Churches and faith-based organizations are usually among the first and most generous to respond to communities and individuals who are in crisis. After storms, earthquakes and even tsunamis churches have responded by sending money, volunteers and supplies.
However, Hurricane Katrina has posed a disaster of a different magnitude. Individuals, families, churches, businesses and in some cases entire communities have been displaced. For thousands, there is no home or community to which they can return. While money, volunteers and supplies are needed, to respond to this disaster we need to employ both old and new models for disaster relief. And we need to be prepared to respond for the long haul. The season of recovery and rebuilding will continue for years.
No one individual or church can do everything, but every church or individual can do something. At First Baptist Church, Pensacola, we are receiving disaster relief funds to be channeled through our existing partnerships. Because we are near the storm-stricken area, we are organizing volunteer teams to enter Mississippi to distribute supplies and assist with clean-up. And we are partnering with the local chapter of the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, clothing and personal items for displaced families and individuals.
To activate members of our congregation, I am challenging each member to devote 10 hours to volunteering in a shelter or on a work team, donate a monetary gift equal to 10 hours wages and spend 10 hours in prayer during the next few weeks. We are calling this “The I-10 Challenge.” I have found that people respond better to a specific goal than to a general call to action.
Additionally, some of our members are adopting families for both long-term and short-term shelter. Yesterday I received a call from a South Carolina congregation who wants to adopt two to three displaced families, bring them to their South Carolina community and assist by providing housing, job placement and educational opportunities for the children. I am convinced that there are other congregations and individuals around the country who may be willing to adopt one or more displaced families and sponsor those families through a process of relocation and transition.
The massive destruction of Hurricane Katrina is causing all of us to think outside the box of typical disaster response ministry. My hope is that congregations and faith communities will engage in new relief initiatives, network in ecumenical and cross-community partnerships and prepare for a prolonged season of support and assistance.
Barry Howard is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.