Unitarian Universalists work tirelessly to help
the displaced residents of the Gulf Coast states.
Ord, the minister of the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society in nearby Lacombe, thinks he is near the house when he sees that boats tossed into a pile by the storm surge have smashed the Bayou Liberty Road bridge. Undeterred, he asks a fire crew cutting fallen trees for directions through town.
Doubling back, Ord passes piles of lumber that used to be houses. Lining the street are mounds of sodden debris—carpets, appliances, paneling, and furniture that Slidell residents have dragged from their destroyed homes in the hope that an armada of garbage trucks will appear someday. He finds the long driveway of 65-year-old Lois Thornton. Orange-shirted members of a power crew, coiling fallen electrical lines, wave Ord through. At the end he spots Thornton’s brown bungalow on stilts at the bayou’s edge. In the adjacent canal sits a neighbor’s white one-story house. The storm lifted it off its foundation and pushed it back 200 feet. The front door now faces the bayou rather than the road. The back door is sunk in the canal.
Structurally, Thornton’s house is undamaged. But swamp water climbed four feet up the living room walls, after topping the eight-foot stilts. In the thick, humid air and 90-degree September heat, Ord has arrived with a sweating crew of Unitarian Universalist volunteers to help Thornton salvage her home. Thornton’s daughter, Diane, is there, too. Picking through her mother’s wet things, Diane knows the scene in her own New Orleans home will be at least as grim when she’s allowed back in. After passing out hugs and sympathy, Ord and his crew get to work. They toss ruined furniture into a pile outside.
One volunteer, who flew down from Massachusetts, strains to lift a plastic container of videocassettes that has been marinating in bayou backwash for three weeks. The top pops off. The nauseating smell of hot, rancid water fills his nose, and he gags.
Another volunteer is a member of the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, on his second trip to Louisiana in three weeks. Today he’s hacking drywall with a crowbar, ripping the rotten parts out of Thornton’s house.
Ord squeezes by them both with an eight-foot piece of molding destined for the pile outside. In the wake of Katrina, this is the most useful ministry he can offer his members. This is the first step in helping Thornton rebuild her home and her life.
Several other members of Ord’s congregation have lost their homes entirely. Others who had commuted across the lake to devastated New Orleans are without work.
Journalists are supposed to keep a distance from their stories. We are observers, not participants.
But I found it impossible just to watch the events occurring in the aftermath of Katrina. This magazine sent me to the Gulf region in mid-September to report on the outpouring of volunteer help that Unitarian Universalists were providing. But as a UU myself, I quickly tucked my reporter’s notebook in my back pocket to free up my hands to work.
I held babies so that their parents could fill their plates in food lines at shelters. I sorted through boxes of clothing with people who had waded out of the projects in New Orleans with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to find pants and shoes that would fit them. I ripped out soaking drywall and carpeting from Lois Thornton’s bayou house. And my efforts did not begin to match the tireless work that UUs across the Gulf region rose up to do. They reached out to people displaced by Katrina, and later those who suffered damage from Hurricane Rita, and they are continuing to help people across the affected area as they rebuild the levees and their lives.
The most obvious efforts are in the areas of Mississippi and Louisiana ravaged by Katrina’s winds and in the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, where the First Unitarian Universalist Church is severely damaged and the waters so damaged Community Church Unitarian Universalist that it is unsalvageable. Katrina blew the roof off the North Shore church, which is across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
But the response to Katrina stretches from the Gulf inland to Texas, where thousands of people uprooted by the storm have relocated, and across the country, as congregations thousands of miles away have donated money, supplies, and muscle.
Ministers are supporting fellow ministers, providing pastoral care both to their own congregations and other storm survivors. More than twenty UU congregations have made arrangements to be partner churches with congregations Katrina damaged and with others where deep volunteer commitments to helping evacuees will long continue. One generous partner church, the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Universalist Society in Massachusetts, has agreed to provide $24,000 to cover North Shore’s mortgage for the next twelve months. A band of UUs outfitted with chain saws and toolboxes made temporary repairs to North Shore’s roof, including Michael Bourne of Madison, Wisconsin, who arrived in a car loaded with plastic sheeting and roofing nails. Repairs—or replacement—of the two New Orleans churches will take much longer.
District executives for the UUA’s Southwestern Conference and Mid-South District have coordinated volunteer offerings from around the country, and the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry is buttressing much-overworked clergy. But at least as much help has emerged organically from UUs across the country. Frustrated by the bureaucracy of organized relief organizations, many people have set out on their own to help, whether to saw fallen trees at the North Shore church or to answer phones to relieve an overwhelmed minister in Baton Rouge.
At press time, contributions to the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund had surpassed $2 million. [Update 11.7.05: On October 31, the UUA announced that the fund had reached $3 million, including a $500,000 matching grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y. By November 7, the total exceeded $3.1 million.] In addition to general relief, the fund is devoted to addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities, which bore such a disproportionate share of the damage and received so little government help, and to supporting the region’s UU congregations as they rebuild their ministries and help people displaced by the storm.
UUA President William G. Sinkford issued a pastoral letter September 6, before all the New Orleans victims had been evacuated, expressing anger at injustices laid bare by the storm and saying the disaster response showed “what racism and classism and privilege look like.”
“New Orleans was too ‘dangerous’ for the small number of National Guard troops available to enter the city,” Sinkford wrote. “How much of that perceived ‘danger’ had to do with the color of the citizen’s skins? Why were food and water not brought in by helicopter? Did relief have to wait five days? How long would it have taken the people in the Superdome and the Convention Center to receive assistance if they had been middle-class White Americans?”
“[W]ill New Orleans be rebuilt in the image of the past, which marginalized so many of its citizens?” he asked. “Can we not craft a vision grounded in the search for justice, equity, and compassion?”
I touched down first in Houston. The day Katrina struck Louisiana, the weather in Houston was sunny and windy. A week later, as more than 200,000 evacuees poured into Texas, Houston hosted 27,000 refugees in the Astrodome, the Reliant Center, and the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The Rev. José Ballester of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston led me on a tour of the George R. Brown Center. He had gotten to know the facility well, working the shift from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. to provide pastoral counseling. A minister’s collar signaled he was there to help. As he walked across a grid of hundreds of inflatable mattresses on the convention center floor, he said, “One night, it took me two hours to get across the room. People were grieving, or they wanted to confess. I just talk to them and get them what help I can.” Sometimes the best help he could give was cleaning showers, which became part of his regular routine at the facility.
Ballester was especially watchful for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender evacuees, referring them to a Houston GLBT resource center. All the states affected by the hurricane—Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama—ban the recognition of same-sex unions. The federal Defense of Marriage Act, some have pointed out, may prevent an equitable distribution of aid to the GLBT community.
On this day Ballester’s collar was in his wallet, and he was wearing a loose brown print shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a bright-yellow T-shirt with the words Operation Compassion, a shirt worn by hundreds of volunteers linked by Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. On the third floor Ballester greeted members of First Church who were helping serve lunch to a steady stream of displaced families.
Ballester observed, “The response of the church has been amazing.”
Three miles away First Church member Adam Robinson was working the phones and e-mail at the church. When the storm hit, he volunteered to coordinate offers of help. He has fielded calls from California UUs asking where to send the quilts they were sewing, and he has regularly updated the church’s website with the needs of area shelters. After he posted the need for hygiene kits--shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, and other toiletries--for people in shelters, the Unitarian Universalists of Santa Clarita Valley, California, shipped fourteen moving boxes full of them.
First Church has two ministers who share pastoral duties. While Ballester tended to shelters, the Rev. Gail Lindsay Marriner was looking after the church’s 520 members.
“Volunteers are just overwhelmed by the scope of the problem,” said Marriner. “My goal is to keep members of First Church and the UU community grounded and healthy so they can be present.”
Marriner and Ballester felt heartened by the immediate outpouring of donations and volunteer energy. But much of the Federal Emergency Management Agency money for unemployment and housing reimbursement was to expire after six months, and they were concerned that the support for stressed families continue. Around the end of February, they worried, Houston could see a surge in domestic violence and other crime.
Outside the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, north of Houston, the Rev. Danita Noland was sitting in the parking lot with Otis Johnson and his mother, Earline, whose family the church was sponsoring as they settled into a new life in Texas.
Until the New Orleans levees broke, the Johnson family lived in the Lafitte housing project. They thought they had weathered the hurricane. But when Lake Pontchartrain began emptying into the city, Otis, Earline, her daughter Sheila, and Sheila’s four children waded out of the projects into chest-deep water. In the rush to leave, Otis forgot his wallet. His primary concern was his 15-month-old nephew, whom he carried on his shoulders.
Without his identification, Johnson couldn’t file for FEMA benefits or apply for a job at Wal-Mart that interested him. Noland signed an affidavit so he could get a Texas identification card. In contrast to the horrors the family experienced at the Superdome in New Orleans, Earline Johnson said, “Everybody here has been so wonderful to us.”
The family resettled into an apartment north of Houston. The Northwoods church provided them with some items to help them start over: cutlery, pots and pans, flour, sugar, furniture, bedding, toys, clothes, and diapers. The 180-member congregation raised close to $5,000 to buy supplies and food for evacuees in their area. The church hoped to help four more families get settled. The church was also providing meals at the nearby Spring Tabernacle, a megachurch that opened its doors as a shelter.
At Spring Tabernacle, ten Northwoods members were serving 120 evacuees a dinner of fried catfish, hush puppies, macaroni and cheese, potatoes, and pickles. Noland worked alongside the Rev. Shayna Appel, a minister from Vermont sent by the UU Trauma Response Ministry to support her. The pair had also worked side by side at Ground Zero in New York City after the September 11 attacks.
“In a disaster situation, anyone who is on the edge goes over,” Appel commented. “The pastoral needs in the church skyrocket, and the pastor has to respond to the members and to the disaster. It’s helpful for me to come in and be able to say to Danita, ‘I’m walking with you.’”
Noland nodded in agreement: “Shayna takes my cell phone away and makes me go and eat.”
Appel has also helped bring in funds. Providing food for so many evacuees costs Northwoods $300 to $700 per meal. The members agreed to serve before they knew how they’d pay for it. “When I got here, Northwoods was up to its eyeballs in need, and there was no money coming in,” Appel said. “I picked up the phone and started to tell people, ‘If you want to make a donation, make it to the Northwoods church. We’ll get it directly to the people.’”
After the shelter residents finished their meal, the room turned from a dining hall into a gymnasium. Girls picked up red and white pom-poms and created cheerleading routines. A pickup basketball game began among the boys. Some kids turned rap music up loud on a boom box, and adults began to dance.
The Northwoods volunteers sat at long folding tables to eat. I joined them, not realizing how hungry I was. I had taken little time to eat during my two days in Texas. Each time I realized I was hungry, I had told myself how little the people of the Gulf had eaten after the storm. I was tired, too. But I had been telling myself that these people had missed so much sleep and slept in such inhospitable places. “That’s survivor guilt,” Noland told me.
Locals know the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as “the church with the big circle window.” The 12-foot-diameter circle of glass, which fills the sanctuary with light and a view of a grand oak tree outside, survived Katrina intact. Rather than winds and water, Baton Rouge had to deal with waves of evacuees from New Orleans, doubling its population of 230,000.
Many members of New Orleans’ two UU churches were in attendance at the Baton Rouge church the Sunday I visited. Community Church’s minister the Rev. James VanderWeele was sharing office space at the Baton Rouge church and chatted quietly with members of his congregation at coffee hour. First Church of New Orleans members gathered in a corner of the sanctuary to check in and see pictures of damage to their church that member Veronica Collins had brought.
Thirty children from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans churches gathered together for their service across a courtyard. Religious education director Jessica Gray sat before them in a bright-blue Unitarian Universalist Volunteer T-shirt and asked, “What does it mean to be a volunteer?” Young Quinn said, “I let a baby have some of my toys.” Leslie said, “I gave blankets and sheets to people and went to an animal shelter to take care of animals affected by the hurricane.” Others added that they donated clothes and school supplies.
Gray read to the children from a book about Clara Barton, explaining that she was a Universalist and founded the American Red Cross. Then the children filed forward to fill a jar with coins for hurricane relief. The change the kids had collected was nearing $1,000.
In the sanctuary the Rev. Steve Crump was preaching. “Heard any bad theology lately?” he asked the congregation to a chorus of chuckles. The Gulf area had been rampant with talk that the hurricane was God’s way of emptying the sinful city of New Orleans of its homosexuals and its poor. U.S. Representative Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Crump was clear in his disdain. “The God that causes hurricanes is dead,” he said. “The God that causes poverty is dead. We need a jazz funeral for him. Slide that corpse of bad theology into a tomb,” he said. What was spreading across the Gulf area in the recovery efforts, Crump said, was grace. Using the New Orleans word meaning “a little something extra,” Crump went on, “Grace is lagniappe. And grace is on the way. . . . The first smell of newly cut lumber is a remarkable smell of grace. Breathe it deeply, because that is rebuilding in the air.”
The congregation listened, rapt. Crump concluded, “The big breaks of levees and lives require many hands and hearts. . . . By doing these things, we transform the world. By doing these things, we are correcting God’s reputation.”
The full weight of everything I had seen on my four-day visit to the Gulf hit me at Frank’s Restaurant. That’s where the lunch bunch from the Baton Rouge church goes after Sunday services. Over biscuits, boudin sausages, po’boys, grits, and gumbo, they told the stories of their week. Like the rest of Baton Rouge, the lunch bunch had swelled since Katrina. In addition to New Orleans UUs, they were joined by Jane Miller, a Red Cross volunteer and member of the Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Beside me at Frank’s was Marilee Baccich. She’s a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California, and an interfaith minister who chairs the church’s Center for Spiritual Development. She grew up in New Orleans, and her mother, sister, and many other extended family members still call that city home. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Baccich knew she had to go to Louisiana. She e-mailed the Southwestern Conference, and Penny Ramsdell, president of the Baton Rouge UU church, invited Baccich to answer phones.
She put the fall opening of her spiritual development classes on hold until October and flew to Baton Rouge. She spent September matching homeless New Orleanians with Baton Rouge members, finding housing and assignments for the steady stream of UU volunteers, and connecting shelters in need with UUs who could supply blankets, beds, meals, and even a refrigerator. A UU couple from Colorado called to volunteer, and Baccich sent them to a shelter to help do laundry for people who had been unable to wash their clothes for three weeks. “I’m deeply touched by the response of the Unitarian community all over the country,” Baccich said. “They have sent money, donations, and people to work, and we couldn’t do this without them.”
My biscuits grew cold on my plate as I listened to the stories. Baccich related how her cousins had stayed in New Orleans throughout the hurricane to be with their father in Baptist Hospital. The water rose within the hospital as they waited for their father to be evacuated by helicopter. The hospital scene was horrifying, with crushing heat and the unbearable smell of the dead. Her cousins were evacuated by boat--the last to leave the hospital. Beside them was a sobbing woman who had been forced to abandon her dying mother on a stretcher in the hospital hallway.
As I left Frank’s to drive to the airport and board a plane full of New Orleanians headed north, my mind raced with images of loss—the Rev. VanderWeele’s destroyed library of 3,000 books; New Orleans children sitting in band practice in Houston schools without instruments; houses crushed; the dying mother on her stretcher. I reread an email from North Shore minister David Ord. It gave me hope: “More than ever, a Unitarian Universalist message is needed, a message of human dignity and worth, of justice and of environmental concern. At this time, we are needed because we are a people capable of vision. We can be a voice of sanity in the midst of the political chaos.”
Read expanded hurricane coverage by Donald E. Skinner and other UU World writers.