'Spectacular response' will aid congregations in hurricane's path, congregations helping evacuees, and agencies helping the most marginalized.
As the donations pouring in topped $500,000, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) announced a goal of raising at least a million dollars for Gulf Coast hurricane relief.
Responding to calls and e-mails from Unitarian Universalists who were first concerned about the Katrina disaster, then angry about the government’s slow response and the mounting death toll, the two organizations announced a joint fund drive whose proceeds will be distributed in accord with Unitarian Universalist principles. UUA President William G. Sinkford says the fund has three purposes:
The joint drive, UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, was created shortly after Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As the scope of the disaster became known, said the Rev. Terry Sweetser, the UUA’s vice president for stewardship and development, “People started contacting us and the district executives saying they were touched and concerned and outraged by the lack of help going to people in New Orleans and elsewhere. We knew we had to give them an opportunity to help.”
Last year the UUA and UUSC raised $2 million for tsunami relief. “The money is coming in significantly faster for this,” Sweetser said. “We’re having spectacular results. People are being very generous.”
The fund topped a half million dollars Thursday night, Sweetser said, six days after the UUA began accepting donations through a secure page on the UUA Web site [see links at right]. By Friday morning, the fund had received $520,656.
Contributions are being sought by e-mails and letters to UUA donors and by asking congregations to donate part or all of their collection plate proceeds this Sunday. Some congregations started last Sunday, and 28 have already sent special collections to the UUA. One large congregation in Texas raised $35,000; an 18-member fellowship in New Mexico collected $1,800. At a Friday night prayer service at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., more than $4,400 was given. Donations came in from as far away as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, which sent a check for $150. Children in UU religious education programs across the continent have carried collection boxes into coffee hours and classrooms and come out with hundreds of dollars.
In addition, an e-mail message went out this week to religious professionals, asking them to contribute to a separate fund to support their colleagues whose churches have been affected by the hurricane. The letter was signed by the presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, the Association of Unitarian Universalist Administrators, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and the Society for the Larger Ministry.
“We have three New Orleans clergy and other staff who still have no idea if all of their parishioners are alive,” said the Rev. Anne Heller, interim district executive of the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference, which includes Louisiana. “There’s a real question about how their salaries and benefits will be paid, especially since many members of those congregations, even if they still have jobs, probably cannot draw money out of their bank accounts.”
Of the three congregations in or near New Orleans, the building of the 83-member Community Church Unitarian Universalist is believed to be flooded to the eaves and unsalvageable; First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, with 115 members, is believed to have several feet of water in it; and the 83-member North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society in Lacombe lost its roof but is now usable with a temporary covering.
Sweetser was in Houston Thursday night where he met with UUs who are working in shelters there that are housing tens of thousands of New Orleaneans.
“What UUs are doing in Houston is mind-boggling,” he said. “They are serving meals at shelters three times a day, they went to Louisiana to help put a roof on one of our churches, they’re helping people move into apartments, and collecting supplies. Part of what the Gulf Coast fund will do is support efforts like this.”
“There are horrifying stories of displaced people coming up to our ministers and saying that ministers of other faiths told them that the hurricane happened because they were not right with God,” he added. “We need to have a strong presence in these places to assure people that God did not bring this hurricane upon them.”
Sinkford emphasized that the relief fund’s goal is not intended to replicate efforts of agencies like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army but to find ways to help the most marginalized people rebuild their lives and livelihoods—“the same approach we used so successfully last year with the $2 million we raised for tsunami relief.” As an example, he said the UUA had been working with a New Orleans group called People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in antiracism efforts. “Its work centers on economic development and the empowerment of the very poorest in the African American community,” he said. “That’s the kind of organization I hope we will be able to support.”
Contributors can choose to give money to support either community relief or both the affected UU congregations and community relief.
The seven-person panel that will decide how the money will be spent is led by the Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Staff Group. Other members are the Rev. Steve Crump, minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge; the Rev. Anne Heller, interim district executive of the Southwestern Conference; Eunice Benton, district executive of the Mid South District, which includes Mississippi and Alabama; Rebecca Cureau, New Orleans native and long-time member of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge; Atema Eclai, director of programs for the UUSC; and the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, minister of two Mississippi congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson and Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville. The panel will meet September 20 and 21 in Baton Rouge to begin deciding how to use the money.
“We are grateful to be in partnership with the UUSC in this work,” Riley said. “They have decades of experience in disaster relief globally and know the correct questions to ask to ensure that the funding decisions are the most in keeping with a commitment to human rights. Who is falling through the cracks? Who is not being served by the larger relief efforts? Where is there effective leadership on the ground which is respected by these marginalized groups?”
Riley said the panel may look at supporting battered women’s shelters, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, and other marginalized groups that sometimes lack support from organized charities.
“We expect that we might find partners already on the ground doing some of this good work and we will support them and defer to their judgment,” Riley said.
Sinkford issued a pastoral letter Wednesday expressing anger at the slow government response to the hurricane and the fact that people of color suffered the most, starting with the inability of many of them to evacuate the city because of lack of financial resources.
He wrote, “We are a gentle and generous people. But let us not forget our anger. May it fuel not only our commitment to compassion, but also our commitment to make fundamental changes. Our vision of the Beloved Community must stand against a vision that would allow the privilege of the few to be accepted as just and even holy. Our religious vision must again and again ask the Gospel question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and strive always to include more and more of us as we intone the words that gave birth to this nation, ‘We the people. . . .’ We are, and we should be, both a gentle, and an angry people.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.