Memphis Churches Lead In Helping Flood Victims As floodwaters recede in Memphis, Tenn., hundreds of people are still living in shelters. What's unique about this effort to shelter, feed and clothe flood victims is that it's not being run by the Red Cross. The homeless are staying at faith-based shelters that are part of an initiative called Shelby Cares.
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Memphis Churches Lead In Helping Flood Victims

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Memphis Churches Lead In Helping Flood Victims

Memphis Churches Lead In Helping Flood Victims

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We're also monitoring flooding along the Mississippi River. Flood waters are moving down river, driving people from their homes in the Mississippi Delta area, which includes some of the poorest communities in this country.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has urged residents living near the river to leave their homes. The river is now approaching levels not seen since historic floods in the 1920s and '30s.


In Memphis, Tennessee, the crest has now passed and water levels are beginning to slowly recede. But hundreds of people are still living in shelters. The interfaith community of Memphis is leading the effort to provide shelters, taking over a role usually filled by the American Red Cross.

From Memphis, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Twenty-nine-year-old Marcello Gonzalez stands in the sprawling Hope Presbyterian Church just east of Memphis. This hallway is next to the gym that is Gonzalez's temporary new home. He says the last time he saw the mobile home he owned with his wife and two little boys, it was...

Mr. MARCELLO GONZALEZ: Covered. Full of water now. And I got my two kids and I had to bring them over here 'cause I have nowhere to go. We're here now and I want to say thank you to this church to help(ph)...

SCHAPER: They're helping you? They're...

Mr. GONZALEZ: Oh yeah, a lot. A lot. They give us some food, they have a shower, mobile showers in here.

SCHAPER: Gonzalez raves about how well his family is being treated at Hope Presbyterian, which is serving as the largest shelter for residents displaced by the floods here in Shelby County.

There are close to 180 people here sleeping on cots and inflatable mattresses. They're fed three meals a day and get help with transportation, health care and other services. Scott Milholland is with Hope Presbyterian Church.

Mr. SCOTT MILHOLLAND (Hope Presbyterian Church): You know, we're doing this because we believe that's just the church's responsibility, to step up and be the church, take care of people and serve people. It's in our DNA and it has been.

SCHAPER: But what's unique about this effort to shelter, feed and clothe flood victims here in Memphis is that it's not being run by the Red Cross, the organization that is usually the lead charity in providing shelter services in disasters, and has an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do just that.

The Red Cross is here in Memphis operating shelters as well as providing other disaster services. But when displaced residents check into Shelby County's single service center, they're assigned almost exclusively to one of the faith-based shelters that are part of the initiative called Shelby Cares.

Craig Strickland is senior pastor at Hope Presbyterian and coordinator of Shelby Cares.

Reverend CRAIG STRICKLAND (Senior Pastor, Hope Presbyterian): The interfaith community, not just Christian but Jewish as well, has looked up and said we want to take responsibility for the citizens of Memphis and we're willing to fund it. We believe that's what the faith-based community should be about.

SCHAPER: In between briefings at the Shelby County Emergency Management command center, Strickland recalls that the impetus for this initiative was Hurricane Katrina nearly six years ago. He says there was an enormous outpouring from the faith community in Memphis to help out during that crisis.

Rev. STRICKLAND: A light bulb went off. Something changed. I don't know what. I think the church realized that they had abdicated part of their responsibility in society and they wanted it back. And so they began helping in Katrina. The problem was finding a strategic way to do that.

SCHAPER: Strickland says clergy started working with county officials well over a year ago to begin developing the strategic framework for this local faith-based disaster response. This is its first major test.

Just a few weeks ago, before the flooding, the director the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives was in Memphis to take stock of Shelby Cares. And Strickland thinks it could be a national model.

So what does the American Red Cross, which often leads churches into responding to disasters, think about this?

Ms. LAURA HOWE (Spokeswoman, American Red Cross): It is, you know, a little bit different in that the churches are taking, you know, a more independent role in the community, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

SCHAPER: Red Cross spokeswoman Laura Howe.

Ms. HOWE: It's interesting, and I think it's refreshing in some respects to see the faith-based community coming together and taking the lead on their own, and you know, there may be some things they can teach us too.

SCHAPER: The bottom line, says Howe, is that people are being taken care of at a time when the need is great.

David Schaper, NPR News, Memphis.

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