Unitarian Universalists are helping marginalized communities rebuild along the Gulf Coast.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone. Beachfront casinos have risen from the rubble, and busloads of gamblers wind their way past blocks of destroyed houses so they can try their luck.
A mile away from the white-sand beaches, Bill Stallworth steps out of the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center, a church hall born again as a hurricane relief office—a community hub as busy one year after the storm as it was when its doors opened. Stallworth is walking to a nearby playground put up by volunteers the day before. His progress is slow, but not because of traffic: Only three-quarters of East Biloxi’s residents are back. It’s just that he can’t walk more than a few yards without someone stopping him. A woman pulls over to the curb. Her plumber left without finishing the job in her hurricane-ravaged bathroom. “I’ll talk to one or two people I know,” he tells her with a reassuring smile.
Another woman stops him to say that the gas company isn’t going to be giving away free hot water heaters anymore to rebuilding residents. “Ask them for thirty more days,” says Stallworth. “Otherwise, tell them we’ll just start using electric stoves.”
Men wave from trucks: “Hey, brother!” Stallworth returns each wave as he answers the steady ring of his cell phone. He’s wanted on a conference call about a loan-forgiveness program for people who rebuild and remain in Biloxi. “We just fix problems,” he says, his six-foot-three-inch frame continuing its smooth stride, stepping confidently over buckled sidewalks and year-old storm debris.
Stallworth does worry—about the increase in suicides, domestic violence, divorce, single-headed households, and other signs of a community under tremendous stress. But he is an optimist despite the absence of government assistance and in the face of insurance companies that have denied coverage to him and his neighbors, claiming their homes were destroyed by a flood, not by the hurricane winds that their policies covered. The only African-American city councilman in Biloxi, Stallworth has become a pivotal organizer in his impoverished community, at first helping residents get food and water in the storm’s immediate aftermath and now helping them move back and rebuild. Invoking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stallworth sees rebuilding as civil rights work. “This is a golden opportunity to make our neighborhood stronger,” he says. “It’s time to stop worrying about the crumbs and get a slice of the cake.”
Stallworth’s East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center is one of seventeen “partner groups” receiving funds from the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund (GCRF). The fund, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, has raised $3.6 million from individuals and congregations for relief and recovery efforts. Guided by the GCRF Funding Panel, two-thirds of the fund is being distributed to the neediest and most marginalized communities affected by the hurricane. The remaining third has been earmarked for the five Unitarian Universalist congregations damaged by Katrina—and Hurricane Rita, which followed four weeks later—to restore their ministries and preserve Unitarian Universalism in the Gulf Coast.
“We are told, over and over, that we are funding groups no one else pays attention to,” says the Rev. Meg Riley, chair of the panel and director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff: “Marginalized groups, often led by people of color, poor people, neighbors helping neighbors to stand up and fight back when unjust decisions are made.”
One year after Katrina, recovery is barely discernible in parts of the Gulf Coast. Gas stations remain shuttered; food can be hard to find amid boarded-up storefronts and abandoned restaurants. Miles upon miles of homes have holes in their roofs and walls. Whole city blocks are empty of residents. But relief groups such as Stallworth’s are pushing ahead, bringing hope and helping people rebuild their communities. And after a storm characterized by despair, environmental irresponsibility, and rampant racial discrimination, groups are organizing not just to repair the storm damage but to unravel tightly woven layers of prejudice and neglect.
A year ago, UU World dispatched me to the Gulf Coast to chronicle the outpouring of volunteer support among UUs near the stricken areas. I have returned to see the difference UU contributions are still making. As I walk with Stallworth down Division Street in East Biloxi, he shows me signs of change. “That house has been gutted.” He points to a one-story “shotgun” house with a trailer hook-up out front. “That house is almost ready. Those folks are back.” Stallworth sees the storm itself as a model for his neglected community as it rebuilds. “We need to be like water,” he says. “You can’t contain water. It’s like a hurricane. Once it gets moving, it’s extremely powerful.”
Behind a glass office door on Main Street in Biloxi, Victoria Cintra is calm but angry. In the past year, she’s seen worker abuses that she says fall nothing short of slavery as Mississippi has pushed to bring its more than $1-billion-a-year casino industry back on line.
Immediately after the storm, she saw Latinos being escorted out of Red Cross shelters because they could not prove local residency. She discovered Mexican workers living nineteen to a trailer, subsisting on employer-provided rations of three cookies a day and a bottle of warm water. She met a Nicaraguan man with green post-storm mold growing on his legs and torso after he cleaned out the county jail. And on a daily basis, she meets Hispanic laborers who are owed back wages. Contractors were quick to import them as labor, she says, but slow to pay them because they are undocumented.
“Hurricane Katrina stripped the veil off the problems for Latino workers in the Gulf Coast,” says Cintra, organizing coordinator for MIRA, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. MIRA has received $40,000 from the GCRF.
Before the storm, about 25,000 Hispanics lived among five Gulf Coast communities in Mississippi. After the storm that number more than tripled as contractors lured workers to the area with the promise of lodging, high wages, and plenty of work.
Cintra is an effective, no-nonsense advocate. Since Katrina, MIRA has recovered $840,000 in back wages and overtime pay for nearly 500 Latino workers.
In April, Cintra staged a protest at one of the reopened casinos, a huge hotel with more slot machines than rooms. With twelve colleagues, she marched around the hotel’s front entrance, carrying a giant placard with the words, “You Rat. Pay Your Workers.”
The hotel’s vice president of operations ran down and chased Cintra and the protesters in their circle. “He looked like he was marching with us,” she recalls. “He wanted to know what he had to do to make us go away. I told him I’d leave if he paid us the $4,522 he owed twelve of his workers.” The VP retreated to his office and withdrew the money in cash from his safe. “We shame people into paying their workers,” she says.
Since December, Shirley Grant, 60, and her adult son and daughter have been sharing a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot room in the St. Jude Community Center on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Her son Edwin sleeps on an air mattress next to her daughter Sharon’s exercise mat. Shirley usually remains in the desk chair, preferring to sleep upright to the discomfort of climbing up and down from the floor.
The room is a former church office. Along the walls, desks, books, and boxes reach nearly to the ceiling. On top the Grants have piled the few possessions they had with them when they fled after the levees burst. The center’s microwave broke a few months ago, so even though none of them currently holds a job, the Grants subsist primarily on take-out funded by Shirley’s monthly $577 Social Security check.
When New Orleans was evacuated after Katrina, the Grants were bussed to a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency shelters, ultimately landing in Little Rock, Arkansas. On November 30, they bought tickets on a Greyhound bus to return home. They applied to get back into a public housing apartment and have been on a waiting list ever since.
The Grants had lived in the St. Bernard Housing Project in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. The sprawling complex of two- and three-story buildings is empty and cordoned off from a desolate stretch of St. Bernard Avenue by a chainlink fence. Unlike areas of New Orleans that are returning to life—such as the French Quarter and the Central Business District—this neighborhood remains deserted. In June a tent city sprung up in a parking lot across the street from the St. Bernard projects. The “Survivor’s Village” provides temporary housing for former residents and serves as a reminder of their continued fight to return to their homes.
The Grants are not alone in their efforts to return to public housing. The storm was like a massive eviction notice served on the city’s poorest residents: Prior to Katrina, the Housing Authority of New Orleans gave assistance to approximately 14,000 New Orleanians. By September 2006, only 1,000 families were back in public housing units. “The government can’t use a natural disaster to permanently displace people,” says Jay Arena, an activist with C3/Hands Off Iberville, a group organizing to bring residents back into New Orleans public housing. (The GCRF is supporting the group with a donation of $20,275.)
The Grants sit around a folding conference table in the St. Jude Center with other displaced residents to strategize how to get back in their homes. They state their names and glumly add, “Still waiting.”
“The ruling class is trying to wipe out public services in this city so they can make a fortune out of it,” says Mike Howells, the chair of tonight’s meeting. He sees the dislocation of the overwhelmingly African American public housing residents from New Orleans as nothing short of “ethnic cleansing.”
Since the storm, C3/Hands Off Iberville has staged protests and launched a civil-disobedience campaign to help public housing residents reoccupy their apartments. Earlier in the week, nine members of the group were arrested helping a resident of the St. Bernard Housing Complex break into his apartment and begin cleaning it up. Next week, they plan to buy a generator for three families who want to squat in their apartments in the C.J. Peete Development. The group asserts that most of the units are already habitable or require only minimal repairs. As some residents begin to occupy the units to which they already hold leases, they believe, others will follow suit.
The same momentum is building in privately owned homes, acres of which stretch out across the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward, an impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood. It suffered more damage than most of New Orleans after a huge wave broke upon it when the Industrial Canal levee burst. A year later, it is the only neighborhood without safe drinking water. For blocks on end, there’s not a person to be seen amid the waterlogged and battered homes with ubiquitous red Xs painted on them by rescue workers who searched for bodies after the storm.
For low-income New Orleanians, returning to the Crescent City is not easy. Roughly half of the city’s pre-Katrina population has not returned. And in many instances, federal, state, and local officials are making it harder for people to come back, says Steve Bradberry, head organizer for New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Since the storm, rents have increased by 25 to 100 percent, and the city’s average sales price for an undamaged home has increased 26 percent. Yet the city, says Bradberry, has not implemented any plan to help low-income residents with housing: “New Orleans has taken the approach: ‘How do we make New Orleans a better city by excluding the people who are the cause of all our problems?’”
There were no public forums on whether to rebuild the Louisiana Superdome (refurbished for $185 million) or the Mississippi casinos. But developers, pundits, and politicians still puzzle over how much housing to rebuild in poor neighborhoods and when and if to encourage residents to return. “The ‘official’ planning process has started and stopped so many times that people are beginning to view it as irrelevant,” writes Wade Rathke, ACORN’s chief organizer, in the group’s annual report. “The city is being rebuilt block by block, house by house, by citizens banding together with their organizations to prove that they want to live in New Orleans.”
The question “Whose city will be rebuilt?” still looms in New Orleans. Bradberry and ACORN are not waiting for the government to answer it. Using exclusively private funds (including $65,000 from the GCRF) ACORN has gutted more than 2,000 New Orleans homes. One thousand more ravaged homes remain on its waiting list. “People need to act,” says Bradberry. “Government is a participatory process.”
The challenge for ACORN, which advocates for the low-and-moderate-income majority that lived in New Orleans before Katrina, is mobilizing people who have been scattered across the country. ACORN scrambled to notify New Orleans homeowners that if their houses weren’t gutted by August 29, 2006, their homes might be subject to demolition. A groundswell of opposition to that deadline won homeowners in the demolished Lower Ninth Ward an extension of the deadline. “The ordinance was punitive for people with the least ability to comply,” says Bradberry. “They weren’t told where they were going when they got on busses to leave New Orleans. And there is no provision for getting them back.”
Many displaced people have already lost their voting status in New Orleans, a Democratic stronghold in Republican-dominated Louisiana. To cash their FEMA assistance checks in the states where they were relocated, people had to open bank accounts—and for that they needed local IDs, such as driver’s licenses. In states like Texas, with aggressive motor-voter laws, New Orleanians were registered to vote when they applied for a license, without being informed that they would forfeit their right to vote at home.
In Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, ACORN coordinated a get-out-the-vote effort to help as many New Orleanians as possible cast ballots in the spring mayoral and city council races in satellite voting centers outside of New Orleans. They canvassed door to door and held voter rallies in New Orleans in addition to visiting communities of Katrina survivors outside the city. Ultimately, ACORN reached out to more than 10,000 voters before the general election. Even though more than half of New Orleans residents were not back in the city, voter turnout was down by only one-fifth.
“To change policy,” says Bradberry, “it’s all about bodies and numbers.”
As the GCRF has funneled money into underserved areas in the Gulf, a steady stream of UU volunteers has provided muscle.
One of the first projects the GCRF sponsored was to establish two positions through the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge: a community minister and a volunteer coordinator. The Rev. Marilee Baccich took a leave of absence from her job as director of the Center for Spiritual Development at the UU Church of Berkeley, California, to return to her native Louisiana as the community minister. Cheré Coen, a member of the UU Fellowship of Lafayette, Louisiana, is the volunteer coordinator.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jinnie Trabulsi, a recent seminary graduate, coordinates volunteers to Mississippi. She also works as a part-time minister at the Gulf Coast UU Church in Gulfport, where membership dropped from 30 to 13 after Katrina. “I want volunteers to become agents of change,” says Trabulsi. “They can spread the word about the need for volunteers and see these same issues in their own communities. Be it in Boston, Denver, or New Orleans, racism exists, and white privilege exists.”
Baccich, Coen, and Trabulsi are all recruiting UUs to volunteer and bear witness. By the anniversary, they had placed more than 200 volunteers in the Gulf, with another 115 scheduled between September and Mardi Gras. Inquiries continue to come in from adult and youth groups.
More than $630,000 of the GCRF has been designated for congregational support in the Gulf Coast area. The fund covers Baccich, Coen, and Trabulsi’s salaries and supports volunteer barracks in Mississippi and upstairs at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans. The fund also assists with the rebuilding of damaged UU churches in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, each of which also has partner congregations across the country that are providing financial and spiritual support.
On the first Saturday after the anniversary of Katrina, they have assembled a crew for New Orleans clean-up work. Coen makes the two-hour drive from Lafayette with four members of her congregation, most wearing periwinkle T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Unitarian Universalist Volunteer.” Baccich drives down from Baton Rouge and works alongside two recruits from Oregon, Judy Finholm and her partner, the Rev. Dr. Gretchen Woods, minister of the UU Fellowship of Corvallis.
In the morning, the crew picks up trash from a median strip in the Lakeview neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Community Church UU of New Orleans. Seven feet of water had flooded its sanctuary after a breech in the nearby 17th Street Canal. Into black contractor bags volunteers stuff debris that had washed out of the neighborhood’s houses and baked in a year of New Orleans sun: chipped cups, faded baseball cards, photographs, toys, and endless strings of Mardi Gras beads.
After a lunch of Po’ Boys and shrimp, they head for Reese Brewer’s house in the Broadmoor neighborhood. A member of First Church, he has already gutted his flooded house and had it raised onto six-foot cement pilings. Brewer puts the crew to work hammering hurricane straps, laying sub-flooring, and cutting out old electrical wiring. He’s hoping to be back in his duplex by Christmas.
On my last day in New Orleans, I attend the final combined service of the two New Orleans UU churches. For a year, the congregations have weathered the aftermath of the storm together.
The minister of Community Church, the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, says, “We are the Unitarian Universalists of New Orleans, and we are involved in the rebuilding process of the greatest calamity to ever hit any city in America. Do I hear an ‘Amen’?”
As their building is rebuilt, Community Church will meet in temporary quarters back in their own neighborhood. First Church members are meeting in a Presbyterian church across the street from their flood-damaged sanctuary. Their minister, the Rev. Marta Valentín, says that as they rebuild they are “heading toward a dream of converting the church environment to one that is more UU, more accessible, and more sustainable.”
Woods, the Oregon minister, preaches the sermon after four days of rebuilding work. I hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s words once again: “We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
“I will not call this a natural disaster,” Woods says. “This was a human disaster. Katrina became truly horrific when our human and governmental inattention and inaction to climate change merged with our human and governmental unwillingness to prepare effectively for the effects of that change by strengthening levees, containing and eliminating toxic waste, and assuring that people would be given ways effectively to exit a disaster area. The depth of racism and classism in this country surfaced in the toxic waters of Katrina.”
She describes the UUs who have returned to the Gulf as the “faithful remnant” and charges them to provide a prophetic voice that continues to rail against the racial and environmental injustice that permeates our culture. She urges all UUs to support the Gulf. “It is our job to be here with you, to witness, to help you rebuild. . . . We, every one of us in this faithful remnant, have a mission, a call to be maladjusted to the reality that it is the poorest that suffer the most in our society, while the richest exploit our planet with impunity. We need to merge our liberal theology with a robust and active liberation theology.”
Then, invoking the Unitarian Universalists who rallied to King’s side in Alabama during the civil rights movement in 1965, Woods proclaims, “New Orleans is the Selma of our generation.”
See below for links to related resources, including an online-only profile of the Rev. Tyrone Edwards, who is leading the rebuilding of his small Louisiana town with aid from the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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