(Feb. 22, 2007) — The General Board’s Executive Committee and three staff members visited projects related to Emergency Response ministries in the Gulf Coast region on Feb. 15-17.
Members of the Executive Committee included General Board chair Jeff Neuman-Lee, vice-chair Timothy P. Harvey, Dale Minnich, Vickie Whitacre Samland, Ken Wenger, and Angela Lahman Yoder; staff members included Emergency Response director Roy Winter and associate director Zach Wolgemuth, as well as Becky Ullom, director of Identity and Relations.
In New Orleans, the group visited an active Disaster Child Care (DCC) project located at FEMA’s Welcome Home Center. The center provides citizens with access to many types of storm-related aid in one location. While parents complete paperwork, apply for loans, or receive counseling, their children can safely play under the care of DCC volunteers. To help children heal through play is an incredible ministry, one for which the Church of the Brethren was sincerely thanked.
The group also traveled through the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, where the flood following Hurricane Katrina left few buildings standing. Of those left, many had floated off their foundations and settled askew. Several brick churches remained, but doors and windows were chained shut. One pastor had spray painted his cell phone number on the building so that his congregants could reach him. There were few signs of recovery.
The tour continued in Pearl River, La., where a modular home will soon be placed on its foundation by Brethren Disaster Response. In earlier planning, following the widespread destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, staff had hoped to be able to expand the Brethren Disaster Response program by building modular homes in other parts of the country and then transporting them to the Gulf. But strict building codes and other legalities have rendered that concept unworkable at this time, the Executive Committee learned.
That evening, the group fellowshiped with Brethren Disaster Response volunteers before spending the night in FEMA trailers. “For one night, it was adequate, but for a longterm location for a family, it just wouldn’t cut it,” reflected Lahman Yoder. “The rebuilding projects have to go faster so that people can get back into their homes and start to live again,” she said.
In Chalmette, La., the church leaders gained a glimpse into another Brethren Disaster Response rebuilding project. Currently, a team of volunteers is rebuilding the home of Ron Richardson. His home is located in St. Bernard Parish, and is one of 27,000 homes destroyed in the area.
Before the storm, St. Bernard Parish had a population of 66,000; only 6,000-12,000 people have returned since the disaster. “It’s shocking because these are people who had ‘done it right,’” said Liz McCartney, co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, a partner organization. “They worked hard, they owned their homes, and many had insurance. Fifty percent of the population was retired. The median household income was $30,000 before the storm, and the crime rate was low.”
Later in the same day, the Executive Committee celebrated hope and recovery at a house dedication in Lucedale, Miss. Brethren volunteers, in cooperation with numerous ecumenical volunteers, completed a house for Mrs. Gloria Bradley, who had survived not only the loss of a house but also two heart attacks and as many strokes.
On the final day of the trip, participants traveled to Florida to visit with staff from Rebuild Northwest Florida, the longterm recovery committee in the Pensacola area.
“The destruction is just so widespread,” said Dale Minnich, who volunteered with the response project in Chalmette for a few days prior to the Executive Committee’s visit. “It makes me think about how this compares to something like the devastation after World War II in Europe, where so much response was required. It seems like to reclaim this area, a huge response is required.”
Harvey, who pastors Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va., reflected on the situation in the Gulf Coast at an Ash Wednesday service. He commented that the experience raised issues about the nature of our Christian discipleship. “We must be disciples who use their talents to help rebuild homes, lives, communities, not just in New Orleans, but everywhere. We must make disciples who will do the same. The central issue, we must use our voice and position and circumstances to advocate for those who cannot.”
–Becky Ullom is director of Identity and Relations for the Church of the Brethren General Board.