RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Blogging on the Religion Beat

Libert, Equalit, Islam

Religion and the Supremes

Intelligent Design On Trial

Special Supplement
Secularism:
A Symposium

After Katrina

Winning Hearts and Minds in Kashmir

No Peace for the Church

Tokyo's Dr. Phil

Letters to the Editor

Contributors

After Katrina
by David A. Stricoff

 

News coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on the religious life of the Gulf Coast mirrored that of the general coverage, moving from disaster relief to the formidable, perhaps insurmountable, problem of reconstruction.

The first wave of reporting was dominated by the outpouring of assistance provided by a wide variety of religious organizations. As the headline on Bob Johnson's AP story from Tuscaloosa put it, "Churches open doors to Katrina evacuees in Alabama."

Recognizing that religious groups play a key role in community life, journalists provided extensive coverage of the struggles of faithful people and institutions. The challenges that faced the region's predominantly African-American independent and unaffiliated churches were particularly significant, both because of the damage they suffered and because of the tortured history of race in the region.

But, as in many aspects of the Katrina story as a whole, there was uncertainly about how to address race, which was often conveyed obliquely, if at all.

In the first wave, journalists tended to stress the relative effectiveness of "faith-based" volunteers. "While the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has yielded widespread criticism and the promise of congressional hearings, the faithful in North Texas and elsewhere have earned high marks from victims and disaster experts," Sam Hodges and Lori Price reported in the Dallas Morning News on September 10, a typical story of this sort. Reports highlighted religious organizations as they opened shelters, distributed food, clothing, toiletries, school supplies, and toys, and offered counseling services for hundreds of thousands of hurricane refugees.

Some of these groups acted as part of larger coordinated efforts. In the wake of the exodus from New Orleans, for example, the Houston Chronicle reported that the city's gigantic Second Baptist Church had pledged to provide the 240 daily volunteers and the funds (over one million dollars) needed to feed refugees for a week as part of the Interfaith Ministries for Great Houston's "Operation Compassion."

In early September, stories in the Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times reported that Texas congregations were focusing on moving people out of the Astrodome and surrounding shelters. Congregants opened their homes to Katrina's refugees and helped the displaced find apartments and negotiate FEMA's red tape to obtain Section 8 vouchers or Red Cross housing subsidies. The number of evacuees in Houston area shelters had dropped from 27,100 on September 4 to 4,100 in 10 days.

One common theme in these aftermath stories was that religious leaders understood the necessity of avoiding even the appearance of proselytizing. "Our duty here is just to bring the presence of God and not to use words unless it's necessary," the Rev. Frank Kurzaj, pastor of the Holy Name Catholic Church, told the San Antonio Express-News September 22.

While stories across the nation praised the relief efforts of Gulf Coast religious organizations, local newspapers outside the region paid equal attention to how their town's congregations were helping in storm relief. For example, on September 17
Augusta Chronicle reporter Virginia Davis noted the Crawford Avenue Baptist Church's food drive and subsequent delivery of food and supplies to hurricane victims; the First Presbyterian Church's fundraising for the Salvation Army; and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforters' donation of its Labor Day collection and adoption of the Episcopal Chapel of the Holy Comforter in New Orleans.

Among those highlighting large-scale institutionally organized efforts was Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News, which reported that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had dispatched 14 trailer trucks full of food and supplies to Slidell, Louisiana, just two days after the storm.

As September moved along, one major genre of story tracked the resumption of regular Sunday services in the belt of devastation. Built around refrains like "I lost everything but I didn't lose my soul," stories about services in places like Biloxi and New Orleans were filed on the first Sunday after Katrina's landfall.

Many wire service stories described the resumption of services by a few congregants at the site of Biloxi's Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which was completely destroyed by the storm. That same day in nearby Bay St. Louis, the San Antonio Express-News' Jeorge Zarazua attended mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, where the small congregation sobbed in a badly damaged building.

"My neighborhood is gone," Zarazua quoted one parishioner as saying. "I can always get another house, but it's my town I'm worried about. It was the best place in the world to live."

Bishop Thomas Rodi of Biloxi told the congregation that in recent days he had been repeatedly asked "Why? Why has all this suffering come upon us?" Referring to the Book of Job, Rodi said, "So, to the question, 'Why?' I don't know, but this I do know. The love of Christ is with us. And that's what we celebrate here in the midst of the destruction."

Even houses of worship that escaped major structural damage, such as the Cathedral Church of St. Joseph in New Orleans' French Quarter, still had to cope with the problems of the dispersal of population. The cathedral waited until October 9, more than a month after the hurricane, before beginning to celebrate mass again.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and its energetic religion reporter Bruce Nolan, paid the most sustained attention to the damage in the region's religious fabric.

"The same winds that shattered New Orleans neighborhoods scattered its faith communities, and in the weeks following the storm, once solid New Orleans churches are struggling to reconstitute themselves worshipping in new, unfamiliar cities," Nolan wrote on September 23.

These communities often went to amazing lengths to maintain their fellowship. Nolan noted that many black clergy, like pastor Fred Luter Jr. of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the largest African-American Southern Baptist church in the United States, were traveling a circuit from Dallas, Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, and Monroe, Louisiana to preach to their scattered flocks.

Others resorted to technology to keep in touch with their dispersed congregations. Just two weeks after Katrina, the Touro Synagogue of New Orleans opened a "virtual synagogue" online, replete with the contact information of its members, message boards, and blogs. With a flooded synagogue, a rabbi in Philadelphia, and a director of education in Utah, the online synagogue sought to maintain a sense of community among the congregation's 650 families as they waited the months, if not years, for congregants to return home, the Times-Picayune reported.

While less technologically sophisticated, the Irish Channel Christian Fellowship (a small, independent black church in a devastated neighborhood) also sought an electronic connection. On October 13, three dozen church members convened via a conference call and for an hour and 15 minutes, Nolan wrote, "their electronic assembly was a borderless blend of worship and fellowship."

The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans also encouraged its priests to remain in communication with their flocks via e-mail and telephone conversations. The city's Southern Baptist seminary, a major center of training for ministers in that faith community, suffered major damage to its campus but within a few weeks managed to mount an on-line semester for its 3,900 students, now dispersed at 17 satellite centers from Florida to Louisiana.

The Associated Press estimated that at least 1,000 houses of worship were severely damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. Perhaps half were in New Orleans. Numerous store-front churches and Pentecostal megachurches like Beacon Light International Cathedral, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, and Life Center Cathedral were either destroyed or severely flooded. Each was the focus of at least one story in the national press.

When, at the end of September, thousands of residents were allowed to return to New Orleans, the pulse of religious life began to beat stronger. The beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on October 5th, provided the first test of post-Katrina Gulf Coast religion.

Only two Louisiana mosques, Masjid Al Tawber in Gretna and Masjid Abu Bakr al Siddiq in Metairie, were functioning. At the beginning of Ramadan, attendance at services was only a fifth of what it had been before Katrina. However, over the course of the holy month, a larger portion of the city's 5,000 to 10,000 Muslims seem to have returned.

The Times-Picayune's Nolan reported on November 4 that 1,500 Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the holy month, at the Pontchartrain Center in suburban Kenner. "Definitely different," Nashid Salahuddi told Nolan. "You could feel the vibes coming from many of the brothers. This has more meaning. A lot of souls are empty."

The region's largest religious communities, Catholics and African-American Protestants, shared many of the same difficulties, but with vastly different organizational structures and resources.

On November 2, the Times-Picayune reported that the Archdiocese of New Orleans had suffered immense damage to its vast infrastructure, in a story entitled "Archdiocese running on a wing and a prayer." With 70 of its 151 parishes still closed, the archdiocese was confronted with years of recovery work.

A follow-up story on November 15 reported that the archdiocese faced a $40 million budget deficit, had laid off 2,000 of its 9,000 employees, and suffered an enrollment decline at its schools from 50,000 to 35,000. Only half of its 60 social service agencies and three of its 25 housing projects had resumed operation.

Yet, large congregations were gathering whenever a parish church reopened. On November 29, for example, the Times-Picayune reported that 365 had attended the first mass at reopened St. Gabriel Parish, despite the neighborhood's almost total destruction:

"Outside, up and down Louisa Street in the Gentilly Woods subdivision, nothing moved, human or animal. Wrecked and abandoned houses lined the street. Debris filled their yards. Waterlines six feet above the ground stained the fronts of house after house. Shattered windows gaped open. Dead, muddy lawns and drowned shrubbery bore the monotone gray of post-Katrina death."

Throughout, Catholic leaders were stressing the need for patience. "There's obviously a desire to rebuild, but we want to make sure as we move into the next hurricane season that people are not in peril," Archbishop Alfred Hughes told the Times-Picayune's Sandra Barbier on October 17.

Overall, however, archdiocesan officials were upbeat about the long-term future of the church. Church institutions were comparatively well insured, and aid was arriving in many forms from national and local Catholic organizations - including a high-level delegation from the University of Notre Dame.

The outlook was tougher for the region's immense, very poor, and widely dispersed African-American Protestant community, largely composed of hundreds of independent congregations.

Nolan reported on October 14 that "pastors of small and medium-sized black churches that once anchored New Orleans neighborhoods in thick webs of financial and emotional support have begun to call for a larger voice in rebuilding the flood-damaged city."

His story went on to say that, when more than 50 ministers had gathered at Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church, "In two hours of discussion, it became clear that most had lost their churches. Their congregations were scattered, and many had lost their homes and everything they own."

On the minds of ministers: jobs for their people and the threat that New Orleans would be reconstituted without them. Among the ministers there was "widespread fear that those planning the revival of New Orleans want a 'gentrified' community with a much-reduced black presence."

Many ministers, however, were still recovering from the shock of devastation. "This suit and the shoes I have on are about all I own," the Rev Sam J. Johnson, pastor of the Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church No. 2, in Central City, told the gathering. The church had just completed a $1 million renovation. "Now you look in there and it's like it's a hundred years old."

   

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