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Christians are Katrina's First Responders

Religious News Service

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MOBILE, AL - While some traditional disaster-response agencies have been faulted for acting too slowly in the face of Hurricane Katrina, religious organizations have quickly welcomed, clothed and fed thousands of storm victims.

Their no-red-tape response follows a trend of faith-based organizations playing an increasing role in functions traditionally performed by the government and secular charities.

And it has some Gulf Coast-area church leaders and government officials - emboldened by the large role that houses of worship assumed after the storm -saying they want congregations to do even more.

"We have seen a paradigm shift," said Chip Hale, senior pastor at Spanish Fort (AL) United Methodist Church. "Before. in America, since the 1930s or 40s, we've thought the government was going to do it. Now we realize the church is going to have to do it."

Some members of Congress have proposed making it easier for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund faith-based groups. Congress has approved more than $60 billion in Katrina relief, and some estimates of total relief spending have reached $200 billion.

Alabama State Sen. Bradley Byrne said the post-Katrina relief efforts have shown the government that it should give churches a larger role in future disasters.

"This would be a lost opportunity to build for the future if we don't," said Byrne, a Republican.

In the days after the Aug. 29 storm, churches in Gulf Coast states welcomed people who lost their homes, not only providing temporary havens for storm victims to sleep and shower, but also chauffeuring them to safe cities and helping them connect with medical care, job opportunities and long-term housing.

Relief program have included:

Shelters set up by numerous churches. Some are operated by the American Red Cross, while others are run by church members. "We saw the crisis of literally thousands of people being displaced in Mississippi and New Orleans," said Bob Terrell, family life minister at Church of Christ of Spanish Fort, which opened its shelter on Sept. 1 and runs it without Red Cross support.

Collections of goods and money. Many churches and religious organizations have gathered food, clothes and household items for evacuees. The United Methodist Church's Disaster Recovery Ministry has set up five distribution centers in southern Mobile County. The Spanish Fort Methodist church has converted its food pantry into a distribution center, and last week sent 28 trailer-trucks of food into Mississippi.

Setting up help stations near affected areas. Three Alabama churches - Christian Life Church in Orange Beach, Genesis Church in Foley, and Gulfway Assembly of God in Gulf Shores - set up a makeshift camp in a K-Mart parking lot in Waveland, MS, to offer food, water and other supplies to hurricane victims. The center, nicknamed Camp Katrina, has aided thousands.

Transporting evacuees. St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Fairhope, AL, hired several charter buses to transfer hundreds of victims from Mississippi to Alabama and Georgia.

Many churches jumped into action as fast, if not faster, than government agencies or traditional response charities like the Red Cross.

Leigh Anne Ryals, director of the Baldwin County (AL) Emergency Management Agency, said the huge post-Katrina need stretched many organizations thin, including governments and non-profit agencies.

After the storm passed, "the whole sheltering initiative is placed on the shoulders of the Red Cross, and certainly we have seen several shortcomings with personnel constraints, especially with a disaster of this magnitude," Ryals said.

When those agencies proved unable to meet the victims' needs, churches opened their doors, gathered supplies and called on members to cook hot meals and staff and organize shelters.

"To me it was the most awesome thing, to see churches give and to continue to give and support" the evacuees, Ryals said.

The churches' quick response saved lives, Byrne said.

"Churches can't do what the government will do in the weeks and months to come," he said, "but as far as getting basic life necessities to people in the weeks after the storm, I think the church played a decisive role."

Church officials offer several reasons for their quick response. Hale, the Spanish Fort senior pastor, credited a lack of bureaucracy. In his Internet blog, he alluded to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, comparing FEMA to Gulliver tied down on the isle of Lilliput, and said the churches were able to move freely like the tiny Lilliputians.

"What happened was the government wasn't ready to respond, yet individual churches were ready to respond," he said later in an interview. Churches also often have the necessary resources for disaster relief, such as large buildings for shelters and a closely knit membership from which to draw volunteers.

Most importantly, according to relief workers affiliated with religious groups, is that the spirit of giving permeates the teachings of all churches.

"The church is not there for itself, but for others," said Clyde Pressley, executive director of the Disaster Recovery Ministry in Mobile.

"We get a sense of joy helping others. We high-five one another after we've done something."

Religious organizations wanting to take a larger role in society have found a friend in the current president.

In 2001, President Bush established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to help such organizations compete for federal funding. In 2002, Bush signed an order guaranteeing equal treatment for religious groups vying for federal grants.

In fiscal 2004, religious organizations received about $2 billion in grants from seven federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education.

While that was just about 10 percent of the total grant money, it represented a big increase from the $1.17 billion religious groups received in 2003.

Religious organizations are more geared to be first responders because they are already established in communities and can immediately identify needs, while FEMA and other such organizations have to come into an area and set up, said Terri Hasdorff, director of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's faith-based initiatives office.

While the government can provide funding, Hasdorff said, local organizations can tailor social services to fit the needs of individual communities.

"I think what you are seeing is more of a partnership and a growing awareness that faith-based and community organizations are needed for that response," he said.

Read this article on the Presbyterian Church USA website (new window will open).

Posted: 25-Sep-05

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