The Common Good

Faith leaders to candidates: Stop neglecting Gulf Coast

Date: September 17, 2008

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A coalition of religious leaders are asking politicians in this election year to address what they say is a moral scandal: Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, much of the region is still far from recovery.

Several religious leaders -- representing a coalition of more than 100 -- held a teleconference Sept. 15 to urge passage of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (H.R. 4048). The Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign is a non-partisan group of community, faith, student, labor and human-rights organizations.

At the same time, faith leaders sent a letter to the major-party presidential nominees -- Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain -- and to members of Congress to urge their support of the recovery plan.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the bill seeks to establish the Gulf Coast Recovery Authority to implement and oversee a massive job-training and reconstruction project. Twenty additional representatives have since signed on as co-sponsors, including one Republican (Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander).

Proponents tout the measure as a means to provide job training-opportunities and increase employment while speeding recovery in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Damage caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike this season has compounded the problem, they said.

The recovery program would train displaced workers to rebuild destroyed infrastructure and restore the environment, they added.

“We are hoping this becomes nationwide to help repair infrastructure and public buildings in a way that is equitable to everyone,” noted Stephen Bradbury, national campaign coordinator for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, during the teleconference.

Patty Whitney, representing Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing in Thibodaux, La., emphasized that hurricanes destroyed more than oil production. The region’s agricultural base -- especially the cotton, sugar and fishing industries -- suffered significant devastation as well.

More than 200,000 people in Louisiana’s hard-hit parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne have been left out of most of the recovery decision-making process, she said. While faith groups have been “efficient” in pulling together to assist those who are hurting, the federal government “miscalculated the need,” Whitney said. “We need help finding ways to help those in need.”

Julie Kulinski, director of Women in Construction for the Moore Community House in Biloxi, Miss., noted the United Methodist ministry helps create a climate for women to pursue careers in construction. With training, they are able to find jobs to support their families.

She said the area needs 150,000 workers to rebuild its infrastructure. “We see this as a way to provide those workers and to provide jobs,” Kulinski said.

None of the presidential campaigns or major political parties is addressing the recovery problem, Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign participants said.

Frederick Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, said religious leaders “must lend our voices” to influence both presidential campaigns. He also said the public and media should “not be so obsessed with the Palin factor” -- referring to the media attention lavished on Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The Dallas church has served as a disaster-relief center for hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast as a result of Katrina and subsequent storms.

New Orleans and other Louisiana residents have been criticized for failure to leave their homes before hurricanes hit, Haynes said. Many rode out Katrina because they did not have the resources to leave, while others stayed put during hurricanes Gustav and Ike because they had no place to go. Communication must be improved before a hurricane hits, and those who need help must be assisted, he said.

“This crisis situation has gone on too long without local input,” declared Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK, a Catholic social-justice lobby. “We call on Congress and the administration to enact this comprehensive, sane program … and to use it as a model.”

Christian leaders who have endorsed the recovery campaign include Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; Michael Kinnamon, president of the National Council of Churches; David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World; and Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners.

Besides Haynes, Baptist leaders who have publicly thrown their support behind the campaign include sociologist and author Tony Campolo; Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and worship pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La.; Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly Marshall; LeDayne McLeese Polaski, program coordinator for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America; and Fuller Theological Seminary ethicist Glen Stassen.