Faith coalitions aid evacuees

Churches, mosques, and synagogues have stepped forward to provide Katrina evacuees the kind of assistance that government can't.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The day before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Daniel and Pamela Gillard evacuated to Dry Creek, La. They stayed there for a month, unable to check on the home they'd left behind. Then hurricane Rita took dead aim at the shelter where they were staying, so they headed northeast - all the way to Boston.

Like more than 500 other Gulf Coast "guests" who are still here, the couple has lived in a hotel while sorting out their future. With a huge sigh of relief, they are moving this week into affordable housing in nearby Newton, Mass.

Amid the uncertainty and complications, the Gillards have relied on their faith and on the Coalition of the Caring - religious congregations working alongside government and community agencies to help evacuees get a fresh start.

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"The churches have been wonderful - they've stepped up to the plate for people who've wanted that help, spiritually and otherwise," says Ms. Gillard.

In Boston and other metropolitan areas, coalitions of faith groups have formed to give emotional, spiritual, and practical support to evacuees confronted with immediate needs for housing, jobs, healthcare, and schools for their children. As on the Gulf Coast, religious groups are responding in ways that government cannot. MassFaithHelps, formed for that purpose, is working with 120 families. It has matched 50 of them with congregations committed to providing a guide for the family and to assist in various ways for six to 12 months.

"It's meeting the needs of people where they are," says Jackie Maloney, a guide at Bethel AME Church in Boston. "Taking them to find doctors, to shop for school supplies, dishes, furniture; helping musicians find replacement instruments."

Congregations also meet some needs directly. "One church in Plymouth held a shower for a family to help decorate their home. Someone else donated a car and paid the insurance for one year," says Kalya Hamlett, who coordinates MassFaithHelps. Congregations that can't provide a guide make donations of clothes, gift cards, or household items, she adds.

A donation of $1,800 enabled a family to go back South, rent a U-Haul, and bring stored belongings here, says Claire Kuschak, director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, a permanent urban-suburban network of 70 faith communities that is working with MassFaithHelps.

In Atlanta, the Standing Together Coalition (STC) formed with the same mission. More than 34,500 Gulf households fled to Georgia, most to the capital. Many have no idea if or when they can return home.

"At least 300 congregations have signed up to be 'point people' for Katrina relief," says Ethel Ware Carter, associate director of the Regional Council of Churches, which coordinates the effort.

Given the transportation difficulties that evacuees face, the coalition has brought together resources into one location, at Grace Methodist Church. Here evacuees can find housing and job advice, social services, and access to a nurse. STC also hopes to help with income-tax filing.

When they came to Boston, the Gillards got help first from Children's Services in Roxbury, a private agency designated by the government as the contact for evacuees, and the lead agency in the Coalition for the Caring. They attend Morning Star Baptist Church, "which has embraced us," Pamela says.

The coalition tie has meant a lot as the couple dealt with difficulties related to home and jobs. Their house is salvageable, but they've faced delays and problems with the insurance company. Daniel works in maintenance at Tulane University and Pamela is 18 months from retiring as a medical clerk with the Defense Department. She'll lose her job if she doesn't return immediately, but they don't want to live in a tent, as some friends now do. Her efforts to get a transfer haven't borne fruit.

"I know things are gonna turn around because God is in control of our lives, and our steps are ordered by Him," Pamela says. "It doesn't always feel like that or look like that, but it is."

For now they're grateful to be moving to Newton, where Temple Emanuel is poised to help them, Ms. Kuschak says.

An African- American congregation in Newton has been deeply involved since the week Katrina made landfall. Myrtle Baptist Church was holding dialogues on race relations with First Unitarian at the time, and they changed their agenda to discuss what they could do. First they sent two trucks packed with food to Hattiesburg and Picayune, Miss. (The city and local residents pitched in with donations). People gave gift cards to Wal-Mart and other discount stores worth about $5,000.

Later they joined a Salvation Army program, giving Christmas gifts to children in 500 families who had lost everything. Along with toys and clothes, "we ended up having 83 new bicycles donated," says the Rev. Howard Haywood, pastor.

"Something that was so important was the contact," he adds. "One of our members teaches school, and her third-grade class wrote letters to kids down there - that was a big deal!"

Myrtle Baptist also helped five evacuee families get settled. "The biggest challenge for people is will they decide to stay here forever or not," Mr. Haywood says. Many don't want to take children back while things are bad.

Mary Jackson will stay for good. The New Orleans retirement home she lived in has been condemned, and all her belongings were lost. Fortunately, when the storm hit, the septuagenarian was in the Northeast visiting a white woman she had raised as a child. "I was getting ready to go back, and then couldn't. Reverend Haywood and the girl I took care of got together and found me this place," says Ms. Jackson. "I am very happy here."

The Gillards aren't sure what they'll do ultimately. But Daniel, a Louisiana native, says, "I really like the weather here. I don't see any sense in running back too fast - into another storm season." He's lined up a couple of job interviews now that he knows where they will live.

Faith groups across the US are "staying the course" in efforts to aid people along the Gulf. From Oakland to Kansas City to New York, they're sending packed 18-wheelers south and providing resources to rebuild houses of worship. Some have joined with community organizations this month in a new National Alliance to Restore Opportunity to Gulf Coast Survivors, mounting a lobbying campaign to press for faster government action.

"The government has spent a lot of money to house people temporarily, but little has been done to enable people to come back and be residents of their city," says Greg Galluzzo, director of the Gamaliel Foundation, a national network of 1,600 congregations. "There's no coherent strategy for the displaced to benefit from the reconstruction through jobs or housing or paying off their mortgages."

One concern expressed by churchgoers and evacuees is that local homeless people need help, too. "We want to get settled so we can help somebody else - we don't want to always be on the receiving end," Pamela says.

For some, the hope is that lessons from this disaster will bring long-term changes. "This has absolutely had an impact on our churches," says Haywood. "People who don't usually get together and talk or even nod their head to one another worked side by side. If we had this attitude all the time, what a different world it would be."

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