angles at any moment . . . Bijou temple-type cottages and lyric cathedrals side by side. Houses and mansions, structures of wild grace. Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival standing in a long line in the rain. Roman Catholic art. Sweeping front porches, turrets, cast-iron balconies, colonnades, 30-foot columns, gloriously beautiful double-pitched roofs, all the architecture of the whole wide world and it doesn't move. All that and a town square where public executions took place. In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There's only one day at a time here, then it's tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you're in a wax museum below crimson clouds . . . One of Napoleon's generals, Lallemaud, was said to have come here to check it out, looking for a place for his commander to seek refuge after Waterloo. He scouted around and left, said that here the devil is damned, just like everybody else, only worse. The devil comes here and sighs.
—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles, Part One (2004)
Mike Pasquier and I began discussing the possibility of a special JSR issue focused on Katrina in late 2006. We both had spent a lot of time in various archives in New Orleans—Mike's Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionary Priests and the Transformation of American Catholicism is forthcoming from Oxford, and I had written about the Sisters of the Holy Family, an African-American order of nuns in New Orleans, with plans for returning to that project just as the storm hit. Beyond the connections forged on our respective research trips (or "research" trips, as was the case with some of mine) each of us has personal ties to the city and a deep, widely shared appreciation for the peculiar densities—historical, musical, spiritual, literary, culinary, and otherwise—that make New Orleans unlike any other place. So it's far more than a blow to scholarship we've been coming to terms with since August 29, 2005, when Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast and the breaching of the city's levees put most of New Orleans under water.
Perhaps because we're both so invested in New Orleans, we deliberately cast a wide net when coming up with a CFP for this special issue. We encouraged potential contributors to consider religion in any period or region and from any methodological vantage point, as long as they engaged in a rethinking of U.S. religious history in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. How might the historical plotlines shaping the field, we wondered, come in for new scrutiny, be rendered less helpful or telling, take on unexpected curves and angles? How might the federal response to Katrina shed light on the vexed role of the Gulf South within the national imaginary? How, for example, does a hemispheric narrative of colonialism and slavery, to which the Gulf South more centrally belongs, trouble a national narrative of freedom and progress, to which it has never been easily assimilated? How might the very American myth of self-recreation—of packing up and starting over elsewhere, seemingly without loss—impede recovery projects on the scale of those undertaken in Europe: the rebuilding of bombed-out cities after WWII, for example, or the massive construction of the Dutch levee system after the flood of Amsterdam in1953? What can now be said—or no longer be said—about the unifying power of "civil religion" in moments of national crisis? How has religion, however construed, come to aid or to obstruct the rebuilding of the Gulf South?
We began distributing the CFP a year ago, to coincide with the second anniversary of Katrina. And as much as we'd tried to push potential contributors to consider religious history after Katrina in the broadest of regional, national, and transnational contexts, it became clear over the next several months of responding to submissions and inquiries that this would still be a special issue about New Orleans, after all. With the exception of artist Lynda Frese's mixed-media images of Hindu deities in ravaged Gulf towns, which take their cue from the more familiar Catholic/vodun shrines of Louisiana, every contributor featured here and many more we were unable to include saw the special issue as a forum for reflection about New Orleans, not about the Gulf South as a region, about hemispheric narratives or new directions for American religious history. The near-exclusive focus on New Orleans tells us that a great deal remains to be done to integrate Hurricane Katrina, its historical conditions and aftermath, into the America we study as American religious historians. Likewise and perhaps more importantly, however, it tells us that the devastation of an irreplaceable city cannot simply be taken up into this or that new scholarly frame, and that the confrontation with loss undertaken by the essays and other forms of expression collected here necessarily remains ongoing.
Grief and rage at their starkest animate Anthea Butler's 2008 revisiting of the September 2, 2005
essay she published in The Revealer: A Daily Review of Religion and the Press, whose editors praised the unfit-for-mainstream-media jeremiad as "language appropriate to atrocity." Essays by Randy Sparks, Richard Newman, Elizabeth Goodine, and Karla Goldman engage responses to atrocity by various faith communities in New Orleans, all of which powerfully reclaim the meaning of "faith-based" from the Administration that Butler calls so blisteringly to account.
JSR has long encouraged a range of scholarly contributions in addition to standard research articles. For this special issue we made a decision to extend the scope of possible contributions even further to honor the distinctive culture of New Orleans and environs. Thus Lynda Frese and Lynda Doussan Rosamano present mixed-media assemblages; Rebecca Carter looks at houses and spiritual dwelling; Peter Cooley and John Gery give us poetry, Heather Nicholson and Zada Johnson review movies; Cynthia Hogue, Rebecca Ross, and the musician Kid Merv collaborate on an interview-poem, and Mike Pasquier shares a conversation with filmmaker Peter Entell. That generic diversity is matched by the religious diversity of the lives examined here. The distinctive dynamics of New Orleans's overlapping African-American and Catholic communities come in for sustained attention, but so too do Lutheran Oktoberfests, Jewish tzedakah, Hindu altars, and countless other traditional and nontraditional ways of making and sustaining spiritual connection in times of crisis, displacement, and loss.
We didn't think to invite musical contributions when planning the issue, but no doubt the generosity and expertise of our crack team of editors would have made even a library of MP3s possible. This is an unpecedented, "off-calendar" issue of JSR, and the long hours put in by Randall Stephens, Bland Whitley, and webmaster Art Remillard far exceeded the call of duty. Members of our editorial and advisory boards refereed all submissions; for additional advice on particular submissions we thank Greg Miller, Brent Plate, and Cammy Thomas.
We hope that the diversity of materials presented here pays fitting tribute to the place that inspires them. On the morning of August 30, 2005, I'd gone to bed after midnight to helicopter footage of parts of New Orleans submerged to the rooftops and woke to the shaky voice of Governor Kathleen Blanco on my clock radio, telling reporters that there was "no choice but to abandon the city." (These may not have been her exact words; I was deranged.) Soon enough I realized she was saying that those who were still in New Orleans now had no choice but to evacuate—the hows of course were still forthcoming—but for those few impossible seconds the image I had was of New Orleans entirely buried by the storm, lost to the world like Atlantis. This issue of JSR presents a blessedly different picture. It's much too early still to say laissez les bon temps rouler. But together with a number of new books suggesting that, as
Mike puts it, New Orleans might in fact be more central to American religious history than the reigning narratives let on, the energy, passion, and resilience demonstrated by the contributors to this special issue insist that, national neglect be damned, New Orleans isn't going away.