Storm victims rely on faith to help them through crisis

Religion: Evacuees and helpers alike find solace and sustenance in their convictions.

Katrina's Wake

September 12, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOUSTON - After a week of waiting in lines for help from the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, Donna Sturken still had no idea yesterday where she will be living when she leaves the Reliant Park shelter complex here this week. But the parishioner of St. Rose of Lima Church back in New Orleans took time out yesterday morning to bring her mother and two children to Mass at the Reliant Arena.

"I know somewhere beyond this there is a door open somewhere," said Sturken, a day care employee now out of work. "It just takes time and patience. Things will get better as long as you have faith."

The word comes up regularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Religious faith is sustaining Americans who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods as they attempt to piece their lives back together. And it is motivating many of the tens of thousands of volunteers who are trying to help.

National Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations have raised millions of dollars for disaster relief. Shelter complexes have been swarmed by the faithful, who have come in church groups or by themselves to help distribute food and clothing to evacuees.

President Bush, who has declared Friday a national day of prayer, repeatedly has praised the members of what he calls "the armies of compassion."

"That's what the Gospel's all about," said Joel Osteen, the pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church, with 32,000 members the largest congregation in the United States. "It's not just coming to church, but it's about helping the poor, the needy."

LaVon Bracy was home in Orlando, Fla., watching the news from New Orleans and growing frustrated with the delays in government relief.

"I was getting tired of hearing people say, `That's a shame,'" said Bracy, whose husband is the pastor of the New Covenant Baptist Church in Orlando. "I challenged our church to do something more than take up a collection for the Red Cross."

Bracy, who for 10 years worked to house the homeless of Philadelphia, is leading a group from her church working to provide transportation to Orlando and housing there for up to six months.

"We've taken on this responsibility without knowing exactly how we're going to pay for everything," she said. "But we know it will happen. God will provide."

Outside the Astrodome one day last week, a man with a megaphone was preaching Christian salvation to evacuees and handing out free Bibles. But most faith-based assistance here has come without overt attempts to proselytize the evacuees.

"It's not the time for that," said the Rev. Carl Davis, the pastor of New Life Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. "We just tell them that we're praying for them."

The 1,400-member church in Houston has papered hotels and shelters with fliers offering to help storm victims. Members have raised thousands of dollars for evacuees and prepared hundreds of meals. A few have taken families into their homes.

"By the grace of God, that could be us," Davis said. "It just so happens that we like to help our fellow man. ... What good does it do to preach if we can't help them practically?"

Yesterday, the traditional Sabbath for most Christians, the survivors turned to worship. Faith leaders who were flooded out of New Orleans now are ministering to a diaspora that arcs from Atlanta to St. Louis to Dallas and beyond. Congregations dispersed by the storm did their best to gather wherever they found themselves.

The last the Rev. Ray Bomberger knew, both of his Roman Catholic churches in the 7th Ward of New Orleans were shoulder-deep in water. During his homily Sunday, delivered to a congregation of survivors sitting in folding chairs on the floor of an arena more accustomed to rodeos and monster-truck rallies, the Josephite priest spoke of the anxieties of evacuees worried about missing loved ones and uncertain futures.

"We walk into people here who are angry," he said. "But we have to encourage them not to give in to the anger but to just bring it to the Lord in prayer. "

Valerie Murry is a member of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in New Orleans. In a tent outside the Astrodome yesterday afternoon, she raised her arms and swayed to the Gospel music of a worship service.

"That's where blessings come from, when we give God our time," said the 41-year-old cook. She does not know where she and her two sons will settle.

"I just give it up to God," Murry said. "He is the one who saves us. All I can do is thank God for giving us another life. Another chance."

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