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Baton Rouge church honored for hurricane relief

Congregation coordinated UU Gulf Coast relief volunteer effort.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Cheré Coen

From left: Cheré Coen, coordinator of volunteers at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge; Laura Edwards, president of the Lafayette, La., UU Fellowship; Leslie Runnels of the First UU Church of New Orleans; and the Rev. Marilee Baccich, minister to the community at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, helped put in hurricane bracing on a house over Labor Day weekend, 2006. (Shelley Martin)

This is the fifth article in a series that uuworld.org is running about UU congregations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Mississippi, to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Sometimes the right people are in the right place at the right time. Such was the case with the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge as Hurricane Katrina plowed through New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.

As floodwaters rose and thousands of displaced New Orleaneans poured into Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, church members went to work. They took people into their homes, collected and delivered money and supplies to local shelters, served meals at a Red Cross shelter, and provided support and a place to meet for Unitarian Universalist congregations from New Orleans.

For its work in responding to the disaster, the church was honored this year with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action. The annual award goes to congregations that do exemplary work in social justice. It includes a $500 prize.

The Unitarian Church in Baton Rouge turned out to be the only UU church in southern Louisiana not significantly damaged by Katrina and the flooding. The two New Orleans churches, First Unitarian Universalist and Community Church Unitarian Universalist, were both flooded and their members dispersed across several states. The North Shore Unitarian Universalists, a congregation in Lacombe, lost half of its roof.

In the days that followed, UUs all across the country turned to Baton Rouge, some for help, and many more to offer assistance. The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge became the center of UU relief efforts in Louisiana. “As soon as we got phones and electricity back we knew what we were being called to do,” said Diana Dorroh, UCBR’s volunteer programs director. Church volunteers and staff began responding to what would be hundreds of calls and walk-in visitors in the weeks and months after the disaster. A second hurricane, Rita, hit on September 24, adding to the damage and the need.

UCBR created a hurricane relief center in the church office, staffing it with members and friends. It responded to many UUs who needed shelter, transportation, and connection with their dispersed congregations. It served as a central contact point for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations as well as churches and UUs around the country who wanted to send relief supplies and money, and to volunteer.

It wasn’t long before church leaders realized they needed help. Volunteers couldn’t keep up with the calls. The UUA’s Southwest District office arranged for the Rev. Marilee Baccich, community minister in Berkeley, Calif., to come to Baton Rouge to coordinate relief efforts. “That’s what saved us,” said Dorroh. “It was getting more and more chaotic handling everything with volunteers. When Marilee came she took over communications and kept things operating efficiently.”

Baccich was ultimately hired as minister to the community. The congregation also hired Cheré Coen to be Coordinator of Volunteers. Funds for these positions came from the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, which collected more than $3.5 million.

The statistics tell the story. The church’s Hurricane Relief and Social Justice Project placed about 1,200 volunteers on the Gulf Coast and those volunteers worked more than 31,000 hours. More than 200 congregations sent workers.

UCBR itself formed a group, the Weekend Warriors, shortly after Katrina and for almost two years the group of two dozen people has spent at least one weekend a month doing relief work in New Orleans, including gutting and rebuilding houses and helping people put their lives back together in other ways.

As the second anniversary of Katrina rolls around there are plenty of immediate needs—people still without houses, neighborhoods that need to be reclaimed, but more of the focus of UCBR’s work has shifted to long-term projects. Dorroh is on the city of Baton Rouge’s Long Term Recovery Committee. She worries about what will happen to the hundreds of people who are still stranded in Baton Rouge, who have no homes to go back to in New Orleans, and who don’t have the resources to move out of the inadequate low income housing project they live in.

UCBR has a legacy of community involvement in social justice issues. In the 1950s it was kicked out of its rented quarters because it had an interracial congregation with “radical views.” Members participated in the freedom marches of the ’60s, and have been active around issues of school desegregation, gun control, abortion rights, and environmentalism. Dorroh said the Katrina disaster was a catalyst for further engagement in the world. “Since Katrina our doors have opened wider and we have connections to social service groups, to people struggling in New Orleans, and to a hundred UU congregations that we didn’t have before.”

A moment from the past two years comes back for Dorroh. “I was taking a trip through the devastated area with a group from the Arlington Street Church from Boston,” she said. “We were trying to find Community Church, which had been flooded. We finally found it and the reverent way they interacted with the space, holding hands and praying, will always stay with me.”

She added, “I’m 65. The recovery from Katrina will continue for the rest of my life.”

Penny Ramsdell became president of the congregation in June 2005. When Katrina struck that summer she added another hat, that of steering committee chair for the church’s Hurricane Project. “It’s been a very full couple of years,” she said. “When I look back I have a range of emotions. I’m very proud of our congregation and how it stepped up. And I’m very humbled. No matter how tirelessly we worked we had it so much better than those who lost homes, workplaces, and had to rebuild churches and lives at the same time.”

It helped, she said, that volunteers could see tangible results every day—the shelving and bedding that the church purchased for a new shelter, which was immediately put to use; the space the church provided for a displaced university class; and giving two Jewish congregations a place to hold High Holy Days.

Did the disaster effort change the congregation? “I think more people have become aware of the subtle ways in which vulnerable populations can be disenfranchised,” Ramsdell said. Special moments for her include the demonstration of generosity by the congregation from the very beginning. “When we decided we needed to organize a task force to respond to the disaster we sent the word out and all these people just showed up. Another moment for me was when Rev. Baccich arrived to take over relief operations at the church.” But she said the best moment might have been the meal she helped prepare with church members for 200 Red Cross volunteers. “The meal just overwhelmed the volunteers and it filled us with pride and pleasure and gratitude that we could do this for them.”

She added, “What I want other UUs to know is how much difference it makes to have a strong healthy congregation when you are faced with something like this. I think first of the people—Rev. (Steve) Crump and the rest of our professional staff and our lay leaders and the congregation itself. We all work well together. That enabled us to quickly come together and to work effectively in all that we were called to do in the past two years.”

“Our Small Group Ministry program kept going, too,” she added, “and that was a wonderful way to process all that was happening to us. Rather than people feeling isolated and overwhelmed, they could go to their groups and share their stories and offer emotional support and share information.”

UCBR’s minister, the Rev. Steve Crump, knows his congregation pretty well. January will mark his 25th anniversary there. “There was no question in my mind that we would have responded the way we did,” he said. “From the first day when we opened our doors to a New Orleans UU in a wheelchair, right up to the present time, we responded with all the capacity we had and if we had to we’d do it again.”

Katrina changed the ministry of UCBR, he said. “I think we’ve all been radicalized. We’ve seen all the broken promises, all the people who aren’t getting the help they need. We’re working now for the long term. And we’ve been made aware of our own mortality. This storm could just as easily have made a path for our city. We will never get over this. The best we can do is try to integrate this into our lives.”

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