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 CNS Story:

CHARITIES-SULLIVAN Sep-26-2008 (630 words) With photos. xxxn

Hurricane Katrina exposed 'two Americas,' bishop says

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- It took the worst natural and man-made disaster in American history -- Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that inundated New Orleans with water in 2005 -- to expose previously hidden levels of poverty in the richest country in the world, a Catholic bishop said Sept. 25.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., made the comments at the 2008 annual gathering of Catholic Charities USA.

In accepting the Vision Award from Catholic Charities USA for his four decades in Catholic social services, the former president of Catholic Charities USA praised the response of the U.S. church to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike this September.

But having 37 million Americans living below the poverty line is unacceptable and represents a clear imperative for change, he said.

Citing the Rev. James Forbes, the retired rector of Riverside Church in New York City, Bishop Sullivan said "Lady Katrina" was "a prophetess who revealed to us the two Americas, the haves and the have-nots, the white America and the America of color."

"Both were affected by the storm," Bishop Sullivan said, "but the America of color much more severely. ... Lady Katrina revealed, as no other event in recent history, the tragic confluence of racism and poverty that exists in our nation's cities."

Katrina was not just a revelation of poverty in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast but "a symbol of what the deeper reality is in the country," Bishop Sullivan said after his talk.

Bishop Sullivan, 78, said while 8 percent of white Americans live below the poverty line, 24 percent of African-Americans, 22 percent of Hispanics and 23 percent of Native Americans are poor. He said the Catholic Charities USA report, "Poverty in America," refers to poverty as an "unnatural disaster" created by individuals and society.

"Lady Katrina challenges us to wake up to acknowledge the reality and injustices of poverty in our country and together with the poor to take action to shape the social and economic policies that will reduce poverty by half by 2020," he said.

"This is not a pipe dream. We have the resources, experience and knowledge to virtually eliminate poverty," he continued. "What we need is the political will."

Bishop Sullivan said it often takes "a storm, a tragedy, a series of shocking events to shake us out of our lethargy."

Although President Johnson's war on poverty in the 1960s has been criticized as ineffective and even wasteful, Bishop Sullivan said it cut poverty in half in the U.S.

Bishop Sullivan praised the regional Catholic Charities staffers in Louisiana and Mississippi for "outstanding" leadership after Katrina and Rita. Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S. raised more than $155 million in humanitarian aid for Katrina victims.

"Some raise the question 'Where was God in this natural disaster?'" he said. "God was in all the good will and practical responses of those who reached out to express their conviction that 'we are our brother's and sister's keepers.'"

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, asked the 700 people attending the Sept. 24-28 conference to remember their colleagues who were helping out storm victims in southwest Louisiana and south Texas and could not attend.

"Our response (to disasters) has increased geometrically," Father Snyder said. "Three years ago the greatest catastrophe our country had known to that time hit, and we didn't sit and wait for someone else to respond.

"We learned much from that bitter experience and built a network that could respond in a quick and effective way. We'll continue to build this infrastructure," the priest said. "The future is only challenged by limited resources."


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