Hurricane Reveals Rifts in African-American Churches

For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

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The response to Hurricane Katrina among black Americans was, as it was for others, instant and abundant. They gave money and goods. But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the hurricane also revealed divisions in the black church.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

As soon as the levees broke, Ronald Braxton started getting phone calls. Braxton is senior pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. Overnight, it seemed, the 2,000 members raised $20,000. In less than a week, they collected 45,000 pounds of goods and sent them south.

Reverend RONALD BRAXTON (Senior Pastor, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church): People came pouring into the church, saying, `What can we do? What can we be helpful?' Families have come in that rolled up their sleeves...

HAGERTY: ...and got to work. By the following weekend, an 18-wheeler was on its way to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They were so rushed to deliver that not even Cynthia Parnell, who is running disaster relief for Zion Chapel AME Church, knew that 15 tons of supplies were coming her way that Sunday morning.

Ms. CYNTHIA PARNELL (Zion Chapel AME Church): And when I got out of church, I noticed that I had three missed calls on my phone, checked them, and they said, `Well, we have a truck from Metropolitan AME Church in Washington that'll be here in five minutes.'

HAGERTY: Still in their Sunday best, the parishioners unloaded the boxes, and soon a line of 300 needy people was winding behind the truck. It's not that The Salvation Army was not in town, Parnell says, but people had to be processed to get their relief money.

Ms. PARNELL: And so while they're waiting for that appointment that may come a week from today or two weeks from today, we can help them by giving them the things that they need right now.

HAGERTY: The African-American church was there to stand in the gap, she says, and the black church is known for that. An analysis by The Chronicle of Philanthropy two years ago found that blacks give 25 percent more of their discretionary income than whites, and most of that money goes to the church. But even as they meet the crisis of the moment, many blacks are thinking about what this means for the future. Like others, Reverend Braxton felt that the government's response to Katrina would have been far different had the people they saw on TV been white. Braxton says there's a lesson in that.

Rev. BRAXTON: I hope that we never forget it. I hope that it keeps us angry, it keeps us on alert against those forces which dismantle people.

HAGERTY: The fury of Katrina revealed fissures within the African-American church about what its role should be. Should it work within the mainstream to help blacks reach middle class, or stand on the outside, decrying racial injustice? Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says in recent years, some black churches have lost their way. He says now is the time for the church to regain its prophetic anger.

Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (University of Pennsylvania): The church has to be mad at the stuff that makes God mad: the suffering of the poor, the injustice that they endure. And the black church has often sit on the sidelines, or at least those quarters of the black church that are obsessed with prosperity as the mark of its mission.

Reverend T.D. JAKES (Senior Pastor, Potter's House): It's not so much about anger today as it is about action.

HAGERTY: That's T.D. Jakes, the senior pastor of Potter's House, a megachurch of 30,000 mainly black evangelicals in Dallas. Jakes and his church have raised more than a million dollars. They sent truckloads of food and clothing. Jakes has warned President Bush that he must take poverty more seriously, but he says he does have a different sort of message from that of Dyson.

Rev. JAKES: My message is strongly one of unity. And right now, that's a hard job to do. And I think there's going to be a time, an appropriate time, that we need to thoroughly investigate what happened, but right now, our priority has to be the well-being of these people, and we have to put first things first.

HAGERTY: And when the emergency is over, one of the things that religious African-Americans will be thrashing out is: Who speaks for the black church, and what kind of message will it have? Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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