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Out of Deep Waters: Louisiana church provides radical hospitality to evacuees

By Matthew Davies
ENS 090705-3
9/7/2005
[Episcopal News Service]  Tirelessly reaching out to a community shattered by the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has temporarily relocated its offices to St. James Church in Baton Rouge, which is operating as a major distribution and sorting center and where staff and volunteers are working around the clock to meet the immediate needs of local evacuees.

"St. James is open 24 hours day and night so that evacuees can come here and take a shower," said Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana. "We are in the process of gathering food and essential items to take to our evacuation shelters. "

The priests in Baton Rouge, especially those who've been trained by the Red Cross, have been working 24 hour shifts as chaplains in the shelters. St. James is coordinating with all the downtown Episcopal churches in providing ministry to those shelters.

"The Episcopal Church is like a good family," Jenkins said, "and when a crisis comes a good family pulls together."

Immediate needs

Jenkins expressed his gratitude to the state of Texas and the Diocese of Texas who "have been wonderful in responding to our needs," adding that he especially wanted to recognize the generosity of the Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) which is providing an additional $50,000 to support the work of Episcopalians and assist the Diocese of Louisiana.

ERD president Robert Radtke arrived in Baton Rouge September 2 to help the diocese with its recovery plan for evacuees.

"We will help the diocese create a strategy so that they can reach out and minister to the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been dispersed throughout the state," Radtke said. "We will also be reaching out nationally as many churches throughout the country have opened up their doors as shelters for evacuees."

ERD has also partnered with the diocese to hire a disaster response coordinator for the area who will serve as an ERD and diocesan liaison and help local parishes respond to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina.

"A team from ERD was on the ground with us immediately, not just sending money but with expertise, leadership, compassion and presence," Jenkins said. "We here in Louisiana feel the Episcopal Church with us, through prayer and through the presence of ERD."

Assessing the damage

Speaking from the temporary diocesan offices, Jenkins explained that he and Radtke were able to fly over New Orleans September 4 to assess the situation and the state of Christ Church Cathedral. "The water is so deep in some places in New Orleans that you can see only the yellow roofs of the school buses," he said. "There were a number of fires around the city with no fire department to combat those blazes. There is a huge amount of polluted water in the city that has to be pumped out -- the city does not drain."

Although many Episcopal churches in New Orleans have been directly affected by the flooding, the Cathedral appears to have sustained little damage.

"We hope to be amongst the first back into the city," Jenkins said. "The issues of tropical disease and water-borne disease are an important part of our consideration, but I think we will be allowed back in before others and then the Episcopal Church and ERD can be there as a service for residents as they return to the city."

Different look, different feel

The Rev. A. J. Heine, a priest at St. James, which is the oldest Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, explained that the city has taken on a dramatically different look and feel, because of the number of people who have taken up residence there, but also through the grief that many of their parishioners share with the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"The situation here is fluid, it's changing so fast, as the needs change," he said, adding that the first thing the parish did was to open its doors to diocesan staff as they needed a place to set up headquarters. The church has since developed into a major reception, sorting and distribution center.

Heine described how St. James had begun to cluster with other downtown churches so that they could help one another rather than duplicate efforts. "We met to compare resources and compare what we had already started to do, and to see how we could support one another," he said.

St. James is receiving donations of bedding, pillows and clothing as the evacuees, most of whom left New Orleans to go to the Red Cross shelter, did not possess such items or the financial resources to buy them.

"We are collecting the basic life necessities -- something to sleep on other than just a concrete floor, a change of clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, razors, shaving cream, shampoo, soap, those sorts of items," Heine explained. "We are now set up to receive those items and then to sort those items so that they can be repackaged for individual refugees and put into a bag marked with a gender and a size so that the Red Cross can very easily distribute those to the evacuees."

The parish also has shower facilities and has teamed up with First Baptist Church which is housing mothers with newborn children. "We have parishioners who welcome the mothers, give them towels, clean undergarments, bars of soap, shampoo, and to try to give them some semblance of home and what has become the great luxury of a hot shower," Heine said.

St. James has also opened the doors of its day school and is supporting people who are housing refugee or relief workers by cooking them breakfast every morning.

"We are telling displaced families who are coming to us: don't worry, we will make room for you, we will share what we have and offer what we can, and we will make a place for you," Heine said. "Some of the most emotional times I have experienced is to see these parents break down when they realize that their children will be taken care of.

"It's a radical hospitality that we are called to and we are looking for ways to take the resources that we have, the people that we have to the needs that are out there and find ways to somehow ease some of this suffering and to show the light of Christ in the midst of it."

Some relief workers who are been housed downtown in Baton Rouge are sleeping on the floor in state office buildings. They are also visiting St. James in the morning for breakfast and showers before they load up their trucks and head out into the field.

Need for prayer

Not forgetting the need for prayer, the church also offers daily Eucharist and has set aside a part of its facility for clergy hospitality, "to give them a place to work, to give them a place to try to get their church back together," and to contact their parishioners.

"You just have to stand on the corner in Baton Rouge and see people driving around, and you know from the look in their eyes and the confusion, that they are not from here and they don't have any place to go," Heine said. "And it's incredible to see their relief and gratitude from just the smallest, smallest gestures of kindness or hospitality."

Eighty miles from the Louisiana coast, Baton Rouge has almost doubled in population since Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans August 30.

"Baton Rouge is now the largest city in Louisiana," Jenkins said. "It was a city with 500,000 people, now I am told there are 850,000 people here. So our infrastructure is stretched sorely thin."

Stephen Craft, rector of St. Philip's Church in New Orleans, evacuated the city on August 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. He explained that many of the clergy from New Orleans have relocated to Baton Rouge.

"We are doing our best to work with the bishop and the diocesan staff. We're learning our new role as clergy in the Diocese of Louisiana in the face of this disaster," he said. "This has been a spiritual awakening. This is a time when we as priests had better be practicing what we have been preaching in terms of the power of prayer, as the only way we're going to be sustained though this will be through the power of prayer."

St. Luke's Church, Baton Rouge, is providing a home and care for families of women who are in the women's hospital in Baton Rouge. "St. Luke's is also doing a wonderful job in getting medical supplies around the city," Jenkins said.

Meanwhile, seven miles away at St. Margaret's Church, Baton Rouge, a group of 26 volunteers from community churches near Little Rock, Arkansas, including a member of the Fire Department, were being housed and fed. They had selflessly spent two days helping to clear trees and debris from people's home.

"Even in the midst of desperation, we see perseverance, we see strength, and as Christians we realize that that which seems to be an end is, by God's grace, a new beginning," Jenkins said.