Building Together on the Rock

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, Rev. Dwight Webster of Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans is among the tens of thousands of people who have not yet moved back to the city. More than 7 feet of water stood in his house for nearly three weeks after the hurricane. He commutes from Oakland, California, to pastor his church, which was damaged but reopened within a year.

Webster knows many other pastors who are struggling to get back into their homes and churches in areas devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita—neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and New Orleans East. “There are still parts of the city that look like a war zone,” he said, “like somebody just set off a bomb.”

While the total population of New Orleans has returned to nearly three-quarters of pre-Katrina levels, according to a report this January, Webster sees many churches where only 40 to 50 percent of active members have returned. “There were some churches that came back together and couldn’t make it,” Webster said, because they didn’t have enough members, or members didn’t have many financial resources to contribute.

In such an environment, Webster and other pastors are working together through Churches Supporting Churches (CSC), an organization that formed shortly after Katrina under the leadership of pastors in New Orleans, along with C.T. Vivian, a civil rights activist and contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr.

“There are some people who just have the idea that if you just get back in your house, everything will be all right,” said Webster, CSC national project director. “Getting us back in our houses, that’s only part of it.” So the multidenominational organization supports congregations in low- to middle-income areas of New Orleans through church partnerships, resources for pastors, and fund raising for affordable housing and other needs communities identify. CSC provides a way for people of faith around the United States to connect with existing leadership in New Orleans and to be involved in longer-term rebuilding.

CSC’s resources for pastors include trauma healing retreats. Some pastors have lost all income; others have experienced the death of colleagues who lacked access to the health care they needed, Webster said. CSC held a healing retreat in June 2006 for pastors and their spouses, many of whom had been traumatized by the hurricane. They held another, sponsored by Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, this June.

Another way Churches Supporting Churches helps clergy is through pastors’ institutes. Since late 2005, the organization has provided monthly day-and-a-half trainings in capacity-building, advocacy, and community development. Topics have included heart health advice from medical professionals and financial seminars. They also include opportunities for pastors to talk about their joys and pains, Webster said. CSC provides stipends to the 20 to 30 pastors who attend the institutes, many of whom have little or no salary.

In addition to helping New Orleans clergy heal, learn, and network with each other, CSC has also formed partnerships between 28 New Orleans churches and 120 congregations nationwide from a wide range of faith-based groups: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Every Church a Peace Church, the Mennonite Church USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and others.

CSC initially envisioned long-term partnerships matching each New Orleans church with up to 10 congregations from elsewhere in the U.S. Each partner congregation commits to communication and prayer between each church’s leadership and members, financial support for the New Orleans church, and visits between the congregations.

At first, CSC asked congregations to commit to three years. However, they found that in some cases a substantial recovery didn’t take three years; some partnerships have been successful enough that New Orleans churches have already released partners to connect with other churches with larger needs. CSC also found that some partnering churches had limited resources, so it facilitates less intensive connections as well. Some churches have sent a one-time gift to fund the pastors’ institutes. Another church provided a pastor’s stipend directly. These are all fine with Webster, who quoted a gospel song: “Any way you bless me, Lord, I’ll be satisfied.”

Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship in New York began its relationship with New Orleans Bible Fellowship in October 2007, and sent 14 members to Louisiana in April 2008. They attended Sunday worship at their sister congregation as well as joining them in serving a meal to about 100 homeless people. “It was a warm connection that we had right away,” said Rev. Sylvia Shirk Charles of Manhattan Mennonite. “They were about the same size as we are, a small city church. We felt like we had some things in common.”

Shirk Charles has often talked by phone with New Orleans Bible Fellowship’s pastor, Rev. Leonard Parker, about ministry. Once she was preparing to preach on the story from Matthew 7 about building one’s house on rock or sand. “I called him up and said, ‘How do you preach this text?’” she said. “He talked about how they try to prepare people for hurricane season.”

Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America is “actively working to pair our churches with churches in New Orleans,” said Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski, program coordinator. They have also found some churches can’t commit to the partnership but can do one project; for example, one congregation helped a New Orleans church rebuild its baptismal font during a short-term trip.

McLeese Polaski hopes that when she helps groups traveling to New Orleans connect with local community organizations and churches, she is helping visitors to see more than “the chamber-of-commerce version of what’s happening in New Orleans right now.” She also talks to people who have traveled to New Orleans and helps them fit the pieces of the larger issues together: “It may be equally difficult to find affordable housing” in their own home towns. “The cases that are really exciting are when people go to New Orleans and get sensitized to those issues,” she said. “Then when they go home they get involved in those issues where they are.”

IN FACT, MANY partnering churches have become more educated about policy issues through their relationship with a New Orleans church. University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, Pennsylvania, has been part of a cluster of seven churches supporting St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans for two years. UBBC, which is dually affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and the Church of the Brethren, has been a financial partner and sent youth to be part of disaster relief work; those youth worshipped with St. John Baptist last summer and expect to visit again this year. Rev. Bonnie Kline Smeltzer of UBBC met Rev. Donald Boutté, St. John’s pastor and CSC’s executive director in New Orleans, while he was in Philadelphia for a Katrina-related policy meeting. “He is a man of action and ideas,” she said, “a man of vision and compassion.”

As his church’s immediate disaster-relief needs wane, Boutté has encouraged the churches partnering with him to adopt another church—but to continue to work together. “I still have the partners; they don’t really want to dissolve the relationships because we are doing some advocacy nationally,” he said. It’s crucial for people in partner churches across the United States to educate their members of Congress on the situation in New Orleans, according to Boutté.

Among the different organizations working on the city’s recovery, CSC plays a key role in policy analysis: “The piece that we bring to the table is that we have the pulse of the people who are most impacted,” says Boutté. The group has relationships with congregations in heavily-damaged areas, churches whose members are among those too often “left out of the decision-making process.” CSC leaders work with PolicyLink, a research institute based in Oakland, California, to measure the effects of local and federal policies in the neighborhoods where their congregations are based.

One problem CSC and PolicyLink have identified is that recovery policies have neglected low-income renters. In response, CSC plans to develop what they call “deeply affordable” housing to rent and purchase. “A great deal of people in our congregations earn less than 50 percent of the area median income,” Boutté says. “We have a lot of restaurant workers, hotel workers, who make less than $20,000 but still need a place to live,” but existing workforce affordable housing requires making 60 to 80 percent of the area median income.

CSC has received foundation funding to develop a duplex model home. They plan to provide funding and consulting for churches to build homes for their members. The homes will be rented, with the revenue during the first three years going back to CSC to develop other properties. After the first three years, the church can collect rental income on the property, but has to lease it at deeply affordable rates for 15 years. Such housing could enable more low-income people to go home to New Orleans.

Webster hopes his house will be repaired and he can move back to New Orleans in a year, after his son finishes high school. For his family and others, it has been and will continue to be a long haul, especially with the recession cutting into funding for rebuilding efforts. “I can promise you that two years from now, there will be a significant percentage of people who can’t come home because they have nothing to come back to” in New Orleans, he said.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a Sojourners contributing writer.

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