US churches rush to fill void from tsunami

Believers have raised funds and packed boxes while struggling to understand why disasters happen.

The people of True Bethel Baptist Church have always felt that international disasters from Rwanda to Sudan were out of their reach.Here the immediate inner-city needs on their doorstep in Buffalo, N.Y., routinely come first.

But last week, a deacon heartbroken by pictures of far-off devastation broke the mold by asking the Rev. Darius Pridgen if the congregation could take up a collection for tsunami victims in Asia. With the pastor's blessing, a ministry to the other side of the world was born.

"If this had been a war situation, we would have been less responsive to help," the Pastor Pridgen says. "But they [in Asia] didn't participate in anything that caused this. It's almost the innocence of the situation that makes it touch everybody."

As death tolls from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami climb above 150,000, people across the United States are grappling with the spiritual aftershocks. Death and destruction on an epic scale have triggered a search for meaning inside a bleak narrative of water, rubble, and untold suffering.

Satisfying answers to philosophical questions of "why?" are proving almost as hard to find as survivors in remote places that were all but washed away. Yet where many feel the heart of God has for days seemed hidden, the faithful are determined now to reveal it themselves.

"Do I have answers because I'm religious? No," says Ellen Goldberg, an Orthodox Jew who lives in South Florida. "I don't think we necessarily get answers, but we do get direction. This to me is an action call."

Other believers have sensed a similar mandate to act. The nation's 155 Jewish federations have raised more than $3 million for tsunami relief. Catholic Relief Services has collected more than $14 million toward its goal of $25 million. Islamic Relief USA is on its way to raising $10 million for the hard-hit region.

All this effort comes amid spirited discussion within faith communities about their views of God's role in the disaster. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made headlines Jan. 2 with a post-tsunami column in London's Sunday Telegraph titled "Of course this makes us doubt God's existence." The Anglican dean of Sydney, Philip Jensen, meanwhile touched off his own tempest by describing the wave as a "warning of God's judgment." In the Jakarta Post, Muslims debated what might have been God's message in sending the tsunami.

In the United States, religious gatherings from Bethesda, Md., to Anaheim, Calif., are bringing concerned believers together to raise funds and prayers simultaneously. For some, it seems the great void left by the disaster has beckoned believers to fill the chasm with good deeds of their own.

"I don't want to spend any time dealing with that [philosophical question of where was God] when people need assistance," said Al Hooper, director of social ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. "To move forward - that restores dignity in ourselves, and it certainly honors the Creator."

A website on religion, Beliefnet.com, has approached the topic from various angles. One of them, on how to discuss the disaster with children, leads off by quoting a Holocaust victim: "I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when feeling it not. I believe in God even when he/she is silent."

Religious organizations have often led relief efforts in times of major disasters, but this episode has a touched a particularly sensitive chord across various faiths as well as for those of nominal faith. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation received so many hundreds of calls within days that 10 staffers were quickly trained to take donations. At the Archdiocese of Denver, a significant portion of donations have come from nonpracticing Catholics, according to Mr. Hooper.

On one level, donations express compassion by prioritizing the alleviation of physical suffering. Fundraisers at the American Sri Lanka Buddhist Vihara in New York City impress on potential donors that $3,000 can build a new home in Sri Lanka. Thanks to a swift response, boxes of relief supplies covered the temple floor in early January, creating a situation where monks had to limit attendance at prayer services.

On another level, giving to help tsunami victims is serving a spiritual function of its own. John Leinung of Brooklyn, N.Y., lost his stepson in the World Trade Center attack in 2001. He donated to help tsunami victims in part to show his gratitude for donations and prayers received from far off places after 9/11. He also says he wants to improve America's relationship with other nations according to the principle of "what goes around, comes around."

"I think we've done a lot to alienate the rest of the world with our foreign policy since Sept. 11," says Mr. Leinung. "I wanted to do something, small as it might be, to right the karma."

While donations make their way across the Pacific, religious leaders continue to guide their followers in their quest to know the disaster's "higher purpose." For Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, president of the Islamic Law Council of North America and imam of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Calif., the tsunami served as an instrument of God to challenge and eventually improve humankind.

"We see this as a test for us, to see how we respond to the poor people who are suffering," Dr. Siddiqi says. "Nothing happens good or bad in this world except by the will of God. The ultimate [goal] is to make us more humble, more realistic, more understanding, more charitable, and to see that we can't live in ignorance of each other."

Others are less inclined to see the tsunami as God's doing. God created the natural world and set it in motion to follow its own rhythms without divine interference, according to the Rev. Susan Andrews, Pastor of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md. But God can nevertheless make good things come from the ruins, she says. Her church will soon partner with a village rebuilding from the tsunami. "We wouldn't have done that a week ago" before the tsunami hit, the Ms. Andrews said. "But now we're being drawn spiritually and financially into a relationship, and that's not a bad thing."

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