New Orleans pastors get help from churches across country

A post-Katrina initiative teams up churches nationwide to help rebuild displaced congregations.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the years since hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the Rev. Donald Boutte and fellow African-American pastors have acquired some allies in their struggle to rebuild their churches and devastated neighborhoods.

A long path to full recovery still stretches ahead. Hundreds in their congregations remain scattered and others lack the resources to repair their homes. But through an initiative called Churches Supporting Churches (CSC), the ministers have found succor and aid in partnerships with other congregations across the country.

Some pastors have seen their own lives restored, churches rebuilt physically and spiritually, and newfound skills to take on a civil leadership role in reshaping the city's future.

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"When a pastor has lost his home, his church, his livelihood, you don't think clearly, no matter how strong you are," says Mr. Boutte, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans's Carrollton section. "If I had not had this support, our recovery would not have been as quick."

Today his church is back at the pre-Katrina membership level, though 30 percent of the former congregation is still dislocated. He's begun a ministry for at-risk youth. And he's conducting an in-depth survey of the neighborhood as part of a CSC program to spur redevelopment in 12 sections of the city.

One key element of the CSC program has been monthly "pastor institutes," where the men deal with their traumas, build strong relationships, and train in policy issues that affect their communities. "These leaders were dedicated before in a spiritual pastoral way, but not connected to a civic leadership role," says Kalima Rose of Policy Link, a California-based research group that works on New Orleans post-Katrina. "The leadership development gives me a lot of confidence that this will have longevity and sustainability."

Boutte has been particularly bolstered by his partnership with the Central Baptist Church in Wayne, Penn., and five other churches Central recruited. The partnership "helped me think more critically and analyze where I was going and how to get there – it was very inspirational in getting us back up," Boutte says.

Long-term commitment

The CSC idea comes from the Apostle Paul, who called on churches with resources to give to churches in need, says C.T. Vivian, a civil rights pioneer and Martin Luther King Jr. confidant, who founded the program in 2005. The aim was to identify 360 US churches to form 10 partners for each of the 36 churches in the most damaged areas of New Orleans. Every partner church would commit a monthly contribution of $100 to the struggling church for three years.

But it's been more difficult than anticipated to find partners – only about three dozen have signed on so far. "People are ready to go to New Orleans for a week, help rebuild, and come home again," says David Jehnsen, vice chair of the CSC national working group, which involves six denominations and three ecumenical groups. "To get congregations to commit to three years and developing a relationship – that's a different proposition."

The rewards of lending a hand

At Central Baptist, they find it challenging and rewarding. The church embraced the idea of "accompaniment" – walking in the shoes of the New Orleans church, says Jan Corbett, co-chair of the Central partnership task force.

They're helping support the at-risk youth program, which will train young people as musicians. They've identified counseling resources for Boutte to call on when hurting church members talk of suicide. And they've gone together to Washington to talk about Gulf Coast issues.

At the same time, they've gained knowledge of important issues relating to their own city. "We've learned about affordable housing, infrastructure rebuilding, ecosystem restoration – working together has been a real gift," says Katy Friggle-Norton, the other Central co-chair.

Four New Orleans churches that have gotten back in shape are relinquishing their partners early, so they can help others in need. "We haven't gotten as many partnerships as we hoped, but the ones we have have been so productive and hopeful that we just thank God for what we've got," says the Rev. Dwight Webster, CSC's national project director.

The various denominations on CSC's national working group recruit for partner churches. They have supported the pastor institutes and rehab of churches and housing. The Mennonite Central Committee, for instance, has contributed $135,000. Church of the Brethren has given small grants and donated books to help replace church libraries that were destroyed.

It's also working on remodeling four apartment complexes owned by one of the churches in the Lower Ninth Ward, says Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Washington Office.

The local pastors' group chose six of the 12 neighborhoods and hired area coordinators to do video mapping and work out plans for possible clusters of affordable housing. They'll then go to the city with proposals.

The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation is currently considering their grant application to build three housing units as a model, says Mr. Jehnsen of the CSC.

Homes yet to be rebuilt

This is a good time to start the neighborhood projects, says Ms. Rose of PolicyLink, which issued a 2008 report on the housing crisis.

Only one of every three damaged affordable rental units in New Orleans will be repaired or replaced with recovery aid, the study says. In March 2009, disaster rental assistance will end for 28,000 families nationwide – 14,000 in metro New Orleans – still relying on the program.

Some homeowners are finally getting money from the federal 'Road Home' program and returning. Still, most did not get enough to cover the cost of home repairs, PolicyLink says. The average recipient fell more than $35,000 short.

And it's not only housing challenges, as Boutte found on a recent door-to-door community survey. "There's a high level of elderly, some house-bound, as well as young people without high school diplomas feeling helpless," says the pastor. "We have to be realistic about what we can do. We'll start with what services we can provide the home-bound."

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