Thursday, August 02, 2007

Faith Works 8-4-07
Jeff Gill

1 in 500 Americans – Really

Your kindly scribe was working on a look at the faith community response to Katrina, now two years ago, when a new emergency fell into our awareness up in Minnesota.

Outside of the American Red Cross chapter for the Twin Cities, whose offices were nearby and whose staff were first responders no matter their training, I’ve not found much (by Thursday night) on the churchly front, though I’m sure the Lutheran community was first with the most, either in terms of compassion or hot dish for grieving families.

So we’ll get back to that later, and meanwhile . . . Hurricane Katrina (and Rita, as Louisianans will remind anyone who is interested).

While there’s fair criticism to go towards the state officials, city leadership, FEMA and federal folk in general along with the Army Corps of Engineers, it should always be remembered that there were the estimated 30,000 people who were literally plucked from the jaws of death in the immediate wake of the storms, largely thanks to the US Coast Guard and many Armed Forces Reserve units. That, and 120 billion dollars (that’s a b, boys) spent by the US Gov’mint so far on relief, wreckage, and rebuilding of major infrastructre.

None of which tends to be the help and care and compassion everyday people need in the middle of a major disaster.
Anyone who knows anything about the United States of America since Alexis deTocqueville knew that church volunteers would be the backbone of the relief effort. Few of us could have anticipated the strength of that spine running down through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Estimates are all that exist for numbers around the volunteer tsunami into the Katrina/Rita area, but our cousins over at USA Today did some research, and came up with some amazing statistics. The total number of Americans who have spent a week or so down in the affected area doing recovery, repair, or reconstruction work AS VOLUNTEERS with faith-based groups approaches 600,000.

That’s a huge number, but put it this way: one in every 500 Americans has been to help with the aid effort. Not just wrote a check or worn a rubber bracelet, but went and mucked out refrigerators and crawl spaces, hammered studs, or balanced sheetrock on their heads.

180,000 Southern Baptists, 60,000 Methodists, 6,000 UCCers, 15,000 Nazarenes. Your friends, your neighbors, from all over the nation. Groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army have tried to do their part to organize the whole deal, but they’re largely organizing who shows up, not motivating the volunteers and getting them staged and sent. That, they’re doing on their own.

For Licking County, some 145,000 residents, that would mean to do our part would take 290 weeks of workers. With my own back of the envelope notes from churches and college Campus Crusade groups and Presbyterians going wild, I figure we can say we’ve done our part and a bit more, with at least 300 Licking Countians having crowbar calluses on their thumbs and sore backs from sleeping on church floors.

College groups are way out in front on this, as befits those with a bit more flex in their schedules, but week for week, our local students have been doing the rest of us proud. Add all the work together, and you have 50,000+ residences that have been worked on or improved these last two years.

The reality check is that two years ago, at the end of August, 70,000 homes were destroyed in Mississippi and 200,000 in the New Orleans area. Over two-thirds of the residents have returned, but even of those, 60,000 are still in FEMA trailers.

So the work goes on. Church groups in Newark, in Johnstown, in Granville, in Heath, "do not grow weary with well-doing,” but persevere for the faith once delivered by the saints, helping the last, the least, and the lost. “Send laborers for the harvest,” asked Jesus, to do the work of apostles, evangelists, caregivers, and carpenters.

Every giftedness can find a fulfillment in the mission fields of the Lord, and the tragedy of Katrina is matched by the majesty of hearts responding without hope of earthly gain.

And Minneapolis’ bridge reminds us that a disaster response, under one color cross or another, may be needed when we least expect it.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and a regular blood donor; tell your story of faith motivating mission to him at

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