Churches Respond to Hurricane Katrina

NPR's Farai Chideya reports on the ways Christian congregations — even displaced ones — are serving the needs of victims of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

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ED GORDON, host:

Religious leaders from all over have taken a leadership role really from the beginning of this disaster. Yesterday, people throughout the Gulf Coast region gathered for worship in unfamiliar places, sometimes far from home. Beyond prayer, religious denominations have offered food, shelter and other basics to victims often faster than the government could. NPR's Farai Chideya reports that churches are also helping storm evacuees deal with the bureaucracy that accompanies long-term assistance.

(Soundbite of music)

Congregation: (Singing in Latin)

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

St. Agnes Catholic Church in Baton Rouge still offers a Sunday Mass in Latin. The parishioners include black and white families. Many of the women drape lace mantias(ph) on their heads.

(Soundbite of music)

Congregation: (Singing in Latin)

CHIDEYA: Donald Hydell(ph) is from New Orleans. He came to St. Agnes with a friend in Baton Rouge who's taken him in.

DONALD HYDELL: Well, I left New Orleans on Sunday morning the day before the storm. I just brought a weekend worth of clothes because I thought that we'd be back the next day. I didn't know this was going to be a devastation the way it is right now, you know?

CHIDEYA: Parish volunteer Allen Williams(ph) has attended St. Agnes for two years.

ALLEN WILLIAMS (Parish Volunteer): This particular parish has been raising funds for the victims and we are getting donations to buy shoes for children who may or who did leave the New Orleans area without everything that they needed--shoes, clothes, etc.

CHIDEYA: Williams suggested we drive down the road to Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. That congregation has fed, clothed and sheltered hundreds of evacuees.

Pastor CHARLES T. SMITH: I want to say to our friends from New Orleans, you have a church home here at Shiloh. Amen.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: At the 11:00 service, Pastor Charles T. Smith welcomed the many new parishioners from New Orleans. His wife Eula runs several ministries including the Katrina efforts.

Mrs. EULA SMITH: When I was flying down looking at the devastation for New Orleans--and I jumped up and I told my husband, I said, `Look, with all these people around, we're going to serve dinner today.' So I got over here at 9:30 and we began cooking. And at 1:00, we served 300 people, but I also got on the radio and I got on TV and I said that we'd be serving. And when the people came to eat, a lot of them didn't have anywhere to stay, and they were despondent and we said, `We're going to start a shelter,' and so it took a lot of work, but I got a committee together and I said, `OK. If we're going to do this, we've got to organize.'

CHIDEYA: What makes your church so able to do the things that you're doing on such a large scale?

Mrs. SMITH: Well, we are a community church, OK? We've been a community church. My husband believes in serving the community before this ever happened. We give out over $100,000 to the indigent of the community, and only 10 percent of what we give out will go to our members.

CHIDEYA: In addition to direct services, Eula Smith and the Shiloh parishioners have helped evacuees navigate the long, hot social service lines.

Mrs. SMITH: For instance, we knew that if they got in line at 3 AM in the morning, even though we had a curfew and it was just walking distance, we let them go or we carried them at that time because the line was a little shorter. We encouraged them not to go to the--in the midday because they might get sick or something like that. So that's how we--We carried them down.

CHIDEYA: Yula Smith's parents had 10 children, adopted four more and took in 10 foster children. Giving runs in her blood. Even so, she says, the demands and rewards of Katrina are special.

Mrs. SMITH: I've heard so many stories, warm stories, bad stories, happy stories, all kinds. So I'm glad to share it and I'm glad to share whatever resources that we have here with everybody.

Unidentified Child: Stop pushing.

CHIDEYA: For NPR News, I'm Farai Chideya in Baton Rouge.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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