By Abbey Willett

4 · 29 · 2019


Notre Dame translates to Our Lady. But who is she in reference to? The French, the Church, the Western World? And when Our Lady is in distress, who comes to help her?

When she caught flame a week ago, we caught a glimpse of how quickly stakeholders jumped to action when their Lady needed them. Christians and non-Christians alike who cherish the awe-inspiring cathedral, both as a symbol of Western culture and as a place of God,  raised nearly $1 billion in the day and a half following the tragedy.

When a sacred cultural site is destroyed, many hearts ache for the loss. This was the case in Paris and across the Western world as masses watched the flaming spire collapse and saw their history burned before their eyes. This was also the case in Louisiana when three historically Black churches were burned just a few weeks prior by an alleged White arsonist; in Chinchero, Peru, where plans to build an airport in the midst of an Incan archaeological site near Machu Picchu threaten to destroy Incan history; in Nigeria, where they still feel the absence of precious bronze statuettes stolen by the British over 100 years ago; and in Jerusalem when the third most holy site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, caught fire on the very same day as the fire at Notre Dame, albeit sustaining minimal damage but nonetheless posing a threat to the sacred site.

These beloved cultural sites and works of art are just as treasured by the cultures to which they belong as Notre Dame is by the Western world. And yet, we do not see the wealthy showing nearly as much of a generous hand when similar similar tragedies strike non-Western cultural centers.  We ought to take this feeling of mourning over the destruction of Our (Western) Lady and extend that feeling to Our (Non-Western) Ladies and Our (Non-White) Ladies when they experience similar hardships. With that said, it makes sense that there was heightened attention to this tragedy from the people who share a personal connection with Notre Dame, and their mourning its loss is not inherently wrong. Nor does it require an apology from those who chose to donate to this cause. The fire at Notre Dame is a tragedy worthy of attention and ought to be properly mourned. However, it is unfortunate that tragedies at Non-Western culturally rich sites don't receive the same attention or resources when they face destruction.

What makes the cash flow into the European church particularly frustrating is the amount of money the global entity already has. The Catholic church is one of the richest institutions in the world, and yet it is getting even more funding and support.

It also must be noted that there is a glaring difference between the circumstances of these tragedies. The fire at the Notre Dame was completely unintentional, and still made headlines around the world, whereas the Louisiana church fires were allegedly arson, the Chinchero Airport development is inherently intentional, as with the British looting and burning of the Royal Palace of Benin in 1897 and their persistent refusal to return those precious artifacts to Nigeria. Surely, intentional cultural destruction and theivery ought to receive at least as much of a public outcry.

Aside from preserving culture and art, the amount of money raised in just 36 hours to rebuild Notre Dame is staggering. If the same type of reaction could rally similar support for humanitarian issues like the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurrican Maria, and chronic widespread poverty, human lives could be saved and living conditions drastically improved. Moreover, if global crises like climate change received similar funding, we might have a shot at tackling climate change before it is too late. Mother Nature is Our Lady, too; the polar ice caps, coral reefs, and our oceans are natural cathedrals equally worthy of being rebuilt. And when we are highly aware of the intentional destruction that we wreck on these natural cathedrals every day, we have even more reason to take action against those tragedies.

I believe that we can take this feeling of loss and use it as a learning moment to understand two things: first, the way that non-Western cultures and non-White communities feel when their sacred spaces are burned and destroyed; and secondly, how much money can be raised when the wealthy are invested in the crisis. Through reflection on how non-Western sacred cultural heritage is treated, we ought to use this moment to push ourselves to be better about preserving non-Western history, to return precious cultural artifacts that are not ours, and to demand that the wealthy support crises where human lives are at stake just as passionately as they have supported rebuilding Notre Dame.

Photo via Getty Images