From New Orleans: A Prayer for Maids, Maintenance Men, and Me
by Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
For at least two decades, it has been a forgone conclusion that I would not get any taller — in two weeks I have definitely gotten wider; I live in New Orleans.
My daily commute is quite literary. Around 7:30am, I leave my four-room shotgun house and walk to the neighborhood cafe, Tout de Suite. After responding to several patrons singing, “Good morning, Reverend,” I grab a stool at the coffee bar, drink a double cappuccino, and depart with similar serenade, “Have a good day, Reverend.”
Walking through the elegantly-dressed streets in Old Algiers Point, amused by gawking small children in their strollers, I arrive at the west bank ferry dock. Usually it takes some time for the ferry to arrive. Gazing at the muddy waters of the Mississippi, I sit and smoke my pipe. Boarding for a magical ride, I notice that my fellow ferry riders are an eclectic bunch of artists, anarchists, New Orleanians, immigrants, and perhaps, exiles. I am always struck the most by those who wear maid and maintenance uniforms.
On the east bank, the ferry docks at the edge of downtown, where the hotels and casinos are. You know there is only one union hotel here. Headed to what Douglas Coupland called McJobs — low-wage, low-prestige, non-benefited work — maids and maintenance men speak with musicality. Their term of endearment, “Baby,” is elongated and turned in a minor key that would make Louis Armstrong smile.
But I cry everyday.
From the ferry dock, the street car to the office goes up Canal Street and through downtown — bustling with the rebuilding of hotels, we often stop for construction and utility trucks. Less than a mile away in any direction, there is no bustling, only brokenness. I cry every day — like now.
While many of my friends celebrate the Democratic control of the House of Representatives and, seemingly, the Senate, my life in the Big Easy gives me no reason to rejoice. For poor are never the priority of the powerful. Over a year later, the vast majority of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are in third world conditions with Democratic representation at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Billions of dollars have flowed into the region into the hands of Republican benefactors. And I wonder, “God where are you?” and “How could you let this be?”
So then, I get up every day in search of my faith with an eye on broadening my vocation and deepening my calling. Praying that you will make yourself known. In the eyes and the efforts of those left on the rooftops, you do. Now, I have not come to be the voice of the voiceless as an organizer, the People’s Organizing Committee admonished me. Rather the people are screaming, the powers and principalities refuse to hear them; I must work in solidarity with and follow the leadership of the least of these so they might speak their special truth to the world. For these maids and maintenance men may be the salvation of democracy — and my own.
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, is executive directorof the Interfaith Worker Justice Center of New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a contributing editor to Fellowship, and previously served as director of Clergy & Laity Concerned about Iraq.