Reprinted from the National Council of Churches
New Orleans, August 29, 2007 – "If it had not been for the Church, we would be in even worse shape than we are now."
So said the Rev. Patrick Keen, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in New Orleans. He was addressing 50 volunteers from 14 Christian churches taking part in Ecumenical Work Week (Aug. 19-25) sponsored by the National Council of Churches (NCC) USA’s Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. Bethlehem Lutheran hosted volunteers for the week and provided dinner during the week.
"The people of God from all around the country have come to help," Pastor Keen said.
The work week was held last week in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss. In addition to the six houses the workers helped to repair and rebuild, the week was intended to point out the ongoing need for volunteers and the work done by church volunteers and organizations in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago today.
In a survey conducted by the Special Commission of the NCC's 35 member communions it was estimated those churches sent more than 120,000 volunteers. They donated 3.6 million hours in helping victims put their lives back together. Those churches sent an estimated $250 million in financial aid to local churches and relief agencies. The survey was compiled by Tronn Moller, the Special Commission’s Gulf Coast consultant.
"The Road Home has been a bureaucratic nightmare," said Bishop Thomas Hoyt, co-chair of the Special Commission and past president of the NCC.
He said the money sent by government agencies has not been shared equitably among the victims nor has it been managed properly. The Rev. Michael Livingston, current NCC president, co-chairs the Special Commission with Bishop Hoyt.
"The task ahead is still a mammoth one," said Bishop Hoyt. "We need people to stay with us." More volunteers are needed to help people struggling all along the Gulf Coast, Hoyt said.
"We didn't come here to get noticed," said the Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, NCC's associate general secretary for justice and advocacy. "We came here to give notice that we will be here until the work is done."
In Biloxi, the volunteers worked to repair two homes, including the home of Myrtle Davis. She was born in the house 81 years ago as was her brother who will be 85 next month.
During a lunch break the workers heard from representatives of two dozen different organizations. The message from each was please keep sending volunteers. They warned of a pending housing crisis if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) begins to evict residents of FEMA-supplied trailers. The temporary housing was designed for only 18 months to 2 years.
At a Tuesday night prayer service the Rev. Dr. Bob Hill, pastor of Community Christian Church in Kansas City, Mo., preached following a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward. In describing his emotions he said he felt angry but did not share that out loud until he realized, "anger is always an appropriate response when our values have been violated."
Bishop J.D. Wiley of Life Center Cathedral in New Orleans and the Rev. C. Dan Krutz, executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference in Baton Rouge, La., also preached at nightly prayer services.
While much of the media attention leading up to today's anniversary has focused on the Lower Ninth Ward, volunteers also saw other neighborhoods where little seems to have been done in two years. Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East, were also areas the workers saw that are still struggling to rebuild and virtually uninhabited.
In addition to the work of the 50 volunteers, visiting clergy spent two days on a listening tour about the environmental impact of the post-Katrina flooding of this city and what still needs to be done in the area. The tour was coordinated by Cassandra Carmichael, NCC's director of eco-justice programs.
In February of this year the Special Commission issued a report card on the status of recovery efforts. After more than a half a dozen post-Katrina trips to the Gulf Coast region and extensive on-the-ground analysis, the NCC's Special Commission on the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast gave low marks across the board to local, state and federal governments. The report card reviewed response and rebuilding efforts in the city of New Orleans, the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the federal government in areas such as transportation, healthcare, housing, schools, insurance, and environmental justice.
The NCC's Special Commission was formed in September 2005 in response to the spiraling neglect present in the Gulf Region after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Commissioners representing NCC member communions convened for the first time in Louisiana in November 2005, a few months after the storms ravaged the Gulf Coast, to analyze on-the-ground progress post-Katrina. The Special Commission has since toured the Mississippi coast, met with religious leaders and community activists and government officials in New Orleans and Mississippi, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. In addition, the Special Commission has met with members of Congress and officials at FEMA about efforts to rebuild.
The ecumenical work week was organized for the Special Commission by Moller and the Rev. Leslie Tune, NCC's associate director for justice and advocacy. Work projects were coordinated through the United Church of Christ disaster relief, Episcopal Disaster Relief and Disciples of Christ Disaster Relief in New Orleans. In Mississippi the work was coordinated with Episcopal Disaster Relief.
"It was not a sacrifice for us to be there. It was an immense honor and privilege to be the hands and feet of God and to help people rebuild," said the Rev. Tune. "It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life that people allowed us in their homes and trusted us to help them get things back in order."
The volunteers and clergy came from NCC and other denominations: African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, American Baptist Churches USA, Armenian Orthodox, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, International Council of Community Churches, Presbyterian Church USA, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ; as well as members of Roman Catholic and Full Gospel Baptist churches plus FaithfulAmerica.org.