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Churches rise to answer South's call

Jackson, Miss., Pastor Danny Hollins: ‘It’s our calling. We’re trying to put feet to our faith’ (courtesy: Jackson Clarion-Ledger

Local churches across the nation quietly are emerging as heroes of hurricane relief as the needs of an estimated 3 million people left hungry, homeless and jobless by Hurricane Katrina strain government resources as never before.

Though the many already hard at work seem to have needed no prodding, evangelist Franklin Graham, who heads the evangelical relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, is calling on church leaders to adopt 10 refugee families and offer not only shelter but complete assistance, including job opportunities and help in relocation.

Some officials believe New Orleans residents will be separated from their homes for another three to six months. In certain areas, it may be a year before the infrastructure is rebuilt and in others, there may be no going back.

Rev. Danny Hollins of Greater Fairview Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., says the decision to take in 68 members of an extended family is the biggest test he’s encountered as a pastor.

Evacuee Paul Austin, 15, of New Orleans relaxes in his new living quarters in Greater Fairview Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss. (courtesy: Jackson Clarion-Ledger

“I’ve never had to do anything like this,” he told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

The evacuated New Orleans family will stay as long as needed.

“It’s a challenge for us, but we’ve accepted the challenge,” Hollins said. “It’s our calling. We’re trying to put feet to our faith.”

‘Can’t wait for government’

In a plea for action, the Kalamazoo Gazette’s editorial board recalled how churches nationwide stepped forward in the 1970s to help Vietnamese fleeing the communists after Saigon fell.

“Americans have already seen they can’t wait for government to take care of the problem,” the editorial said. “Thousands of hungry, thirsty, sick New Orleans residents were trapped in the submerged city with little or no help from the government. It is clear this long-term evacuee crisis must be solved by private initiative.”

In Hendersonville, Tenn., a family of 16 who just arrived from New Orleans showed gratitude to St. John Baptist Church, one of many in the city collecting clothing, diapers and shoes for the evacuees as they feed them and provide shelter.

“They’re very heartwarming, loving people, always stretching out their arms. They have done so much for me and my family,” said hurricane victim Griselda Wilson.

In Houston, the largest center of refugee activity outside the disaster area, Second Baptist Church is spearheading a citywide faith-based effort that includes matching families with the overflow that cannot be housed in local facilities such as the Astrodome.

The Red Cross and other groups have refused to match evacuees with Houston residents who offer housing due to concerns about liability, Christianity Today reported.

At a meeting at Second Baptist last week, representatives of Christian mainline, evangelical and Pentecostal denominations and other faiths – including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Bah’ai and Unitarians – pledged support and helped plot strategies, including the feeding of thousands housed in the Astrodome.

Church member Jack Little told the leaders: “There is no money to do this, folks. There is no federal money available to handle this emergency in Houston.” Nor is city, county, or state funding available, Christianity Today noted.

One month of meals will cost almost $4 million, but Second Baptist alone sought to raise $1 million among its 40,000 members over the weekend.

During last week’s strategy meeting, Ed Young, the church’s pastor, told the representatives to stand and give their names and religious affiliation.

“All those sermons and passions you’ve generated, now’s the time to put up or shut up for every faith or religious community here,” Young told the group. “Are you willing to coordinate and cooperate with other people and other denominations? If you’re not, sit down.”

No one sat.


Baltimore-based World Relief, an agency of the National Association of Evangelicals, has set up a web service to facilitate the partnering of churches nationwide.

Tim Zeimer, World Relief’s executive director of programs, says, “We have identified this service as a gap in the relief efforts and seek to provide a centralized source for churches across the country, regardless of denomination, to participate, ensuring volunteers and churches work together in the most effective manner possible.”

Denominational groups are providing ways for people who can’t volunteer to ensure their dollars go directly to the aid of victims.

The North American Mission Board’s fund for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief says 100 percent of donations are used to aid hurricane victims in the largest effort in the agency’s history.

Nearly 90 cents of every dollar donated to Catholic Charities agencies goes directly to programs and services.

The Southern Baptist Convention announced Monday two initiatives, “Adopt a Church” and “Houses of Hope,” the Baptist Press reported.

“Adopt a Church” will be a commitment of between one to two years to assist hundreds of Gulf Coast churches affected by the storm and include financial support, rebuilding trips, mission trips and care packages. “Houses of Hope” will minister to those displaced by Katrina.

Some congregations, like Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., have denomination-sized resources targeted for relief.

Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” flew to the disaster area Monday with a relief assessment team.

But most local churches are multiplying their results by joining efforts.

In Keller, Texas, near Fort Worth, area churches mobilized volunteers last weekend with just hours notice to come to First Baptist Church and assist 200 refugees arriving from the Gulf Coast.

A Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist noted “the Keller volunteers have done it all without advice or even contact from busy relief agencies or federal officials.”

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, because I understand the situation,” Pastor Keith Sanders said. “But we haven’t seen a Red Cross person. We haven’t seen a FEMA person. We’ve been totally on our own.”

After two days of “just showing love, helping everybody get cleaned up, making them feel safe,” Sanders said, the volunteers from Northeast Tarrant County churches will now “walk them through the process” of settling down, applying for federal disaster aid and finding jobs.

In Knoxville today, four airplanes carrying a total of about 550 Hurricane Katrina evacuees are expected to arrive, with nearly half to be taken in by churches, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

Some 150 of the evacuees will be housed at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and another 100 at the city’s First Baptist Church.

‘This is a blessed place’

In Van Buren, Ark., Butterfield Assembly of God Church organized a shelter to take in the overflow of 6,000 evacuees that arrived Monday at Fort Chaffee from New Orleans, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“This is a blessed place,” said Jilleion Cheatham describing the church’s shelter. “We never thought the people on the outside [of New Orleans] would help us more than the people on the inside.”

The Arkansas Baptist Assembly in Siloam Springs has offered its 900-bed church camp.

Butterfield Assembly of God pastor Ronnie Gilmore told the Arkansas paper his congregation came together at the last moment to organize the shelter for more than 150 people.

“We were ready for them in four hours,” Gilmore said. “It was unbelievable.”

Evacuees arriving at the church Sunday night were greeted by a hot steak dinner and smiling faces of dozens of church members, he said. The church also raised money to send 12 people on buses to live with family members in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

Volunteers in Greenwood, Miss., pack donations for Hurricane Katrina evacuees (courtesy: Greenwood Commonwealth)

In Greenwood, Miss., local churches “have done a yeoman’s job” in taking care of the evacuees as they have arrived, Leflore County Chancery Clerk Sam Abraham told the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper yesterday.

T.W. Cooper, director of the Greenwood-Leflore County Emergency Management Agency, said the community’s response has been “wonderful.”

“People are opening up their homes,” Cooper said. “All of the churches in all of Greenwood have opened their doors.”

Capt. Ke’olani Lyons of the Greenwood Salvation Army said the response to its relief drive “has been overwhelming. It’s like water flowing over a cup.”

In Decatur, Ala., more than 30 local churches and more than 20 businesses have provided meals, gift cards and supplies; and at least 30 families have volunteered rooms, houses and trailers for victims, the Decatur Daily reported.

Mary K. Braddock, director of the Volunteer Center of Morgan County, said the number of homes offered is more than the number of evacuee families.

Attorney Anthony Skidmore, who said he doesn’t know what became of his house on the West Bank of New Orleans, is thankful to have a place to come with his wife and eight other family members.

“We could not have found a better place to be,” he said. “There had to be divine intervention for us to have wound up here. … I am really surprised. I never expected the level of hospitality and acceptance to be so high. It’s just phenomenal.”

Trunean Marie Brown (courtesy: Memphis Commercial Appeal

Churches in Memphis welcomed hundreds of refugees, including Trunean Marie Brown of Kenner, La., 5 1/2 months pregnant and now separated from her 3-year-old daughter, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.

Brown found refuge and a warm welcome at Cummings Street Missionary Baptist Church and wants to stay.

“I thank God for this place here,” she said.

Another area congregation, Bellevue Baptist Church, took in 97 evacuees, enlisting 700 volunteers and converting its four gymnasiums into living, dining and medical quarters.

“This place is phenomenal,” said Jean Sylvester, a 46-year-old New Orleans woman.

In Baton Rouge, La., two Catholic churches welcomed about 300 seniors from the Chateau de Notre Dame Catholic nursing home in New Orleans – many in extremely fragile health, according to Catholic News Service.

John Tieperman, executive director, who evacuated the elderly residents before the storm hit, said the parishes of St. George and St. Thomas More marshaled several hundred volunteers, including teens and medical personnel, to help keep the residents safe, fed, bathed and entertained. The residents now have been shifted to more permanent nursing facilities in southeast Louisiana.

“The kids were just overwhelming,” Tieperman said, referring to the teens who played games and talked to the residents. “There were two and three kids around every resident, smiling and talking to them.”

Parishioners helped clean residents’ diapers and took their clothes home to wash and dry them.

The St. George gym looked like a large hospital ward as residents slept on foam mattresses while some remained in their hospital beds attached to oxygen masks and feeding tubes.

‘Talking the talk’

While many government agencies, from President Bush on down, have been targets of bitter criticism over relief and rescue failures, few dare to suggest that churches aren’t responding.

A columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, Roddy Stinson, said his voicemail box filled to capacity after a Sunday piece in which he quoted a man who criticized the religious community for “talking the talk, but not walking the walk” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Among the responses:

One caller summed up the responses:

“Mr. Stinson: I take great exception to your ‘lecture to apathetic churches.’ When religious organizations respond, they do not hold a press conference to gain accolades. Rather, they minister to those in need just as Jesus commanded: ‘Let not your right hand know what the left is doing.’

“We seek our reward in heaven and not in the praise of men.”

Those wishing to contribute to hurricane relief efforts can donate to the Salvation Army online or by calling 1-800-725-2769. Red Cross donations can be made
online or by calling 1-800-435-7669.

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