By Brad Dupray
Just one year ago a watchful nation witnessed the power of Hurricane Katrina via televised reports and Internet updates as residents of the Gulf Coast experienced its power firsthand. The result was the greatest natural disaster to strike the United States in its history. Nearly 1 million homes were damaged or destroyed, more than 1,800 people were confirmed dead, and the population of the city of New Orleans decreased by well over 50 percent causing severe economic impact.
The Christian Church Responds
In the wake of this devastation Christian churches across the U.S. and around the world responded in unprecedented fashion. Congregations took action with offerings for disaster relief, work teams poured into the area, and relief supplies arrived by the truckload. A message was sent to thousands in the Gulf that the church stood ready to help.
The economic response of Christian churches collecting money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina clearly outweighed the response to any disaster in history, even that of the tsunami that struck southeast Asia in 2004. International Disaster Emergency Services (IDES) reported cash gifts in the neighborhood of $4 million. An emergency appeal launched by Stadia, a church-planting ministry, brought in $2.4 million. And local churches have reported hundreds of thousands of dollars of direct gifts bringing total cash contributions to an excess of $7 million.
Churches across America set up Katrina donation stations seeking nonperishable food items, diapers, water, blankets, and clothing. Within days of the tragedy relief supplies from churches began pouring in to hastily arranged warehouses. For example, Garry Jones, minister of Real Life Ministries, a local church in Pineville, Louisiana, reported receiving more than 20 tractor-trailer loads of supplies, each valued at $50,000 to $60,000.
Initial Workers Arrive
Dozens of teams from churches around the U.S. descended upon the Gulf Coast providing assistance to the local church and its community. At first, the work consisted of moving the mountains of debris caused by the storm. Before the workers could get to gutting flooded houses they had to cut away the countless trees that had fallen on roadways and houses.
The initial brunt of the hurricane was felt in the town of Buras, in Plaquemines Parish, about 60 miles south of New Orleans. Before FEMA had even begun serious cleanup, a team from Cave City (Kentucky) Christian Church led by Chris Summers came into the area to clean out a church fellowship hall for following work teams to use as quarters. Jones described the climate as “hot, hot, hot and bug infested,” but the team, sleeping in a pop-up tent camper, braved the conditions to pave the way for future work teams.
Temporary FEMA housing cannot be set on a property until the property is cleared of debris, so the work of teams to clear property for housing needs is critical. Subsequent teams have been able to come to Plaquemines Parish to work on clearing properties so that FEMA trailers can be brought in. A team from Cass City, Michigan, did what Jones described as “an amazing thing”; they demolished 80 homes. Without the help of work crews to clear property, people in Plaquemines Parish would continue to sleep in sheds, cars, and other improvised space while waiting for alternate accommodations.
Prior to the hurricane, Journey Christian Church of Kenner, Louisiana, had a thriving inner-city outreach. Building Better Communities (BBC) was reaching out to the poor and homeless in the heart of New Orleans. BBC was able quickly to transition to a relief agency, using funds and goods donated from churches along with the scores of workers who poured in from churches around the country.
While much of the initial support to the storm-ravaged area came from the federal government (via FEMA) and the Red Cross, BBC has been able to establish a long-term course of action that connects with those truly in need. BBC has three benevolence counselors on its staff meeting with people in need, most of whom are returning to the area and are in need of help to reestablish their homes. Arrangements have been made with the local discount furniture store and Lowe’s Home Improvement center for people to receive vouchers from BBC that are good for major basic needs such as furnishings, refrigerators, drywall, and other building supplies.
Sadly, as much as $1.4 billion of the direct financial support provided by FEMA was redirected by the end users for items that were unrelated to hurricane relief, including Caribbean vacations, New Orleans Saints football season tickets, and even a sex-change operation. With that in mind, organizations like BBC and local churches have been careful to direct funds entrusted to them to people who have a truly demonstrated need for goods, funds, or services.
Housing an Army of Workers
Slidell (Louisiana) Christian Church had been standing in four feet of water, but one month to the day after the hurricane a team of 96 workers from Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, arrived in two buses to repair the drywall and reestablish electricity. IDES provided funding for Sunday school rooms to be converted into dormitories housing 50 workers, three permanent showers, and a trailer providing additional showers that can be used at other sites as well.
Twenty-seven trees, ranging in size from 60 to 100 feet tall, fell on the church property of Mandeville (Louisiana) Christian Church. But not a single one hit the church’s 4,600-square-foot facility or detached garage. Since that time more than 1,000 volunteers have been housed at the church, sleeping in sleeping bags on air mattresses. Minister Joe Majors says, “One thousand people have come to help Mandeville Christian Church do what we couldn’t do. We’ve served as the hotel and restaurant.”
The largest source of housing for guest workers is being provided by a lease arrangement BBC has established with Faith Church of East New Orleans, a completely devastated area. Crossroads Missions of Louisville, Kentucky, is working with BBC and Journey Church to convert Faith Church’s gymnasium into housing and food services for up to 275 guest workers at a time. Another building on the church property is being converted to a “store” to provide relief supplies to families in need and offices for BBC to connect with them.
Relief Moves to Rebuilding
As the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the efforts of Christian church ministries have transitioned from relief to rebuilding. BBC is providing direct support to hundreds of families who are returning to the area after long-term evacuation. Real Life Ministries’ (RLM) “Operation Feed My Sheep” has overseen the gutting or demolition of dozens of homes and is now overseeing 10 major reconstruction projects (homes that were gutted completely to the studs) and has hopes of getting 25 families back into their homes this year. With the help of a cash donation from First Christian Church of Huntington Beach, California, RLM was able to purchase a sawmill in Orange, Texas, using wood from trees destroyed in Hurricane Rita to support rebuilding efforts for homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The number of workers from Chris-tian churches who have poured into the New Orleans area is difficult to count, but it certainly numbers in the thousands. In addition to Mandeville Christian Church’s 1,000 workers, Crossroads Missions reports 137 teams consisting of 1,907 volunteers who worked on tree removal and gutting of 237 homes. Real Life Ministries has received work crews, financial support, or supplies from more than 60 churches. More than 650 churches and ministries contributed to Stadia’s initial appeal in the weeks after the hurricane struck. BBC reports 150-200 workers per week with expectations for that number to grow as guest worker accommodations are completed. Central Christian Church of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a church of just 70 people, has been instrumental in collecting and distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars of materials, securing multiple warehouses, and housing and feeding volunteers. These statistics are just a small reflection of the massive work taking place.
The End Result
Mandeville Christian’s Joe Majors said, “Christians have given their money and time and brought incredible talent. People have said over and over again that Christians have made the difference. We have earned the right to be heard. That’s probably the most important aspect of what is going on.” Relief workers are experiencing the incredible thrill of serving others, churches are having the opportunity to be the hands of Christ to their communities, people in need are experiencing the love of Christ, and in many cases they are giving their lives to him.
Brad Dupray is director of public relations and advertising with Provision Ministry Group, Irvine, California.