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Katrina Victims Seek Out Black Churches

A local black church quickly raises an average of $85 from each of its 70 members to feed hungry hurricane evacuees. Across town, a black church pastor takes 10 families into his home. Another black church turns its sanctuary into a warehouse packed with donated clothes, toiletries and hope.

Black churches nationwide have stepped up to provide aid to many of Hurricane Katrina's (search) victims, in response to the overwhelming number of black evacuees who are seeking their help, partly out of frustration with the bureaucracy of government agencies and other charities.

"They're trying to find familiar faces, familiar settings, when everything familiar has been wiped out," said Bishop Eddie L. Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (search) in Lithonia, one of the nation's largest black churches with more than 25,000 members.

Some black church leaders have publicly criticized the response of government agencies and local Red Cross (search) chapters. In Atlanta, church leaders have accused the Red Cross of failing to respond fast enough to the needs of evacuees and of being disconnected with grassroots efforts like those happening at black churches.

"Churches have resources, but they're not getting millions" of dollars, said the Rev. Darryl Winston, president of the Greater America Ministerial Association (search) and pastor of The Church of Greater Works (search) in southwest Atlanta. "With the Red Cross, the money is coming in, but nothing is coming out."

The Rev. William J. Shaw of Philadelphia, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., (search) said the hurricane "exposed a lack of caring to adequately respond to the most vulnerable."

During a forum Thursday at the annual meeting of Shaw's group in Atlanta, members were urged to prepare to make the black evacuees' needs heard in next year's congressional elections.

"Hurricane Katrina is just the latest example of the poor functioning of our government," said the Rev. Wendell Griffen, parlimentarian for the National Baptist Convention, USA.

It's not just frustrations with other relief organizations that have prompted evacuees to turn to black churches. For many, that is where they have always received help in tough times. Black churches are the bedrock of many communities in the South.

Black congregations have been providing social services since they were founded, with help ranging from food pantries to clothing closets, said Michael A. Battle, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (search) in Atlanta, which trains ministers for predominantly black churches.

"The black church has always had this network of person-to-person contacts. And most of the people affected were black church members and pastors themselves," he said.

More than 100 churches in the Atlanta area have come together to coordinate efforts to help hurricane victims not only locally, but those still in the Gulf Coast.

"We have an office on every corner," Long said, referring to all the black churches throughout the South. "People think, 'I don't know where a Red Cross office is, but I know where a church is."'

Many evacuees are sprinkled in cities throughout the region — including a countless number staying with friends and relatives instead of shelters and in need of immediate assistance without the burden of paperwork or multiple stops at various locations for processing by the Red Cross or government agencies. Government officials say they are responding as quickly as possible, but the devastation is unprecedented and they are struggling to meet people's needs.

Some Red Cross chapters admit they have been overwhelmed at times and didn't have grassroots contact with many faith-based organizations, but many say they are establishing those links as they work to help as many evacuees as possible.

Nationally, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (search) has offered all of its sanctuaries to operate as shelters for evacuees. The four largest black religious organizations — the National Baptist Convention USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention (search), the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (search) and the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. — have partnered with the NAACP to match victims with housing assistance.

At Green Pastures Christian Ministries (search) in Decatur, the pews and aisles are filled with donated clothes. The pulpit is stacked with toothpaste, toilet tissue, blankets and shoes.

"We've got to be what the people need, so we're gonna feed the hungry and clothe the naked," said the Rev. Collette Gunby, the church's pastor. "We don't have to depend on somebody else. We have power in the church."

Shaw said the message of hope must be part of the outreach to evacuees. Long agreed, adding that the church provides the foundation for rebuilding lives.

"What has been most encouraging is people coming through the churches and seeing the twinkle of hope coming back in their eyes," Long said. "They need someone to say, 'All is not lost. You are not alone. People are concerned. You have a place to lay your head — not on a cot, but on somebody's shoulder."'