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September 1, 2005

Quick Church Responses in Katrina’s Wake
by Jon M. Sweeney

The magic of the Internet is made clear when congregations still stand at their homepages, even as their houses of worship have tumbled into the sea. Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Mississippi (at 610 Water Street), is destroyed, but its Web page is still standing. These presences are eerie reminders of what was, but also of what remains. You would never know that something catastrophic had happened in the Gulf States if you simply read the Web sites of those congregations that have been far too busy with life-threatening matters to take the time to update them with messages that services are cancelled for this week.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ville Platte, Louisiana, still has at the top of its homepage a simple “Prayer for Hurricane Season.” It actually asks God for rain. “Our Father in Heaven, through the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, spare us during this hurricane season from all harm and protect us and our homes from all disasters of nature; we especially pray that our farmers have the rain they need for their livelihood. We ask through Christ our Lord. Amen!”

The large, multi-ethnic, Pentecostal congregation, Carisma Church in New Orleans has on its homepage two short reflections from Pastor Tony Silveira: “5 Ingredients of a Holy Character” and “The Da Vinci Code—My Book Report.” One wonders how those ingredients may have changed over the last week. We also wonder where Pastor Tony is just now, and if he is alright.

In a letter to his flock posted on the Internet August 30, the United Methodist bishop of the Louisiana Conference urged all to practice hospitality, now more than ever before. “You can serve as shelters for those who are trying to find some semblance of order in their otherwise chaotic lives, and you can offer counseling to those who have come to your communities as refugees from the storm.”

Nearly every nationwide religious organization in the United States has set up relief efforts for those impacted by Katrina. United Jewish Communities invites you to contribute at www.ujc.org; United Methodists at www.methodistrelief.org; Episcopal Relief and Development at www.er-d.org; Catholic Charities USA at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org; Islamic Relief at www.irw.org/katrina; even witches are trying to do something—“The Witches’ Voice,” a neo-pagan Internet network, invites its members at www.witchvox.com to contribute to the Red Cross.

Other church organizations are already working together with government disaster relief officials to help. Heather Feltman, director for Lutheran Disaster Response, which unites ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutherans, says: “Keeping people alive is the primary task this day. We are identifying retired military personnel, fire fighters and others with search and rescue skills and referring them to appropriate officials.”

Denominational groups are quickly undertaking very practical means of help. Trinity United Methodist Church in Ruston, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, is serving as an overflow shelter for the Red Cross. The congregation is housing and feeding almost 200 refugees in the church gymnasium. In their Mississippi Conference, United Methodists have placed information on their website for those interested in volunteering, once public access is granted into the most devastated areas: www.mississippi-umc.org.

Mennonite Disaster Service announced from their headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania, that they would have a “leadership, investigative team” on the ground in Mississippi by Thursday, September 1. “Starting in Macon, Mississippi, the team will move south to Meridian, where the Mennonite Pine Lake Camp is located, and eventually reach Gulfport. Another team will enter the region along the Gulf shore, joining the other MDS investigation in the Gulfport area.” (www.mds.mennonite.net)

Other Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopal denominations and congregations are quickly giving money to the Church World Service—an ecumenical, cooperative relief organization. CWS’s disaster response specialists are teleconferencing with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials each day now, in order to identify material resource needs and storm-affected areas where CWS will concentrate its efforts. (www.churchworldservice.org)

Copyright ©2005 Jon Sweeney

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. Hismost recent book is THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE OF CATHOLIC TRADITION. More by Jon Sweeney.

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