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
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
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
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
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
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
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."