National News

Black churches filled the void in New Orleans

By Hazel Trice Edney
and Zenitha Prince | Last updated: Apr 10, 2006 - 9:37:00 AM

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LAKE CHARLES, La. (NNPA) - The Hurricane Katrina disaster led to a record $826 million in donations to the Red Cross. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) brought together agencies to consolidate the federal response to disaster and emergencies. Yet, the Black church provided the most reliable service.

“The Black church was the first responder,” says Bishop C. Garnett Hennings, supervisor of 284 African Methodist Episcopal churches, 31 of which were damaged, who lost his home and now resides in Jackson, Miss. “And the people were prepared to come to the church who knew nothing about FEMA, who knew nothing about the Red Cross, who certainly didn’t trust the federal government.”

He added, “A couple of our major churches were open before the hurricane struck because there was a warning that it actually happened and we knew the need was going to be there. Some churches had 200 to 300 people in their buildings. They didn’t get the recognition that the Astrodome got in Houston, but they were there.”

Black congregations nationwide supplied basic human needs, counseling and fought for justice, carrying out the mission that has been the Black church’s legacy.

“We’re needed. We are needed,” proclaims Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, in the A.M.E. Church. “Many times we think government can do everything. Government cannot do everything. We have a track record of being involved in our community. We have a track record of providing services. Our mandate has always been to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, cheer the fallen and the desperate.”

Rev. Charles Smith, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, agrees.

“We went right to work,” he said. “By noon, we had pulled together a committee of people and were ready to start feeding people,” he recalled.

“The day after the storm, we fed over 200 people here in the church and that continued really for three or four weeks. So, we went to work to make the adjustments that we had to make in our building in order to provide shelter as well.”

Elijah Ministries of New Orleans went looking for people to bless, says Yolanda Gibson, a Renaissance Village resident. Ministry members delivered 650 new coats to residents, with a promise of 1,000 more, as well as trash cans and RV tissue. Pastor Elijah Mealancon, head of Elijah Ministries, who ran youth programs and worshipped with 40-100 parishioners, only has five now. He helped thousands at Renaissance Village with national funding.

“The Lord gave us this. This is our love for people, even as we are victims ourselves,” says Pastor Mealancon. “I wasn’t focused on my problems. I believe the Bible says that the greatest among you, let him be a servant. I made myself available.”

“I’ve wired over $5,000 to people in need,” shared Deacon Allen Stephens, administrator of the St. Philip Apostle Catholic Church in New Orleans, which was destroyed, but managed to oversee 450 members from Philadelphia where he now lives with his family.

Pastor Hennings further observed that, “People are worshipping with a passion which is quite different than it might have been before Katrina.”

(This is the sixth of an eight-part series of stories about the Gulf Coast and the road to recovery after Hurricane Katrina. This project is a cooperative effort between the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Baltimore Afro.)