Clergy team in New Orleans hears concerns about shortage of African American volunteers

December 17, 2007

Dec. 14, 2007 – NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)

 

By John W. Coleman Jr.*

“Please come back, and bring your people with you. We need you here.”

 

With that plea, the Rev. Martha Orphe bid an emotional farewell to 34 clergy and three lay people from the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference.

 

The team had spent a week before Thanksgiving repairing flood-damaged homes and visiting New Orleans pastors, churches and communities.

 

To encourage their return, Orphe, director of the Louisiana Annual Conference Mission Zone, sent them away with invitations for their churches to form partnerships with New Orleans congregations. The team also left with a compelling awareness of its ability to meet the needs of African American churches in the “mission zone.”

 

Upon returning to the Northeast, the all African American “Mission Dream Team,” as the group called itself, committed to respond to the critical needs that members witnessed and to counter the acknowledged lack of African American volunteer participation in the recovery effort.

 

In almost every church and community they visited, they heard concerns about the absence of African American volunteers.

 

“We appreciate the many thousands of volunteers who have come to help,” said one mission zone pastor. “But we keep wondering, where are the black people? Why are there not more black people coming to help us?”

 

The Mission Dream Team spent two of the seven days clearing and gutting two flood-damaged homes. Members dressed in white hazmat suits and goggles to protect themselves from mold and debris.

 

One crew removed and discarded furnishings from a house, while another crew wielded hammers and crowbars to rip out the walls of another home. A third group conversed and prayed with visitors at a homeless shelter and residents in a nearby community.

 

Seven churches survive

The entire team visited with leaders of seven predominantly black United Methodist churches that had survived the storm. A dozen pastors and lay members told the team about their Katrina ordeals, described their current status and shared their plans for the future.

 

Three of the churches – Brooks-Shaw Temple, First Street-PW (Peck, Wesley) and the now interracial First Grace – are the result of mergers because of damaged and closed church buildings.

 

Cornerstone, Bethany and Hartzell churches are small congregations, but growing numbers of people now worship in their rebuilt sanctuaries.

 

The heavily damaged, mold-infested sanctuary of historic Mt. Zion Church is still unusable, but the congregation is using its renovated auxiliary building next door for worship and Sunday school. The building also houses a free health clinic two nights a week.

 

A devastated community

The visiting team toured a waning multicultural metropolis that was deluged by onrushing waters from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain during the August 2005 storm. Team members saw once-broken but now rebuilt floodwalls that most experts admit are still inadequate to prevent flooding from future Katrina-like storms.

 

They visited high- and middle-income communities with rebuilt and renovated homes, churches and businesses, as well as low-income neighborhoods with countless dilapidated houses and buildings, many owned by people who have not returned or cannot afford to rebuild.

 

They also saw tiny Federal Emergency Management Administration trailers that have become poor substitute dwellings for many and were recently reported to have dangerously high levels of formaldehyde.

 

They viewed multitudes of homeless residents living under highway bridges and in red, blue and green pup tents that populate a downtown park in front of City Hall, offering a mass protest against the lack of affordable housing.

 

They observed abandoned public housing projects that the city refuses to reopen – and reportedly plans to demolish; and they saw closed schools and hospitals, while learning that only six of the city’s 26 hospitals have reopened.

 

On the evening before their departure, Orphe took her guests through the desolate, long-neglected Lower Ninth Ward. They were stunned by the sight of empty houses and streets overgrown with weeds. Cement steps and foundations were the only remaining clues that houses had once stood on those sites. There were only scattered signs of rehabilitation.

 

Signs of hope

But in that same community, they also witnessed the promise of new life at Hartzell United Methodist Church, now part of a cooperative parish. Hartzell recently reopened for worship and will soon house social service agencies, a relocated United Methodist Committee on Relief recovery center and lodging for volunteers who come to rebuild homes.

 

“We learned how significant a source of help the churches have been here in people’s lives,” said the Rev. Otto Kent, pastor of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Severn, Md.

 

In a closing debriefing, the visiting clergy voiced their frustration and anger at the poverty and neglect they witnessed and the political exploitation and financial malfeasance by city leaders, as reported by residents. Such conditions deter evacuees from returning to a city in need of capable, principled leadership.

During the team’s visit, New Orleans held elections that resulted in the first white majority city council in 22 years, signaling, in part, a shift in the racial balance of the city.

 

But the clergy also expressed confidence in the people they had met and in the prospects for continued rehabilitation with the help of additional volunteers. They made it clear that their congregations will be part of those rebuilding efforts.

 

“Our presence here gives me hope and validity that I am a servant of God, and I am responsible for my neighbor,” said the Rev. Irene Pierce, pastor of Elijah United Methodist Church in Poolesville, Md. “We need to bring more African American people to join in this effort.”

 

The historic visit was organized by Sandy Ferguson, a Baltimore-Washington Conference staff executive, and by leaders of the conference committee on Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.

 

Ferguson presented checks totaling $10,000 for rebuilding efforts during the Bishop W.T. Handy Convocation, an annual learning event, at United Methodist-related Dillard University.

 

Future plans

Since their return home, many of the Baltimore-Washington clergy say they have talked with church members about their experiences and their desire to form mission partnerships. Several are planning to raise funds and recruit rebuilding teams.

 

The Rev. Eric King, pastor of New Life United Methodist Church in Baltimore, is helping to arrange a sister-school relationship between an elementary school near his church and one near a New Orleans mission zone church.

 

The visiting clergy members also plan to lobby the U.S. Senate to pass the stalled Gulf Coast Housing and Recovery Act (S.B. 1668). The bill to provide additional federal dollars to help the homeless in New Orleans has already passed the House of Representatives.

 

The team plans to report on the visit and ensuing mission efforts at the 2008 session of the annual conference, aided by a video about the journey produced by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

 

Orphe expects to use that same video to share her new partnership cultivation model with other conferences and encourage them to send clergy teams – especially African Americans – who will in turn involve their church members in the mission zone’s long-term recovery efforts.

 

“I’m looking for 30 or more partnerships to develop from this model,” Orphe said. “We need more volunteers not only to gut and rebuild homes and churches but also to help us rebuild our ministries of nurture, witness and outreach.”

 

“This is only the beginning for us,” said Ferguson, who has heard from other African American clergy who were unable to make the trip but still want to participate in partnerships. “We expect these partnerships to become long-term and to multiply as we continue to tell this story.”

 

*Coleman is the communications specialist for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. This story is adapted from an article in UM Connection, a newspaper for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.