Brad Pitt and Zacchaeus

7 Dec

I was astonished yesterday to read in the newspaper about Brad Pitt, the actor, who has committed himself and a lot of his own money, to a re-construction project in New Orleans. Apparently Pitt came to love the city when he first went to work there, and has been appalled that so much still needs to be done in creating homes for those devastated by the hurricane and flood known as Katrina.
But this guy is really wanting to do something GOOD:

Here is some of the newspaper story: from the Guardian via the Melbourne Age:

Brad Pitt has launched his own regeneration project for hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, unveiling designs for a range of eco-friendly and flood-proof homes.
Pitt commissioned 13 architectural firms to produce houses that would incorporate solar power and other environmentally sound designs.
He has put up $US5 million ($A5.7 million) of his own money and launched a website, www.makeitrightnola.org, asking corporations, church groups and others for $US150,000 donations for his adopt-a-house project, as well as smaller public donations.
Former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans will be expected to contribute part of the cost of the new houses, with Make It Right making up the shortfall.

More than two years after the destruction of much of the city by hurricane Katrina, Pitt announced his plan for 150 new houses to be completed by next year. He said there was no reason why it could not expand to 10,000 or even 100,000.
Pitt is pushing ahead in spite of resistance from the city, state and the federal governments, with many officials and politicians wondering whether it is a good idea to rebuild at all in a flood-prone area.
The homes are to be built initially in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest — and mainly black — areas of the city. It was flattened by flooding and remains almost deserted.

Pitt said yesterday the priorities for the architects were safety, sustainability, affordability and aesthetics. They were asked to design homes that are at least 1.5 metres off the ground, with a porch and three bedrooms, at a cost of about $US150,000.
Pitt told a television interviewer  that rebuilding the Lower Ninth was a bigger priority than his movie career. "Right now this is the focus, and we’re going to see this thing through."

When I read this story I was immediately impressed. It is an expression of the wonderful culture of philanthropy which is so much a part of US culture, and not our own in Australia.
I was impressed by two things: the commitment of his own money, and the commitment to excellent design. So often, housing projects for the less well off are minimalist, in design and quality. Not so, this project.
A third impressive feature is the approach which asks people to be involved somehow in developing and to some degree in paying for their own homes, into the future. This is not a total hand-out, but a help-up.

It is very easy for those of us from a ‘social justice’ commitment to be skeptical of rich people who do good things with their money. It is so easy to say, ‘Well, he can afford it. There’s no virtue in that.’ But there is virtue in this. He could in fact have spent his money on booze or gambling or corrupt dealings.
There is a famous story in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19, about a corrupt tax official named Zacchaeus. This fellow encountered Jesus, who basically invited himself to dinner—and as a result of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus returned to many people large sums, many times over, which he had extorted from them.
I can imagine people being quite skeptical of what Zacchaeus was doing.
Can a leopard change its spots? We wonder if those who have made a lot of money can ever really be generous. We imagine they are addicted to wealth. They must be, that’s how they got to be wealthy. So they must be up to something, something selfish … The can’t really be that generous, can they?

Yet here is a really good project, a generous commitment from a man who says that helping to rebuild this part of New Orleans is more important to him than making his next film.
This is good news, and I rejoice in it.  And I recognize that in me which makes me skeptical of him and of this kind of generosity.
I think this might mean that I need Jesus to invite himself to my place for dinner!

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