To raise New Orleans, lift churches, pastors urge

African-American churches historically have been the heart and soul of black communities, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian – a Martin Luther King Jr. confidant from Atlanta – believes they hold the key to restoring New Orleans' neighborhoods.

So he and a pastor from the city, the Rev. Dwight Webster, have formed Churches Supporting Churches (CSC), a national initiative to revitalize 36 churches in the 12 hardest-hit areas.

When the levee broke last August, Pastor Webster's house in the devastated Ninth Ward filled with water, and his wife's small business was destroyed. Their Christian Unity Baptist Church was built 12 feet off the ground, however, and is now back in shape. Though some 65 percent of its members are still scattered across the United States, they'll soon be holding services every Sunday.

For other black pastors in the city, the struggle has been even grimmer.

"Almost 80 percent of city churches have been destroyed," says Mr. Vivian, who's been galvanized by the crisis, "and guys have two mortgages – for their home and their church – and no money coming in." Vivian and Webster envision partnerships connecting 10 churches across the US with each local congregation.

CSC is but one of the initiatives the African-American faith community has undertaken to respond to hurricane Katrina's unprecedented impact on the Gulf Coast.

As soon as evacuees were shunted in random fashion onto airplanes, church coalitions formed in several US cities to help evacuees locate family members, resettle, and plan for the future.

Individual black churches have raised huge amounts of money to help those in distress, and they continue to send volunteers and resources to the region. For example, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago gave $160,000 to Dillard University and has a partnership with the school. Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, N.J., has pledged to raise $1 million for Gulf Coast restoration, including funds for job training and housing projects.

A national consortium of black churches – the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference – created a 9/11-style commission to ensure that the voices of those most affected wouldn't be drowned out during the recovery and rebuilding.

The Katrina National Justice Commission – involving leaders from the clergy, academia, business, and the professions – held public hearings this summer in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Houston. Evacuees, first responders, public officials, and representatives of charitable groups told their stories.

Although the US Congress also held hearings, "we felt that African-American churches connect with people that the government would miss or ignore," says the Rev. Otis Moss III, a pastor at Trinity United and a Proctor conference trustee.

The testifiers highlighted, for instance, the particular challenges such emergencies present for those with limited resources, and for citizens who are disabled or immobile in their homes for medical reasons, says the Rev. Dr. Susan Smith, of Columbus, Ohio, the commission chair. "Preparedness plans have to be more detailed than in the past," she says. The need for mental-health support was also apparent, as suicides continue among those affected, she adds.

Commission findings and recommendations will be published early next month. The report will address four issue areas: disaster and relief, the restoration process, public policy, and African-American church and community preparedness. It will call for a federal Katrina assistance fund; a bipartisan commission to monitor the recovery, including contracts; and participation of church and community-based groups in preparedness decisionmaking at every level.

"FEMA and Red Cross testimony affirmed that they were very weak in certain areas, such as cultural competence," says Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Proctor conference. The conference aims to provide training for black churches in emergency preparedness.

This Sunday, Aug. 27, there will be special commemorative worship services at Riverside Church in New York City and other sites across the country.

Webster, meanwhile, meets in monthly seminars with other New Orleans pastors struggling to maintain contact with dispersed congregations while rebuilding. (Someone donated a website so his members could keep in touch. He and his family are still in California, which puts him on the "red eye" flight frequently.)

CSC aims to strengthen the health and unity of pastors and congregations as they return to the city and rebuild bricks and mortar as well as the spiritual life of the congregations. CSC hopes to enable them to be agents for change.

"We need to bring neighborhoods back, not just one church here and there," Webster says. "We can do that if we get these 36 churches up."

To accomplish this, CSC is seeking 10 churches from across the US to partner with each local congregation for three years (360 partner churches in all), to help with spiritual, financial, and technical assistance. The National Council of Churches has agreed to act as the group's fiduciary agent; and several denominations and ecumenical groups (including Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, the Baptist Peace Fellowship) have signed on.

The situation remains daunting. But as a pioneer of the civil rights movement, Vivian knows how to persevere and what spiritual resources to draw on. His new dream, he says, is that success in New Orleans "will serve as a model for other parts of the Gulf Coast."

To contact CSC, call: (504) 915-4987.

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