ELCA NEWS SERVICE
February 27, 2007
Louisiana Lutherans Voice Appreciation, Frustration Over Hurricane Response
KENNER, La. (ELCA) -- Pastors and lay members of congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in southern Louisiana met here Feb. 22 with the ELCA presiding bishop. In a public forum, they shared a mixture of joys and thanks, as well as concerns and frustrations about the church's overall response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina nearly 18 months earlier.
About 40 people met with the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, Chicago, at Christ the King Lutheran Church. They repeatedly emphasized that the recovery work in southern Louisiana -- particularly in the metropolitan New Orleans area -- is still ongoing and will likely continue for several years.
Hanson said he visited the area to listen and learn from pastors and others who have been dealing with the aftermath of the widespread disaster for months, while working to rebuild their ministries and congregations.
Hanson began the day with a tour of the New Orleans area -- including the devastated and abandoned Ninth Ward -- and briefly visited three congregation sites. Grace Lutheran Church, New Orleans, and Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Chalmette, La., suffered major flood damage and are undergoing repair work. Bethlehem Lutheran Church, New Orleans, suffered minor damage. All three congregations of the ELCA have been involved in helping to coordinate recovery work in their neighborhoods.
Lutherans gave some $26 million in financial contributions to relief and recovery work following the 2005 hurricane season. Through 2006 Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) expended nearly $17 million for hardship grants, spiritual and emotional care, volunteer coordination, and long-term recovery, rebuilding and case management. LDR recently announced it will spend $8.3 million for similar work in 2007. Much of its work is administered through locally based Lutheran social ministry organizations.
LDR also received more than $7 million through "Katrina Aid Today," a national case management consortium administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
LDR has reported nearly 20,000 volunteer "experiences" -- some people have volunteered more than once -- through 2006. Volunteers from throughout the church traveled to this area to muck out homes and businesses, and to rebuild damaged structures. More than 800 college students will volunteer their time during the spring break period to assist in various recovery projects in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Pastors, members ask for changes in disaster response policies, procedures
In a public forum, Hanson acknowledged the "huge challenges" the congregations in southern Louisiana have faced, and asked, "How can the church nourish you as centers of mission?"
"I hope you sense the phenomenal way that people continue to pray for you," said the presiding bishop. "In the midst of all the devastation, you stand as faithful witnesses to God."
Most of the ELCA pastors and members told Hanson of their appreciation for the recovery efforts by volunteers from throughout the wider church. Many also voiced specific concerns and frustrations about LDR policies, and in some cases, the response of the overall ELCA churchwide organization to the disaster. They asked Hanson to:
+ facilitate changes in how disaster funds may be used. They asked that LDR funds be made available directly to ELCA congregations, and in particular, they wanted to be able to use the funds to rebuild or repair church structures. Hanson responded: "We need to find a way for the donors' funds to go directly to congregations."
+ facilitate better local communication. Some pastors said they wanted better communication systems among them and social ministry organizations, synods, LDR and other groups in the ELCA churchwide organization. Others said they were frustrated by local news reports that seldom mentioned the efforts of thousands of Lutheran volunteers who have helped local families and congregations to rebuild and recover.
+ facilitate improved contact with local ELCA leaders by staff of the churchwide organization and social ministry organizations. Some clergy and lay leaders said churchwide staff had not met with them or asked for advice, expertise and assistance they could offer to groups involved in disaster response. In response, Hanson said, "Congregations should be seen as resources and not ignored."
+ facilitate improved staffing. Some pastors asked that additional staff be put in place that could relieve them of the burdens created by handling overwhelming offers for help and coordinating disaster response from their congregation sites. One person suggested that the ELCA maintain a pool of pastors to serve in an area where a significant disaster has occurred.
Others suggested that funds from the wider church be made available directly to help support pastors, and there were suggestions that LDR become a "first response" agency in disaster situations.
Hanson told the audience that before his visit here he met with LDR staff in Chicago, and they discussed a need for a "bigger table" to make possible a larger, more coordinated response to disasters by the ELCA churchwide organization. He pledged to work on system changes and emphasized that his overall goal is to strengthen LDR in its role as the church's primary public "face" in response to significant domestic disasters.
The presiding bishop said he will discuss concerns about LDR and the church's overall response at the March 1-6 meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops in Galveston, Texas. A written report, "Being the Church in a Post-Katrina World," from clergy in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., areas will be distributed to the conference, and some of the clergy will meet in person with the synod bishops, Hanson noted.
Prior to the public forum, Hanson met privately with several clergy to discuss their concerns and frustrations about the church's response to the disaster, and to hear their suggestions for change.
Pastors, lay members appreciated visit, said they were heard
After the forum, the Rev. Patrick Keen, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, said he was glad Hanson visited here to listen and to encourage local leaders in "our ministry of recovery." Keen said he hopes the concerns expressed will be addressed, so recovery won't take as long "because there will be a better coordination of the efforts and resources that are available through our church."
"One of the key messages we wanted the bishop to hear is that we are grateful to the people of God across the country that have supported us in our journey of recovery (and) that it has been the people of God that have been the source of hope and inspiration in light of the 'failed' institutions -- both the secular and sacred institutions," Keen said in an interview.
"Every house, every home, every life that we've touched has been a joy. It's been a witness of God's grace," he said.