Roundtable: Religion's Response to Katrina

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Ed Gordon and his guests discuss the responses and responsibilities of African American clergy to the immediate crisis in the Gulf Coast and the ongoing crisis of poverty. Guests: Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice; Rev. O'Neal Dozier, founder and pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center of Pompano Beach; and Iva Carruthers, general secretary for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, an international clergy and lay leadership organization.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's special Roundtable, the response and responsibilities of African-American clergy to the immediate crisis in the Gulf, and the ongoing crisis of poverty. Joining me in our Washington, DC, headquarters is Reverend Graylan Scott Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, which has been coordinating national ministerial outreach to storm victims. The group has also been highly critical of the president. In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, we have the Reverend O'Neal Dozier, founder and pastor of The Worldwide Christian Center of Pompano Beach. Over the past few weeks, Reverend Dozier has attended meetings with President Bush and African-American clergy in response to the crisis in the Gulf region. Also with us from Atlanta is Iva Carruthers, the general secretary for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an interdenominational clergy and lay leadership organization.

I thank you all for joining us. Greatly appreciate it. Reverend Dozier, let me start with you and talk to you about the meetings that you have had with President Bush. I understand that you've been meeting with him in terms of the aftermath. Talk to us about those meetings and whether or not you're optimistic about what you've heard so far.

Reverend O'NEAL DOZIER (Founder and Pastor, Worldwide Christian Center): Well, thus far, Ed, we have had several meetings with the White House. We have had three conference calls with the White House, and we have talked pretty much about the relief effort there for the victims of the hurricane. We have talked about collecting funds from our various churches. The president's heart really seems to be in this, Ed. He really wants to help the victims.

GORDON: I'm curious how you've responded to the criticism, frankly, that this president has received by many in terms of the suggestion that he was slow to move and slow to act.

Rev. DOZIER: The slow response on the part of the federal government had absolutely nothing to do with race. This president has certainly demonstrated his love and affection for black people. This president has given more monies to Africa than any previous president ever.

GORDON: All right. We understand that, Reverend Dozier, and I don't mean...

Rev. DOZIER: Yes.

GORDON: cut you there, but what--you know, one of the things I want to make sure that we remain focused on is the attention today, at least. And you and I have had conversations about this on this program about the president's want to reach out to African-Americans. But I want to keep us focused on Katrina, the aftermath and the like today. So let me see if I can do this, and I'll come back to your point in just a moment.

Reverend Hagler, one of the things that is interesting is the want for many to talk about what the black church must do in all of this, not only in conjunction with working with the government, but reaching out to the community and questioning whether or not we have seen the black church be more, perhaps, reactionary than pro-action. What would you say to people who suggest that?

Reverend GRAYLAN SCOTT HAGLER (President, Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice): Well, to a great degree, I would say that, you know, when we talk particularly around these disasters--I mean, one is--it's true we're seeing a great, great, great outpouring of support, of relief, from the churches of color, particularly black churches. More money is being raised and all the offerings that are going into the area. But one thing that is clear is that there's tremendous criticism. There's tremendous criticism in terms of the kinds of relief organizations that's supposed to be on the ground, of whether it's really, truly getting--and affecting the people who are in greatest need.

In fact, the churches that we have out there that have taken people in do not see that kind of support coming from organizations like FEMA. There's been a lot of criticism even of what the Red Cross has been doing. And, in fact, you know, we have been working to try to resource those churches. We cannot let this administration or any government official off the hook in terms of their inaction or slow action in the aftermath of Katrina. And preachers need to be prophetic. Preachers, instead of just getting into bed with politicians, need to lift up their voices and be critical on behalf of the people and on behalf of that which is just and right.

GORDON: And what about the question of the black church being reactionary than proactive? Even prior to Katrina, we start to debate that often.

Rev. HAGLER: Oh, I mean, I think that there is a very reactionary quality in terms of the church in general, in that we tend to respond to issues rather than to frame a lot of the issues that we should be concerned about and dealing with. I mean, if you look at it, where has the organizing agenda been around the uplift and the empowerment of communities of color, particularly black communities, in the last 10, 15 years? We went to sleep on the--we went to sleep with Clinton, and we're still asleep. And, in a sense, right now we're being co-opted by the kinds of dollars that are flowing into churches from the federal government, and therefore, we are basically kissing Pharaoh's behind, if I can put it that way.

GORDON: Dr. Carruthers, let me turn my attention to you. There will be those who will suggest, and rightfully so, there are many, many churches on a local level that have been dealing with poverty, opened arms and opened doors. But on a national level, do you believe that there is a need for an alliance of churches, non-denominational, perhaps, to deal with this issue on a national front?

Dr. IVA CARRUTHERS (General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference): There is no doubt about it. And the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference is such an organization that represents interdenominational clergy, lay leadership, with a focus to do exactly what Pastor Hagler has suggested, which is to build the capacity of the black church to remain and sustain its prophetic voice. It's real clear that this is an issue that also involves--and this is why your conversation is so important--the fact that the media has also been one of the major barriers to the capacity of the black church to tell its story. And I would just like to say that, you know, we cannot measure a president's heart by his words, but rather by what he does.

And so if you just look at the proactive stance of the White House relative to this crisis, they have been very proactive in terms of establishing the kinds of operations that allow for those who are the wealthiest to continue to benefit from this crisis. I mean, we just need to follow the money in terms of who's getting the no-bid contracts, the suspension--using the authority to suspend minimum-wage protection and affirmative action policies that would allow for minority business participation. That's very, very indicative of where someone's heart is. Your heart is where your treasures are.

GORDON: Reverend Dozier, let me bring you in...

Rev. DOZIER: Well, let me just speak...


Rev. DOZIER: If I can, Ed, I want to speak to that. You know, it is unbeknownst by the people here, people of color, that this particular president has already given over $22 billion to Africa during his first four and one-half years in office. And then he turned around and he gave over 15 billion more dollars to Africa for relief funds there. This president has also given more monies to social service programs in this country than any other previous president ever. Now I believe that his mouth is where his actions are. And if you were to follow the money, truly follow the money, and not listen to the rhetoric, you will see that this president's heart is good and that he has--the thing that he has in mind is black people.


GORDON: All right. All right. Let me do this. Let me again save this debate for another day, because I think there are some other pressing issues and matters that we need to get to as relates to what we should be doing for ourselves. Reverend Hagler, let me get us back to the idea of what we need to do for ourselves. So often, the church has been the mainstay when other entities failed us, if you will. Are we, do you believe, ready to take on the mantle of perhaps, as you suggested, being able to shore up our community with church activity and responsibility based on the ineptness or inability of other organizations to need for us?

Rev. HAGLER: Well, I think that we do have the capacity to minister and be good shepherds for our community, to help build it up. I think that there's a lot of confusion, I need to put, on behalf of the black church, and that confusion is around politics. That confusion is around the kinds of monies we receive, the need to survive budgetarily. And therefore we make choices. We make choices that do not necessarily benefit the community.

Also, we got a great problem with what I call this prosperity theology out there, this prosperity theology that talks about this pie-in-the-sky wealth rather than lifting up those on the bottom, because when you read the gospel of Jesus Christ--and hopefully that's what we're all preaching in the Christian church is the gospel of Jesus Christ--it talks about attending to the poor. It talks about empowerment of the poor. It talks about lifting up the least of these, rather than talking about how we gain trinkets and Mercedes and diamond rings and all those kinds of things. It talks about the quality and nature of the community. Because once you begin to ignore the least of these, you have lost the integrity of your community and you've lost your ability to do ministry.

And that's really the crisis that we're in right now, and a kind of theological debate needs to take place in this country among the churches so that we can define who we are in order to get on with business.

GORDON: Dr. Carruthers, do you believe that, as the media likes to suggest, that all of a sudden poverty was discovered after Katrina blew the cover off of it, as they ineptly put it, I think? Poverty has always been there; they've just chosen not to take a look at it. What of the idea of a wake-up call to black churches to say that while individual churches may be manning their neighborhood, their individual parishioners who may have fallen on hard times, etc., we should take a bigger role in making sure that we not only bring to light--keep the light on poverty that has been discovered by most of America, but also step up the effort to lift people out of this condition?

Dr. CARRUTHERS: I would agree, and I would also suggest that, in addition to what Dr. Hagler has already said, it is also important for us to see that we cannot not hold accountable the federal government in this process. We are taxpaying citizens and, therefore, there are rights and responsibilities to which we have not been given, particularly in terms of this disaster. And so it is important that the black church also not just take on the responsibility and the burden of all of this, but hold those accountable who really have the power and authority to make the difference.

GORDON: Reverend Dozier, what of the idea of focusing on not only what Ms. Carruthers suggested there, but one of the issues that remains first and foremost, and that is the identification of what churches are doing today by means of priority?

Rev. DOZIER: The priority of the church, Ed, is this: The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ has given the church a mandate to take care of the poor and the needy, and the church must first and foremost do that. The church must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty ones, give shelter to the homeless. The church must clothe the naked and care for the sick, and also visit those that are in prison. Now, Ed, we thank God for the federal government. We thank God for the Red Cross, Salvation--and all of the other organizations that are out there helping. But the church must lead the charge. This is where this discussion can generate the interest in the church to get the church out there to doing exactly that.

GORDON: Go ahead.

Rev. HAGLER: The important thing is, as was expressed, yes, the church is to care for the poor, but that's not enough because, really, when we examine the gospel, there is a prophetic tradition that causes us to preach and to organize and to push towards justice. As it says in Micah, we know what is good: `Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.' And therefore, we have to push, also, the governmental authorities to do what they're supposed to do to apply the law equally, to view people equally, to basically lift up all communities and not to be discriminatory, as we've seen after Katrina that there has been--or at least there is the perception, and I believe perception is reality, of a discriminatory...

Rev. DOZIER: Perception is only what it has been.

Rev. HAGLER: ...practice by this government. And the fact is...

Rev. DOZIER: Perception only. Perception only. This government...

Rev. HAGLER: ...what we need to realize--perception is reality, Reverend. The reali--the other thing is, is that we end up--and no one wants to talk about this--that we had so many resources in Iraq that we could not mobilize for...

Rev. DOZIER: But you can go through life with this perception.

Rev. HAGLER: ...the Gulf states and, therefore, the incompetence of this administration has further jeopardized the people of this nation.

Rev. DOZIER: So--and...

GORDON: Let me see if I can suggest this, and, again, I'm going to try my best to keep us away from the political argument. But I understand it's hard to separate the two, particularly based on what we have seen. But I think it's important for us to make sure that people walk away with an understanding, and, Ms. Carruthers, let me go to you and suggest that what we are all saying, and I think we can all agree here, is the idea that we must rise the church to the level of understanding that it is important right now to have the shepherd side of the church and the activist side of the church work in concert, correct?

Dr. CARRUTHERS: Correct.

GORDON: What would you suggest to make sure that we keep that in the fore?

Dr. CARRUTHERS: Well, I think that that will happen, and it is happening. I think that we need to stay focused, though, on reporting what we know is from the field and the evidence. We still have small, rural communities who are isolated. FEMA's 800 number is not working. We have already done the kinds of things which are entrenching the cleanup in the hands of those who are going to benefit at the expense of those who have been most impacted. How do you justify morally the suspension of minimum-wage protection? How do you justify the suspension of business participation on the part of minority firms? How do you justify the fact that pastors, pastoral counselors, certified psychologists were denied access to the Katrina victims by the Red Cross? How do you justify the fact that Operation Blessing and the Southern Baptist Convention are subcontractors of the Red Cross? And where black churches came with resources--food resources, hot meals--they were denied access to the victims and they were given box lunches provided by Operation Bless--how do you justify that morally?

GORDON: And herein lies the issue of making sure, as we say, that we take care of those who are in need, but we also make sure that we keep our concerns in the fore, and not only keep the concerns in the fore, but get answers to those questions.

Dr. CARRUTHERS: Right. And that's the thing I think we need to stay focused on, is a call for us to tell the story.

GORDON: All right.

Dr. CARRUTHERS: And you can only tell the story if you have an independent commission established, not a farce of a commission that has already been voted upon by the House, a commission that is allegedly bipartisan but only Republicans have the right to subpoena.

GORDON: All right. That's...

Dr. CARRUTHERS: What kind of farce is that?

Rev. DOZIER: The thing that I don't understand, Ed...

GORDON: You...

Rev. DOZIER: I don't understand this, you know. This is a tragedy, and we see the blacks and the liberals and the Democrats trying to politicize this particular tragedy. It is an awful thing.

GORDON: Well, I...

Rev. DOZIER: All of us should be dealing with the victims, trying to get help for them and saying to all of ourselves, all of us have learned a lesson. We've learned some lessons.

GORDON: Well...

Rev. DOZIER: Don't politicize it.

GORDON: Well, let's...

Rev. DOZIER: You know, don't throw the blame here and there.

GORDON: Let me end on this note, Reverend: I think we all agree that we hope we all walk away with lessons learned from all of this, despite and in spite of the political side of the fence one may sit on. Reverend O'Neal Dozier, founder and pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center of Pompano Beach, Florida; Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference; and Reverend Graylan Scott Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, I thank you all for joining us. Appreciate it.

Rev. DOZIER: Thank you.

Rev. HAGLER: Thank you very much.

Dr. CARRUTHERS: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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