Stepping Out on Faith—Religious Groups Rally to Support the Right to Return

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech delivered in December 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed three interconnected societal ills—racial injustice, poverty, and war. Post-Katrina New Orleans, La., exposed all three of these problems on a grand scale; impoverished African Americans were decimated and our government sat idly by while they suffered, ignoring desperate pleas for assistance to the dark faces left in Katrina’s wake and instead revealing a distorted view of national security that prioritizes the war in Iraq above the tragedy unfolding on American soil. Like King, who was an ordained Baptist minister and believed in the power and necessity of the church to solve the problems that plague our society, faith-based organizations picked up the banner in the fight for the right of survivors to return home and rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Building upon a long tradition of aiding victims of disasters, the religious community has received high marks for their post-Katrina relief work. They were among the first to respond, providing shelter, food and counseling for the survivors who were forced to flee the area and find temporary shelter in other cities and states. More than 10,000 Christian (also Jewish and Muslim) volunteers descended upon the Gulf in 2005 and 2006 in an unprecedented effort to provide emergency service delivery and general care and concern. Today, these community organizations remain an important part of the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. In response to the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina, churches, synagogues, and other households of faith are rallying their memberships, congregations, and worshippers to restore order and peace to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast by providing assistance such as: temporary and long-term housing solutions; job training and placement; education for children; family counseling/coaching; economic recovery through partnerships with credit/micro-finance agencies and local businesses; short-term volunteer efforts to help in resident infrastructure rehabilitation; prayer support, financial assistance; and mission teams.

Most importantly, faith-based organizations are supporting —and joining the fight for—the right of Katrina survivors to return home. In some instances, they are partnering with established nonprofit organizations to receive community development training and to ensure that those who are often overlooked—impoverished, displaced Katrina survivors—are not lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Because they are places of refuge and cornerstones of the community structure where people are connected, churches are bringing together people across class and race lines, united with a desire to help those who lost everything in the hurricane.

Advancement Project’s recent partnership with clergy to implement the Voter Revival Program is an ideal example of an interfaith partnership at work. The program, established to encourage Katrina survivors from Louisiana to participate in the November 7 elections, engaged more than 60 faith leaders and churches in five cities in a campaign to inform displaced voters and offer resources to facilitate participation by absentee ballot in the mid-term elections. The Voter Revival Program makes use of the special network among Black faith leaders who are addressing social justice needs through their ministries and has continued well beyond November 7.

Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, credits churches, synagogues, and mosques with coming together from various parts of the country to partner with local congregations to rebuild and serve as a resource to their sisters and brothers. In an effort to recreate African-American communities, a coalition of churches in 12 areas of New Orleans formed the Churches Supporting Churches (CSC) National Working Group. These churches were dealt a powerful blow by Katrina and the group exists to help them “restart, re-open, repair, or rebuild” their facilities and congregations. Displaced residents seeking to return home will find the revitalized churches to be a starting point, a safe haven, where they can find support to begin putting their lives in order.

In Gulfport, Miss., an area that has many neighborhoods that were wiped away by the storm, Rev. George Rouse, pastor of Missionary Baptist Church, is working with other clergy and churches to renovate homes and help displaced residents re-occupy their dwellings. While FEMA let these families stay in hotels and then trailers indefinitely, Rev. Rouse and his church stepped up to make sure that homes would be rebuilt and people would gain access to the basic human rights—food, clothing, and shelter.

Despite headlines purporting that the Gulf Coast is doing “much better” after the storm and distracting our attentions with Mardi Gras and casinos, faith-based organizations and individuals are helping to keep our focus where it belongs—on the people affected by the storm. The African-American population in the Gulf Coast is still absent, like colored tiles missing from a giant mosaic. They remain effectually locked out of the city. The government failed them, and barriers to return have been erected in their absence. These hurdles must be overcome before they can return and restart their lives. With a growing network of churches re-opening their doors and serving as a central location for disseminating information, there is hope that the rights of Katrina survivors will not be further destroyed by government oversight and inaction.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and Louisiana native, recently made known her staunch support for New Orleans’ public housing residents who are being blocked by the federal and local government from returning home. Sister Prejean authored the bestselling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which has been made into an Academy-Award winning movie and opera. Prejean is a vocal advocate against the injustices to which displaced public housing residents are being subjected. She has stood shoulder to shoulder with residents who came home to clean out their homes and she is organizing other Catholic In her official statement for the lawsuit spearheaded by Advancement Project on behalf of the residents, Sister Prejean declared, “I heard the cries of the people who wanted to come home. I was moved by their cries. … to know those homes are sitting there in decent shape when so many need housing is a sin.”

“This is My Home” is a documentary DVD that gives voice to the cries of displaced New Orleans public housing residents and chronicles their struggle to return to the city the place they call home. The personal accounts given are a testament to the depth of their loss, but also to the resiliency of the human spirit to return and rebuild in the face of adversity.