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Challenge grant to aid hurricane recovery

Shelter Rock's $500,000 matching grant could push the Gulf Coast Relief Fund over $3 million.
By Donald E. Skinner

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A Unitarian Universalist congregation with a major endowment is offering $500,000 as a challenge grant to spur continuing donations to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund jointly sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the UU Service Committee.

The grant was announced shortly after giving to the UUA-UUSC fund to aid hurricane recovery topped $2 million. As of Friday the fund had received $2,155,752; with the matching grant the total is $2,394,394. The Rev. Terry Sweetser, the UUA’s vice president for stewardship and development, said UUs had been giving at a record pace.

The challenge grant comes from the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., which in 1953 received a major bequest of petroleum royalty rights from a member, Caroline Veatch. The congregation will donate a dollar for every dollar in donations made after October 2, up to $500,000. If the challenge is met, that would put the fund over $3 million.

As the Hurricane Katrina tragedy unfolded in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast this late summer and fall, Unitarian Universalists were quick to respond with dollars and offers of help. But rebuilding is expected to take years, and offers to help began to slow in October, according to Jennifer Nichols-Payne, the Southwestern UU Conference’s lifespan religious education consultant, who has coordinated much of the UU relief effort.

“The big adrenaline rush is over,” she said. “Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty. There are still thousands of people who were displaced and have no place to stay. My big fear now is that people will forget. We need to remember that over the next few months these folks are still going to need a lot of help. There is still lots and lots to do.”

The UUA and UUSC have set up a panel to determine how the relief fund money will be spent, with two goals: addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and helping affected UU congregations.

Of the three UU congregations in the New Orleans area, North Shore UU Society lost its roof, Community Church UU was flooded to its eaves and cannot be saved, and First UU Church suffered extensive flooding. It has not been determined whether it can be repaired.

The relief fund panel has made grants of $25,000 to each of those three congregations, with the same amount going to Spindletop UU Church in Beaumont, Texas, which was damaged by Hurricane Rita, the second hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast this fall. Another $25,000 grant will be shared by three small UU congregations in damaged areas of Mississippi.

The Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Staff Group and chair of the relief fund panel, said further grants have to wait until community service groups it may wish to support in New Orleans become more organized.

“Though the Relief Panel is eager to get our money to the places where it is most needed,” she said, “this will be more complex than we’d imagined. The grassroots groups in New Orleans whom we might want to work with to rebuild their city are still trying to track down their people. Much of their initial energy was sapped by grief, trauma, and daily survival.

“Their challenges are enormous as they begin to think strategically about how to proceed. We will be there by their side for both immediate and long-term needs as New Orleans is rebuilt.”

Contributions to the UUA-UUSC relief fund came in faster than anyone expected, even faster than for the Asian tsunami relief last year, said Sweetser, head of the UUA stewardship and development office.

“This is a situation where we can not only see close at hand what needs to be done,” he said, “but we can see it’s possible for us to do something and make a difference. It’s the suffering that is motivating people to continue to give. We all want relief to come to these survivors.”

The Rev. Anne Heller, interim district executive of the UUA’s Southwestern Conference, into which many calls and emails offering help have come, said, “I am just in awe of the outpouring coming from UU congregations. I’ve been a UU forever and I can’t think of anything like that that’s ever happened before.”

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the UUA, and Charlie Clements, president of the UUSC, applauded the Shelter Rock grant. In a joint statement, they said, “This tragedy has tested us like no other, but it has also given us an opportunity to respond in a way that is truly transformative. The destruction left by the hurricanes is staggering, especially so in the most marginalized communities in the region. Together we can extend hope and healing to more of our brothers and sisters through a widening circle of care and compassion.”

Ronald Roel, president of the Shelter Rock congregation, said that a congregational meeting was called to consider the $500,000 challenge grant and that it passed nearly unanimously.

The Shelter Rock congregation receives a continuing flow of royalties from the petroleum rights gift. Through a program named for the donor, UU Veatch Program, the congregation annually makes grants totaling at least $6 million dollars to strengthen activities of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UU Service Committee, and other organizations working for social and economic justice, Roel said. The matching grant to the relief fund came directly from the congregation, rather than the Veatch Fund.

Roel said “a long and lively discussion” preceded the congregational vote. “This fell outside our normal grant-making process,” he said, “and we wanted to make sure we did not want to diminish the terrific work that the Veatch Program has done.”

The congregation, knowing that its money from petroleum revenues won’t last forever, is considering ways it might reduce its spending. “We’re working toward a long-range program of sustainability,” Roel said. “But we also felt we needed to honor our principles in this case.”

In addition to the grant to the hurricane relief fund Shelter Rock also donated $100,000 to flood relief in Transylvania. That is not a matching grant.

Contributions to the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund can be mailed to UUA, P.O. Box 843155, Boston, MA 02284-3155; checks should be made out to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund. Donors by check who wish to restrict their gifts to community relief efforts are asked to write “CRE” in the memo line. For online contributions, follow the direct link in the sidebar.

UUs and congregations who wish to volunteer labor this winter and beyond to the recovery effort of congregations in the Gulf area should contact the Southwestern Conference for current information and opportunities.

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