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Baton Rouge, Houston swell with displaced people

UUA president expresses outrage at government’s hurricane response; donations to UUA-UUSC fund reach $386,000.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Rev. William G. Sinkford

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, expressed outrage at the government's response to Hurricane Katrina in a pastoral letter released September 7. (Photo by Nancy Pierce) (Nancy Pierce)

The eye of Hurricane Katrina passed near New Orleans two weeks ago, but the eye of the storm of relief efforts has become centered in two places—Houston, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Unitarian Universalist congregations there are committing themselves body and soul to helping thousands of New Orleans’s displaced people.

“The city of Baton Rouge has doubled in size,” said Diana Dorrah, program director at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. “Our members are volunteering at shelters as many hours as they can.”

“Most of our members have family or friends in New Orleans and they have taken them into their homes for an indefinite period,” she added. “We had 400 people in church on Sunday, many of them from News Orleans, or relief workers who came to help out.”

Baton Rouge streets are clogged with traffic, and there are long lines at the drug and grocery stores. “We are really being stretched as a community and there’s a lot of anxiety,” Dorrah said. “We’re all trying to take deep breaths and be patient and loving and focused.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and other UU ministers decried the government’s response to Katrina’s destruction that left New Orleans’s poor suffering in its wake.

“I am so angry,” Sinkford said in a pastoral letter posted Wednesday on the UUA’s Web site. He called for “a commitment to compassion” and “a commitment to make fundamental changes”:

Tens of thousands of American citizens, almost all of them poor and black, living in unimaginable conditions with no food and water, waited for days while evacuation buses passed them by to pick up tourists at luxury hotels . . . .

New Orleans was too “dangerous” for the small number of National Guard troops available to enter the city. How much of that perceived “danger” had to do with the color of the citizens’ skins? Why were food and water not brought in by helicopter? Did relief have to wait five days? How long would it have taken the people in the Superdome and the Convention Center to receive assistance if they had been middle-class white Americans? . . . . Racism and classism mean that the concerns, even the very lives of people of color and poor people, remain invisible.

The flow of Unitarian Universalist generosity to help disaster victims continues strong. Online donations to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund jointly sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had topped $386,000 by Wednesday morning.

UU congregations around the country were taking up special collections, gathering backpacks for children suddenly attending unfamiliar schools, and finding other ways to be supportive. The children in religious education at Baton Rouge put their faith into action Sunday by making 500 peanut butter sandwiches.

“One of the sweetest things has been all the calls we’ve gotten from UUs across the country wanting to help,” said the Rev. Mark Edmiston-Lange, cominister with his wife the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Edmiston-Lange, of Emerson Unitarian Church in Houston, and a coordinator of the relief effort. “A congregation in Ohio is sending us a load of T-shirts. It’s just been wonderful.”

Many members of the eight Houston-area UU congregations have been engaged since the first hurricane evacuees began arriving last week. The congregations are part of an interfaith network that has committed to feeding 23,000 people three times a day for two months. That requires 720 volunteers a day, Edmiston-Lange said.

Patricia Withers, director of religious education at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, described scenes around the city of displaced people “on the phone talking to relatives or friends, or trying to get hold of insurance agents, or swapping evacuation stories. Kids are clutching onto toys for dear life. It’s heart-wrenching.”

At its Sunday service, friends and members of the 390-member Emerson congregation contributed $10,000 to help with relief efforts. “That was very heartening,” said Edmiston-Lange. “But it’s not surprising. The scenes from New Orleans have been so utterly graphic.” He said a number of UUs from New Orleans attended the service and they seemed “pretty much shell-shocked.” The church has been designated as the site where New Orleans residents go for free counseling.

The Houston faith community has been issued a challenge, said the Rev. Jose Ballester, minister of the 504-member First Unitarian Universalist Church.

“Are we up to this?” he asked. “We are going to be living our values and we are definitely up to this. When the first refugees began arriving Thursday morning people started calling us asking what they could do.”

“All of the shelters here are full,” Ballester said. “And a lot of the churches. We’re going to be opening our homes as local housing for some refugees and for volunteers who come from outside the area to help. And some of our people will be working in other shelters, as well. It’s going to be an incredible amount of work. We are preparing to do this for months.”

There will be grief counseling teams, Ballester said, and retired teachers are being sought to help children. The UU congregations have also made it known that they will serve the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community of New Orleans.

The Rev. Marta Valentin, the newly settled minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, remains in Texas, communicating with her congregation by phone and e-mail. She found her house on a satellite photo this week and confirmed that it is flooded. The church likely is too, but it was obscured by a cloud on the photo, she said.

“I’ve found about half my members,” she said. She was especially gratified to find the oldest member, a 92-year-old man who is hospitalized. “There’s not a lot that people can do yet for our church,” she said, but “I want to thank people for their many offers of help.”

The Rev. James VanderWeele, minister of Community Church Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans, which is believed to be heavily damaged, said his congregation was spread out across the country.

“So much of the future is absolutely unknown,” he wrote in an e-mail to a supporter. “My hope is to return to New Orleans, but I do not know when.”

VanderWeele, like Sinkford, expressed hope that positive social change might come out of the disaster, and the government’s relief paralysis.

“We hope Unitarian Universalists, from throughout our country, will address the need for governmental participation in addressing income disparities in this country,” he wrote, “especially to offer a variety of economic, medical, and educational opportunities to those who have been dispossessed, as the privileged take delight in rising corporate profits, and tax rebates. Something must change, actually many things must change. Can we, as citizens, demand a different approach, an attitude of assistance, a compassionate and caring institution of our government? Might it be possible for us to change the meaning of ‘Homeland Security’?”

Edmiston-Lange echoed the frustration—and anger. “I find myself waking up in the middle of the night,” he said. “I get up and walk around the house screaming quietly to myself. I wish I didn’t feel so much anger about things that could have been done by governments, but weren’t.”

People who want to support Unitarian Universalist relief efforts are asked to visit uua.org for information. The UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund will be used to support UU congregations and their ministries as well as the communities in which they are located. Before sending packages to Baton Rouge or Houston congregations, please check with them.

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