FAITH IN ACTION Faith-based groups early and enduring Before agencies aided Katrina's victims, religious groups did - and still do.

Posted: August 23, 2006

BILOXI, Miss. — From tiny storefront congregations to deep-pocketed denominations, the communities of faith arrived first.

In the harrowing hours and days after Hurricane Katrina, when survivors roamed the desolate streets in search of water, food and medicine, church groups - not FEMA, not the Red Cross, not the National Guard - provided dazed residents with their first hot meal, their first clean water, their first aspirin.

One year later, many of those same groups are still toiling away across the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Alabama. No longer dispensing water or food, the groups have shifted gears, recruiting thousands of volunteers and committing themselves to the long-term tasks of repair and rebuilding.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED AUGUST 29, 2006, FOLLOWS: A list of faith-based groups offering aid in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans, published Wednesday, incorrectly gave the name of the group Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster.

Working one concrete block and one drywall panel at a time, dozens of denominations have taken on an enormous mission: getting tens of thousands of displaced families back into their homes.

The religious groups have been the primary donors of free muscle power for displaced homeowners.

"We are committed to try to respond here," Jerry Klassen, Gulf States coordinator for the Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Disaster Service, said in a phone interview from New Orleans. "The disaster was so big, and the government was so sluggish getting out of the gate."

State officials say they have no figures on how many faith groups are working in the region, but the lawn signs are everywhere: Amish from Lancaster and Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics and evangelical churches from all over.

Many faith groups have long traditions of running relief programs throughout the world, responding after a tsunami, an earthquake or famine. But Katrina set a new standard, by mobilizing help on this continent.

"This is the first U.S. effort of this scale," said John Robinson, who handles disaster response in the United States for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The Presbyterians and others have set down deep roots in the coastal communities, purchasing property and renewing leases on rented space. An interfaith warehouse flourishes in Biloxi. It stores supplies for different groups and receives donations from many sources, divvying up items as needed.

Meanwhile, the local Catholic diocese has set up what is believed to be the Catholic Church's first long-term recovery effort in the United States. "We can't just sit back and wait for someone else to do it," said Mary Wimberly, the diocese's acting director of long-term recovery, whose office helps 3,800 flood victims.

The faith-based groups are engaged in multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaigns to support their work on the Gulf Coast. The Presbyterians have so far raised $23 million to cover their operations in the region until at least 2013.

"The truth is this will take us beyond 2013," Robinson said of the funds. "The process of recovery is long and painful."

Overwhelming damage

Linda Seal, 48, lives in a dollhouse-size cottage in Bay St. Louis. Because the city was on high ground, it took less floodwater in the storm, but wind tore off part of her roof and water poured in. Later the mold took over.

Seal, who is disabled, got a FEMA trailer last fall, but the extent of the damage overwhelmed her.

"I would lay in bed and cry, looking at the tree limbs lying on my house," she said. "You don't know where to start."

Early this year, a volunteer with the Catholic diocese knocked on her door looking for a neighbor.

"I told him: 'You're not lost. I need help.' "

So they added her to the list.

Since then volunteers have come in waves, eight groups in all, including nuns. Seal, who is documenting every step of her house's transformation and the people who have made it possible, snapped an image of a nun in full habit, balancing on a ladder to paint the ceiling.

Families, retirees and teenagers have come together to slap on a new roof and floors. They rounded up appliances and a couch, even bright-blue fish appliques for her bathroom.

The latest group, most from St. William Catholic Church in St. Simons Island, Ga., was putting finishing touches on Seal's home earlier this month.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Bill Horn, 66, a retired federal law-enforcement trainer, was installing door trim with his son Brandon, 22.

Horn has worked on five churches, a skating rink and a school in his 10 trips to the area since the storm. "The idea is to help somebody else," he said. "Even after 10 times, I am still stunned at the damage."

Before they finished, Seal arranged everyone around her porch swing for a photo. Such moments have become a ritual.

To celebrate her birthday in October, she hopes to invite everyone who helped her.

"First I thought I'd try to fix it and move," she said of her house. "I can't give it up now."

Priority: Need, not faith

Volunteers and officials with the faith-based groups say they are motivated by a common desire to lend a hand to people who have lost so much.

Groups say they select clients based on need, with the elderly, the single mothers and the disabled taking priority, not those who share their faith.

"We are all children of the same Father," said Wimberly, of the Catholic diocese. "We all share core values of love, compassion and charity that impels us to respond."

Wimberly said she knew of no one who was proselytizing.

"I can speak for myself," said Wimberly, who lives with her husband in a FEMA trailer because their house was flooded though salvageable. "There were four or five faith traditions helping get our wet belongings out and gutting the house. They just wanted to help."

Hard, rewarding work

Thousands of volunteers have passed through the "volunteer villages" that have cropped up across the Gulf Coast. They spend a week or more, some paying $20 a night in expenses for the privilege of living in tents, ripping out moldy floorboards and installing drywall in the stifling heat.

But most agree: It's a life-altering experience.

"It's the hardest job I have ever done and the most rewarding," said Elizabeth Little, 40, the volunteer village coordinator in Mississippi for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

In February she quit her job as a hotel catering manager in Charlotte, N.C., to join the relief effort full time. She now runs a small tent city behind a Presbyterian church in Gulfport.

"I love the energy, all these people coming here to help other people," she said.

The Mennonite village in Pass Christian, one of the storm-wracked historic seaside communities, is plush compared with other volunteer settlements.

The Mennonite Disaster Service bought a 1 1/2-acre lot and trucked in three double-wide trailers, two for men's and women's dorms and one for the dining hall and offices.

The group has even set up a mini-RV park so senior-citizen volunteers can park their campers.

The Mennonites, often distinct in their dress - women in smocks and prayer caps, men in fedoras - now have eight active projects, and they are ready to break ground on three more homes.

The way project director Cletus Yoder sees it, they are planting a flower in a desert.

"We are the only ones working in here building homes," said Yoder, a retired construction-company executive. "It's important for people to see something is happening."

Last week they finished building a two-bedroom house for a shrimp fisherman and his son, who is mentally retarded.

Yoder said they encouraged homeowners to share their stories of the storm. "We lay our hammers down when someone comes to talk," he said. "It's part of the healing process."

At night, volunteers gather in the air-conditioned mobile home, where they offer prayers and discuss the day's events.

"We're not supposed to be proud," Yoder says. "But we are."

Resources needed

With the one-year anniversary upon them, some faith-group leaders say the never-ending work is beginning to strain resources. The supply of volunteers is shrinking.

"It would be difficult for us if there were new disasters or more emergency situations," the Mennonites' Klassen said.

Their camps were packed over spring break, but the Presbyterians had to suspend work out of two camps in mid-August because there were no volunteers.

"We're hoping more will come in the cooler weather," Little said.

Group leaders also say as the task shifts from mucking out to more professional construction, finding skilled labor willing to work for free has been tough.

Local leaders say there would be many more homes still waterlogged and mold-filled and far fewer habitable dwellings had no faith groups responded.

"No doubt we are a lot further along than we would be without them," Biloxi City Councilman George Lawrence said. "They are right down with the people, working with them, and we see the results instantly."

Yoder said the Mennonites were committed to the Gulf Coast for three to five years. "As long as there is meaningful work," he said. "We'll know it's time to leave when they ask to start building doghouses."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or

How to Help

Some of the faith-based groups operating long-term recovery projects in the Gulf Coast:

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance


Catholic Diocese of Biloxi


Mennonite Disaster Service


United Methodist Committee on Relief


Lutheran Disaster Response


Episcopal Relief and Development

1-800-334-7626, ext. 5129

Jewish Response to Disaster


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