|September 9, 2005
A New Meaning for 'Organized Religion': It Helps the Needy QuicklyBy MICHAEL LUO and CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 8 - The main hallway of the Florida Boulevard Baptist Church is lined with garbage bags full of clothing. The gymnasium has become a soup kitchen. And a kitchen set up outside churns out several thousand hot meals a day.
At River of Praise Church in Tomball, Tex., 150 evacuees from the New Orleans area are camped out on cots in the family activity room, two youth rooms and a conference room.
And on the parking lot of Pass Road Baptist Church in Gulfport, Miss., volunteers from North Carolina, wearing yellow hats and T-shirts, hand out plates of barbecue sandwiches and green beans to a line of cars that stretches around a neighboring parking lot and into the street.
From sprawling megachurches to tiny congregations, churches across the country have mobilized in response to Hurricane Katrina, offering shelter, conducting clothing drives and serving hot meals to evacuees, many of whom have had difficulty getting help from inundated government agencies.
"You just walk in," said Ethel Wicker, 57, who fled the Ninth Ward in New Orleans ahead of the storm that flooded it, as she dug into a Styrofoam container of oriental chicken in the gym of Florida Boulevard Baptist Church. "They have clothing. They have drinks. They have candy. And they treat you very well."
In contrast, she said, she and her daughter, Dionne Murphy, 37, had to wait for hours to get food stamps. And so far, she has gotten nothing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The churches are handing out meals," she said. "The federal government hasn't handed out any funds to my knowledge."
Indeed, after a day of confusion and complaints about how to obtain debit cards worth at least $2,000 for immediate living expenses, David G. Passey, a spokesman for FEMA, said the agency had decided to end the distribution of the cards after a one-day trial. But later, FEMA officials in Washington said that distribution of the cards would resume on Friday.
Mr. Passey said that victims must register for assistance, and that checks or funds transfers would usually take between 10 days and two weeks to reach them.
But many people said they could not wait that long, or did not have the patience to deal with all the bureaucratic mix-ups. And churches have stepped into the void in what observers say is probably the largest such outpouring in recent memory, with tens of thousands of displaced people stretched out across the country.
"Certainly, in my history of 41 years as a Salvation Army officer, this is the greatest mobilization of churches in general, but definitely the Christian churches, who in my mind have come to truly realize what Jesus said in Matthew in the 25th chapter: 'Inasmuch as you do unto the least of me, you do unto me,' " said Commissioner W. Todd Bassett, the Salvation Army's national commander.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which works closely in relief operations with the Red Cross, has served more than a million meals so far and has provided 5,000 volunteers, according to Jim Burton, the director of volunteer mobilization for the convention's domestic missions board.
Tanjaneia Bradley, 29, was in the parking lot at Pass Road Baptist Church in Gulfport for the second time Wednesday. She had two holes in her trailer, she said, and needed to take care of her two daughters.
"We had to get out and start hustling for food because we've got kids to feed," Ms. Bradley said.
One of the principal advantages of churches in responding to a disaster is that they are there, said Bryan Jackson, a spokesman for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a research group looking at faith-based social service programs.
"One of the things we have to remember and look at is that churches are in these communities that are being affected; they're already there so they represent a focal point in the community where people can come together or they can marshal resources or marshal people," he said. In the areas hard-hit by the hurricane, churches were often the first places that opened as shelters, taking in victims who would later be transferred to the shelters managed by the Red Cross.
The Rev. Bland Washington, 55, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. in Baton Rouge, was one who was moved to help after seeing an appeal on television. Even though his church had never sheltered people before, he told an associate minister to add their church to a FEMA list of shelters.
Soon evacuees were streaming in, forcing him to scramble to find places to house them. He put about 40 in the church's sanctuary; the ushers' room got 10; the library squeezed in 8; the choir area housed about a dozen. Finally, he cleared out the second floor dining area of tables for mattresses and cots.
"All we wanted to do was try to help in any way we can," he said. "We're doing it from the fact that God wants us to do this."
After members of Southern Baptist disaster response teams from North Carolina finish clearing debris or doing temporary repairs on damaged houses in Gulfport, Miss., they give the homeowners a signed Bible and say a prayer with them. But several volunteers said the emphasis is on the work. If souls are won in the process, well, so much the better.
"The bottom line is we're Christian unapologetically and we're not ashamed of that," said Mr. Burton. "But we take a very low key approach because this is a highly sensitive situation."
In the past, evangelical churches, especially, have been criticized for not doing enough for the needy, focusing instead on theology and personal salvation. But many evangelicals have been pushing for that to change. On Tuesday, Rick Warren, author of the blockbuster bestseller, "The Purpose Driven Life," and pastor of one of the country's largest churches, in Orange County, Calif., addressed a gathering of about 250 pastors in Baton Rouge.
"He was challenging us to step up and do this," said Paul Radosevich, a pastor at the Florida Boulevard Baptist Church.