What words does one use to describe the story of a Christian lesbian Air Force pilot-turned-journalist-turned-Katrina-relief-activist -- a story with a distinctly faith-based "thousand points of light"-y voluntaristic orientation? Two words leap to mind: "Cholene Espinoza." I can say that after reading her fascinating and thought-provoking memoir, Through the Eye of the Storm: A Book Dedicated to Rebuilding What Katrina Washed Away
Espinoza grew up in New Mexico and graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1987. Becoming only the second woman to fly the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, she was awarded the Air Medal for combat missions over war-torn Iraq and the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Since retiring from the Air Force, she has been a pilot for United Airlines, braving hardships ranging from the firm's corporate bankruptcy to her near-miss brush with 9/11 -- she was originally scheduled to be aboard United Flight 93
Such a life would be interesting enough, but there's more. She's an actively believing Christian and, at the same time, an "out" lesbian, in a life-partnership with the prominent liberal radio-talk-show host Ellen Ratner (who, full disclosure, is my sparring partner on a regularly scheduled Saturday-morning segment on the Fox News Channel, The Long and Short of It). To add a bit more spice to the mix, while Espinoza and Ratner are very much in love, and share a commitment to directly making a difference, their politics diverge somewhat; Espinoza is more conservative and more skeptical of government's ability to translate good intentions into good outcomes. Indeed, Espinoza's book raises important issues about government, and how it works -- or not -- in our time.
Espinoza wrestles with three big questions: The answers she offers take this work well beyond simple autobiography:
First, how does one serve one's country in a time of war and hardship? Serving in the military is one option -- unless, of course, one is an "out" homosexual. In which case, what other ways are available?
Second, what's the role of faith as a guide to action in the public square?
Third, does the government exist to help people -- or is it spinning, merely to help itself?
Let's take them in reverse order, the last question first.
On the issue of who the government helps -- itself or the rest of us -- I've been thinking about that, too. How do we remind our "public servants" that they are actually supposed to serve the public? How do we ensure that the system provides more than just a costly spin cycle? In one piece here at TCS I took note of a "crisis of process" in the federal government and cited Katrina as one obvious critical failure. In a second piece I quoted E.J. Dionne, quipping that President George W. Bush was behaving more like a "right-wing talk show host" than commander-in-chief, as he, Bush, criticized the federal government's Katrina response. Dionne is a Bush-bashing liberal, of course, but he had a point about the spin-doctoring efforts of the administration in the wake of the storm.
Of course, there's nothing new in presidents of both parties seeking to spin their way out of problems; we all remember Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was so eager to communicate his "down-home" image that he wore a cardigan sweater and carried his own bag -- as if such symbolisms have anything to do with being a good president. And Bill Clinton -- ‘nuff said. So the real point to be made is that all presidents are inclined to emphasize style over substance in the performance of their official duties. No doubt it's always been like this, although it seems that the slick art of presidential image-making is continuously improving, while the dull practice of good government is continuing to degrade.
Now Espinoza has raised the exact same point in her book. Reacting to Katrina, she writes:
And as for poor governmental performance, Espinoza has seen that first hand. In the wake of Katrina, she felt a stirring of compassionate activism, although it was Ratner who provided the trigger. Espinoza writes, "I was skeptical when Ellen first suggested that we -- two gay women -- should drive down to the heart of the Bible Belt, to one of the reddest of the red states and camp out with two churches." Yes, it might be a little difficult, Ratner conceded: "We're the gay version of the movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." But off they went, just days after the storm, driving a U-Haul trailer full of supplies from Washington DC down to the stricken Gulf Coast. Their exact destination was the little town of DeLisle, Mississippi.
That's where Espinoza saw Uncle Sam in action -- and all too often, inaction. Having served in the Air Force for most of two decades, Espinoza was no stranger to bureaucracy, but even she was confounded by the bureaucratic hurdles that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration had set up between the needy and the aid they needed. She details how citizens couldn't get relief until they had a specially designated FEMA number, but they couldn't get a FEMA number without a bank account number. And if such paperwork had been washed away? Well, get in line. And if FEMA lost your file in the middle of the process? Well, get in another line.
The takeaway point here is not that FEMA should simply shovel money at people, no matter what. Instead, the lesson is that sometimes disaster strikes so thoroughly that people have nothing. And so as a solution, perhaps Social Security numbers might be the basis for emergency assistance. Does that smack of a national ID card, which many dread? Maybe. But maybe the danger of another Katrina -- or a natural or unnatural disaster ten or a hundred times worse -- should force us to revisit that question. Having seen plenty of devastation in Mississippi, Espinoza traveled to harder-hit New Orleans: "I could not believe that a city in my own country had so thoroughly collapsed under the weight of chaos." Surely no American -- including no American president -- wants to see another such chaotic situation.
But in the meantime, if the government is slow and halting, Espinoza and Ratner were immediate and giving. And so to the second issue raised by Through the Eye of the Storm: the role of faith.
By her own admission, Espinoza was searching, spiritually, before Katrina. Then came the storm. Suddenly, what seemed to be dry rituals of Christian observance became, in her mind, the vivid opportunity to make a huge difference in real people's lives. Arriving in Mississippi, the couple concentrated their attention on the parishioners of two churches, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in DeLisle and St. Paul's United Methodist Church in nearby Pass Christian. It was this experience, Espinoza writes, that "replenished" her. "Through the expression of love, the act of giving, I regained my soul." (The author, by the way, is donating all book proceeds to Mississippi's "children of the storm.")
Soon enough, the can-do spirit of the Air Force took charge -- Espinoza proved handy with a hammer and nails. And she approvingly cites the self-help of George Washington Carver: "Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses."
Espinoza's first-hand experience is, in effect, an update on other books that have emphasized the importance of faith in social problem-solving. Marvin Olasky's 1992 work, The Tragedy of American Compassion, offered a marvelously revisionist history of 19th-century uplift; Olasky encouraged readers to look past the statist propaganda, to the true history of enormously effective faith-based charity. Another important book, published earlier this year, is Douglas Brinkley and Julie Fenster's Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism, which provides an additional snapshot into private-sector problem solving -- in this case, the founding of the Knights of Columbus, which provided social-welfare benefits to many, a half-century before the New Deal.
Finally, to the third issue, the question of how gays and lesbians can serve American society, especially in times of crisis. Espinoza writes, "I knew that I was gay since I was a small child." But she hid it until she was 38, after she left the Air Force. And while she sometimes wished she could have rejoined the military after 9/11, it wasn't an option for her as an overt lesbian.
Which is a shame, because the military needs our best. As she writes, "Airplanes don't care about your race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. Either you have the skills to fly or you do not." But as they say, when one door closes, another opens: "Katrina was colorblind," she writes -- and oblivious, too, about gender issues.
Fortified by her re-reading of the New Testament -- "Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another" (Romans 14:13) -- she set off on her new mission. And so she and Ratner proved a point: helping others is not about race, or gender, or red state or blue state.
Still, she faced some painful moments. During her time in Mississippi, the United Methodist Church defrocked a Methodist minister in Pennsylvania for lesbianism, even as it reinstated a Virginia pastor who had been suspended from his church for denying a gay man membership in his congregation. "It was painful," she writes, "to see the United Methodist Church doors slammed shut to an entire community -- my community."
And what of the two churches she was helping? She never asked anyone at St. Paul's or Mt. Zion what they thought of gays and lesbians. The only thing that mattered, she believed, was her "commitment to serve them." And she quotes her own brother, Chip, who happens to be an evangelical minister: "If you have to believe like me in order for me to serve you, then I am not a servant." Inspiring stuff, intensely Christian.
Cholene Espinoza: High-tech warrior turned hands-on servant. Closeted homosexual turned out-and-proud lesbian. And, not least, veteran of government processes turned sharp-eyed critic of SNAFU-ridden systems.
And out of it all, out of all these paradoxes, out of the storm of Katrina, came a deeper and firmer commitment to her faith. A faith that is her true foundation, as she relates when she quotes Matthew 7:24 about the wise man building his house on solid rock: "The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock."
Espinoza has her foundation now. And in sharing her life with us, she offers us all a foundation of understanding, love, and, not least, effective compassion. Through the Eye of the Storm is not only an inspiring memoir about transcending categories and prejudices; it is also a valuable guide for those eager to establish a newer and better paradigm for disaster assistance.