ELCA NEWS SERVICE
March 6, 2007
Bishops Learn of Successes, Possible Changes in Lutheran Disaster Response
GALVESTON, Texas (ELCA) -- The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), expressed thanks for the generosity of ELCA members who gave millions of dollars and volunteered their time to help residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast recover from the devastating 2005 hurricane season.
Hanson also expressed his appreciation to Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) for its "phenomenal capacity to be this church's public face to those who have experienced such tragic losses." The presiding bishop suggested some possible changes in LDR policies and operations for the future, the result of some lessons learned in responding to widespread disasters -- such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- and from his own fact-finding trip Feb. 22 to New Orleans.
Hanson made the comments in his March 2 report to the ELCA Conference of Bishops. The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the church, consisting of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary. It met here March 1-6.
LDR is a ministry of the ELCA and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Hanson noted the four foci of LDR are critical to its mission but are largely unknown throughout the church: distribution of hardship grants, spiritual and emotional care, volunteer coordination, and long-term recovery and case management. He also noted that already under way along the Gulf Coast is the second "What A Relief!" effort, an LDR-organized program that makes it possible for college students to volunteer their spring break time to help in the recovery. This year more than 800 students from throughout the United States plan to work in the Gulf Coast region. About 1,200 participated last year.
Hanson met last month with members and pastors serving congregations in Baton Rouge and in the New Orleans area who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. They told the presiding bishop they appreciated the financial gifts sent from throughout the ELCA and the volunteers who have helped them recover. They also asked Hanson to facilitate changes in LDR policy about how its funds may be used, and to improve overall disaster communication, including public relations and contact with local disaster response staff and social ministry organizations. They suggested improvements be made in staffing local disaster response in the wake of a significant disaster.
"Any system that has been put in place by any organization -- governmental, religious, local -- has been unable to respond to the magnitude of this storm in ways that one would hope," Hanson told the bishops. Every agency involved has learned some things that will help in responding to the next disaster, he said.
Hanson suggested at least two procedures he'd like to put in place to improve the church's overall disaster response:
+ There should be a churchwide "vehicle" for people to be able to give financial gifts directly to congregations in a disaster zone to help them rebuild and repair their buildings, and for overall financial support, he said. "The cry out of New Orleans especially has been, 'We wish our congregations could have been restored more quickly to being centers of worship and centers of healing for the community.' It is not only a response to suffering, but they see it in light of their evangelical witness," Hanson said.
+ There should be a larger "table" than LDR to coordinate an ELCA response to a significant disaster, Hanson said. "LDR can't bear that alone. It has to be a table that has capacity to deliver and make difficult decisions in the middle of a crisis," he said.
Hanson said he is "inviting a conversation" about improving disaster response. "We are committed to improving the system (and) improving our capacity to respond to congregations, especially as they seek to continue their ministries of Word and Sacrament," he told the bishops.
Synod bishops agree, offer 'profound' thanks
The Rev. Paul J. Blom, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Houston, told the conference that he agreed with Hanson's observations. Several ELCA synod bishops recently held a retreat in New Orleans, he said, and concluded that "it would be helpful for us to think about how we can provide funding for the renewing and rebuilding of congregational sites themselves ... because that's the place where people want to come back together for Word and Sacrament, but also for healing, renewal (and) community."
Blom said the synod is looking for "mission partner congregations," willing to give between $300 and $500 a month for three years to help "re-launch" some ELCA congregational ministries in the disaster area. His synod assembly this year is planning to collect donations to match a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans for disaster preparedness training, he added. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is a nonprofit financial services organization based in Minneapolis.
Blom also held up a check for $50,000, a gift for disaster recovery from a single donor made to the synod through Lutheran Social Services of the South, Austin, Texas. Blom paid tribute to synod pastors who continue to serve in hurricane disaster areas. Several attended the conference meeting March 3 and shared their stories with bishops at luncheon meetings. Blom asked his colleagues to consider inviting Louisiana pastors to synod assemblies so they could offer thanks and share their experiences.
About 30 bishops planned to go to New Orleans after their meeting here, to tour the area and meet with LDR staff, Blom said.
The Rev. Ronald B. Warren, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod, Atlanta, leads a synod that includes the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. He offered "profound thanks" to the conference, adding, "I have been so deeply moved." Because of financial contributions made directly to the synod, it was able to pay salaries and benefits for one year to affected ELCA professional leaders on the Gulf Coast. The ELCA Board of Pensions waived medical insurance premiums for area professional leaders for one year, Warren added.
Warren said it was "incomprehensible" to him that in the three Mississippi counties on the Gulf Coast, 62,000 single-dwelling homes were destroyed by Katrina. He said he was proud of LDR's efforts there and expressed thanks for the organization.
A crucial issue is property insurance costs on the Gulf Coast, Warren said. Premiums have increased significantly, affecting congregations' ability to pay for insurance, he said.
The Rev. Edward R. Benoway, bishop of the ELCA Florida-Bahamas Synod, Tampa, said many congregations in that synod have the same problem.
In April the ELCA Church Council is expected to receive a report and recommendations on insurance alternatives. A churchwide task force has been exploring the possibility of creating a "captive insurance" or risk-sharing program to offer property and casualty insurance coverage to congregations and synods of the ELCA.
Much work remains on the Gulf Coast, says LDR leader
"While many in the country already may have forgotten or want the nation to forget the tragedy and move on, some of us recognize that a great human tragedy is still unfolding," said Heather L. Feltman, LDR executive director, and director, ELCA Domestic Disaster Response, in a report to the conference.
"Many people -- men, women, children, the elderly and disabled, the poor, low-income and middle-income families -- have been emotionally, physically, psychologically and economically devastated. As this church, we must not be part of the society lulled into forgetfulness," she said.
Feltman cited LDR statistics from five Gulf Coast states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The statistics were compiled from the 2005 hurricane season through January 2007:
+ 22,918 volunteers from across the ELCA traveled to the Gulf Coast to assist in recovery work and stayed in Lutheran volunteer camp sites. Their work totaled nearly 1.1 million volunteer hours, equaling $17.3 million worth of in-kind service.
+ Through LDR 6,458 homes were gutted and repaired, and 850 homes have been rebuilt from ground up.
+ More than 8,000 families have received case-management services through LDR's network.
+ Nearly $17 million in LDR funds have been distributed to the Gulf Coast region. Another $8.3 million is budgeted for 2007 response.
In addition, ELCA hunger funds were used for program outreach in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, and case management funds through "Katrina Aid Today" will have served 11,400 households by later this year, Feltman said.
Feltman cited three continuing challenges: care for thousands of potentially "ravaged, displaced and traumatized children;" preparing for future disasters through LDR's 40 affiliated social ministry organizations; and balancing the needs of congregations -- supporting and helping them repair and rebuild church buildings while assisting them in carrying out disaster response ministry in the neighborhoods they serve.
More than $2 million has been made available through LDR since 2005 for local disaster preparedness training, she added.
"For the sake of facilitating change for effective preparedness, I look forward to being part of the process Bishop Mark Hanson has recommended and having you share suggestions for improving this church's response should such a catastrophic event take place again," Feltman said in concluding her report to the conference.
Audio of comments by Heather L. Feltman is at http://media.ELCA.org/audionews/070305a.mp3 on the ELCA Web site.
Audio of comments by the Rev. Paul J. Blom is at http://media.ELCA.org/audionews/070305b.mp3 and of comments by the Rev. Mark S. Hanson is at http://media.ELCA.org/audionews/070305c.mp3 on the ELCA Web site.
Information about Lutheran Disaster Response is at http://www.ldr.org on the Web.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958
ELCA News Blog: http://www.elca.org/news/blog