Picking up the Gulf Coast pieces

Picking up the Gulf Coast pieces

UU volunteers pitch in to gut houses and clear lots; new grants bring total aid to $1.2 million.

Donald E. Skinner


It was the television images in the first days after the flood that compelled the Rev. Jennifer Brooks and her son, Kevin, 13, to give up a week in March to go to New Orleans. Kevin had observed in the television coverage that most of the people left behind seemed to be black, as he is. When he asked why there were no buses or helicopters for them, Brooks saw the disaster with new eyes.

Brooks, minister of the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, Unitarian Universalist, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and Kevin spent the week helping renovate a church that will be used as a community center in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most heavily damaged areas of New Orleans.

“There was no way I could not go,” Brooks said last week, “after watching those early images with my son.”

What Brooks got out of the week was the satisfaction of helping move New Orleans a little farther down the path to reconstruction. She told her congregation when she returned: “The glorious thing each volunteer gets, what I got, what keeps people there or brings them in for a week or two weeks or a month or longer, is a chance to help: to lay on hands and heal this neighborhood.”

“Once I was there,” she said, “I knew with my whole body that other people matter, that we are all connected and that compassion means action.”

She added, “I do think this work is very important for UUs to be involved with. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘We shall hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ This is a mountain of despair, a calamity. But with each wheelbarrow full of moldy wallboard, with each bit of rubble, people are giving each other hope.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations raised more than $3.5 million with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an independent human rights group, for distribution among UU congregations and communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Almost $1.2 million has now been distributed to groups in the region.

In the seven months since the hurricanes, scores of individual Unitarian Universalists and church groups have also made the trip to New Orleans, Mississippi, and Texas, donating a day, a weekend, a week, or longer.

Three groups from the Winchester, Mass., Unitarian Society have made trips to New Orleans. The first, in November, included 11 adults and four youth. The second one, in February, involved 34 youth and nine adults. The most recent one was in mid-March and included 16 adults and three youth.

Youth Program Director Jessica Rubenstein helped lead the February 19-25 youth trip. Participants worked with Project HOPE, an offshoot of Common Ground Relief, in St. Bernard Parish, gutting houses, working at a Project HOPE distribution center, and clearing downed trees from property. “We did five houses,” said Rubenstein. “It was really hard physical work. We stayed in a gutted church and we had cold showers and electricity just a few hours a day from a generator.”

She added, “We had the opportunity to talk to many residents. Many told us that if it hadn’t been for help from churches since the flood, they’d be dead. One man came to our camp after we’d gutted his house that day. He told us, ‘You’ve got a friend for life.’”

Emma Sprague, a high school senior, was also on that trip. “We were all shocked to see destruction far worse than the images that we’d seen on the news,” she said. “The things that we saw challenged our conception of the world we live in and made us think. We learned that as youth we have the strength to make a real difference in the world.”

The youth came back from their trip and immediately thought about going again. Instead, they decided they could do more by forming a speaker’s bureau and by talking about the needs in New Orleans. “There’s enough work there for years,” said Rubenstein.

The youth made a documentary that they show at other churches when invited. They made a second video of each of them reading excerpts from trip journals that were given to them by their minister, the Rev. Mary Harrington, before they went. They invited church members to put together health kits of common drugstore items to send to New Orleans. And they created a CD of music performed by the church’s a cappella youth choir and musicians, “Raising Our Voices for Relief,” which they are giving away in return for donations for hurricane relief.

Cheré Coen is the new coordinator of volunteers for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, brought on board March 1 for one year to help coordinate groups coming to New Orleans from other parts of the country. She said many volunteers came in March and there will be more in April during school spring breaks. She said children younger than 13 or 14 should probably not come because of the mold, asbestos, and other dangers in the flooded buildings.

Coen noted there are other tasks besides gutting houses, such as helping people fill out forms, doing child care so people can get their lives back together, and cleaning up yards. Pieces of houses also have to be removed from wetlands areas.

Volunteers are developing a page on the Baton Rouge church website to provide up-to-date volunteer information. Prospective volunteers are encouraged to contact Coen and she will help direct them either to UU-organized work projects or to other groups working in New Orleans. (see below for links.)

Cleanup is also continuing on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. Keitha Whitaker is president of the Gulf Coast UU Church in Gulfport, Miss. The church had 25 members before Katrina but about half have moved away. The congregation had been planning to build and had bought property for that purpose, but it put its property on the market after Katrina, because it’s subject to flooding in extreme storms.

Whitaker is a social worker. As she drives around the area visiting clients, she still sees lots of devastation. “There’s a lot being done, but there’s a lot to do.” She said developers are building condos and casinos along the Gulf, but the living units are for vacationers, not for people who were displaced. “And I’m still running into people who never got Red Cross or FEMA help because they couldn’t get to those sites.”

She added: “Our church is struggling too. We’re going to promote our UU presence in the community, but it’s going to be a challenge for us to even pay rent. We’re pretty much going on faith that we can make this happen.”

The Rev. Jacqueline Luck serves the UU Church of Jackson, Miss., and is consulting minister to the Our Home UU Church in Ellisville, both in mid-Mississippi and well away from the Gulf. The Ellisville church had minor damage from Katrina.

“If you want to come down here and work we encourage you to work through some other organization that’s already involved there,” said Luck. Volunteers might also consider bringing tents or recreational vehicles to stay in. She said skilled workers—electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and other craftspeople—are very much in demand.

There is one thing that strikes fear into Luck’s heart as spring arrives. The 2006 hurricane season starts June 1—about two months away. “That’s the most dreaded thought that any of us have down here,” she said. “It would be lovely to say that we are prepared, but we have people all over living in trailers and tents and in homes with damaged roofs. If we have another hurricane here that will be bad. And if there’s another major hurricane somewhere else in the country, then the Gulf Coast and its problems are going to be pushed to the back by the new emergency. As a faith tradition we’re going to have to stay centered and be ready to respond in every direction.”

Common Ground Relief, the group that Brooks and the Winchester church groups worked through, and the Hands On Network can connect volunteers with opportunities in Mississippi.

Hundreds of UU congregations have responded to the Gulf Coast hurricanes and flooding. One of the most substantial efforts has come from First Unitarian Church of Dallas. It began by collecting tons of supplies for New Orleaneans who evacuated to Dallas in the days before and after the storm. It also raised more than $100,000 for the relief effort and created a relationship with a local hotel that housed more than 350 families at no charge. It had significant help from First Parish in Concord, Mass.

Within a week after Katrina the Dallas congregation began a program of mentoring 21 families from New Orleans, helping them find housing, jobs, and health care, and providing emotional support. In several cases the mentoring teams have become close friends with the evacuees, said the Rev. Daniel Kanter. The teams are now helping some of the families move back to New Orleans.

“It put us directly in touch with the realities of poverty,” said Kanter, “as our members entered into realms of health care, racism, unemployment, and the challenges of living poor in a privileged society. I think it engaged a level of love and compassion that extended beyond the walls of our church and challenged us to live out our purpose to be of use in the world.”

The UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund recently announced grants to the following groups:

  • $40,000 to the Gulf Coast Missionary Baptist District Association, which is inviting congregations of many faiths, including Unitarian Universalists, to put together work teams to help restore homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
  • $55,000 to The Jeremiah Group, a New Orleans group focused on protecting housing, jobs, and voting rights for displaced New Orleaneans and developing community planning strategies that will protect the city’s multi-racial makeup.
  • $15,000 for a discretionary fund managed by the UUSC and $1,500 to the three New Orleans congregations to continue radio outreach advertising on NPR in the New Orleans area.
  • $1,000 payment to Jefferson Presbyterian Church in New Orleans to be matched by $500 from Community Church of New Orleans and $500 from First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans for use of office space.

To date, nearly $1.2 million has been disbursed from the relief fund that originally totalled more than $3.5 million. More information about the fund is available from www.uua.org.

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