Written by Daniel Hazard
Church's response is immediate, long-term recovery assured
UCC members and congregations are working to raise at least $3 million to collectively support the denomination's long-term "Hope Shall Bloom" hurricane recovery initiative.
"As this tragedy continues to unfold, we see the need for resources for long-term recovery," said Susan Sanders, the UCC's minister for the global sharing of resources. "Knowing the generosity of UCC members and friends, we are confident that we will meet our goal."
Many UCC entities responded immediately to the disaster, including the South Central Conference's Slumber Falls Retreat Center in New Braunfels, Texas, which housed evacuees from New Orleans, provided meals and offered spiritual support.
"I listened to the group who now calls Slumber Falls Camp their home," reported the Rev. Alan Coe, the UCC's national disaster ministries coordinator for the South Central Conference, on Sept. 4. "As I walked into the dining hall, they were having church. Giving thanks and praise to God for saving them from the floodwaters and hurricane, not complaining, but being living witnesses of the power and love of God."
UCC-related colleges quickly put together a plan to receive students from UCC-related Dillard University in New Orleans, by offering to take students for the semester and then rebating tuition costs back to Dillard, which suffered major flooding as well as fire damage to three buildings.
"God is still on the throne; help is on the way," said Marvelene Hughes, Dillard's president and a member of the UCC's Council for Higher Education. "Sooner than you can imagine, Dillard University will be back and better." UCC-related Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., which was completely destroyed and left submerged in five feet of water, announced on Sept. 9 that it will recover its ministry and help survivors.
"Back Bay Mission will live and serve again," said the Rev. Shari Prestemon, executive director. "The overwhelming response of the wider United Church of Christ to our plight has convinced us that we can do no other. God's presence has been evident everywhere and in all of you."
The UCC has nine churches in the New Orleans area. All suffered wind damage, but at least six churches — Bethel UCC, Beecher Memorial UCC, Central Congregational UCC, Good Shepherd UCC, First Trinity UCC and Little Farms UCC in River Ridge, La. — "endured significant structural and flooding damage," according to the Rev. Bill Royster, South Central's Interim Conference Minister.
Through contributions to Hope Shall Bloom, money has been wired to the South Central and Southeast Conferences so that financial help is available immediately as situations arise, Sanders said.
In Atlanta, at the request of the Rev. Andrew Young, UCC money has been used to provide food to evacuees through the Hosea Williams Feeding Program. In Houston, the newly formed Amistad Resettlement Project of the Community of Faith Church (UCC/Disciples of Christ) is working to resettle 50-100 families.
'Deep, faith-filled response'
As of Sept. 16, more than 1,100 online contributors had given nearly $175,000 to Hope Shall Bloom, with more than 10 percent coming from non-UCC givers. Several indicated that their hurricane-recovery gift was tied, at least in part, to inspiration they had received from the UCC's Stillspeaking Initiative.
"I did a search for this web site because of your commercials indicating all are welcome to your church," said a non-UCC contributor from Charlestown, R.I. "Thank you again."
Thirty-three donors gave more than $1,000 and more than 60 contributed above the $500 level.
"Not only has the number of gifts given online been impressive but so has the number of gifts of $1,000 or more," says the Rev. Craig Hoffman of the UCC's financial development ministry. "In addition, a very generous gift of stock has been received. I believe this sharing of significant resources reflects a deep and faith-filled response to help reduce the incredible suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina."
The Rev. George Graham, also with the UCC's financial development ministry, says that although "online giving has slowed down a bit [compared to the initial response], it's still significant. Increasingly, it has become the most instant way for UCC members to respond to disasters."
Meanwhile, Graham acknowledges, the bulk of UCC members' gifts will be received from more-conventional methods. Most members send checks through regular mail or give to churches that remit disaster-specific contributions to Conference offices which, in turn, pass them on to the UCC's disaster recovery ministry.
Global partners pitch in
Many of the UCC's international partner churches responded to Katrina with moving prayers and generous gifts.
"Please know your Japanese brothers and sisters in Christ are holding the hurricane victims, Global Ministries and your entire nation in our prayers," wrote the Rev. Nobuhisa Yamakita, moderator of the United Church of Christ in Japan.
The Church of South India, still recovering from tsunami devastation, expressed its prayerful support.
"It is with utmost grief and unspeakable shock that we in India read about the waves of Katrina that have left thousands of our dear American brothers and sisters either dead or devastated and rendered homeless," wrote general secretary Pauline Sathiamurthy. "May the good Lord give you the necessary guidance, resources and comfort at this time of extreme suffering that your great country is going through."
Germany's Evangelical Church in the Rhineland and the Evangelical Church of Westphalia contributed more than $67,000 to the UCC's hurricane recovery effort.
The Rhineland Church gave $30,000 to Gulf Coast relief, while the Westphalia Church said it would contribute 30,000 Euros (roughly $37,400 in U.S. dollars), according to Peter E. Makari, the UCC's executive for Middle East and Europe.
The Rev. Ron Stief, who leads the UCC's Washington, D.C., office, was in Dusseldorf where leaders of the Rhineland Church presented the check. Stief expressed the UCC's gratitude for their support and outlined the UCC's commitment to long-term recovery.
"It is important to recognize that our God is a God of justice, not just charity," Stief said. "As we help the victims, give thanks for offers of aid from now over 50 countries, and commit to the hard work of relocation in the coming months, we also have to ask how our government could have been so unprepared for a disaster that has been predicted for years."
A compilation of global responses can be found at globalministries.org/prayers-katrina.htm.
UCC: long-term presence
While perhaps some better-known relief agencies receive more-visible public attention for offering immediate relief, Sanders says the UCC specializes in long-term disaster recovery, often supporting rehabilitation efforts and organizing work camps long after the initial tragedy has faded from public concern.
For example, Sanders points out that UCC funds and volunteers are still active in the effort to rebuild homes and repair damaged communities impacted by Florida's three destructive hurricanes last year. That ongoing work is a good example, she says, of how the church continues to offer its care and support long after the general public's initial enthusiasm for disaster relief has waned.
"Action on the commitment to a long-term presence with people whose lives have been thrown into chaos by this disaster is well underway," Sanders said.