Some religious groups that offer disaster relief hope their quick response to Hurricane Katrina–contrasted with failures by government–will build momentum for President Bush’s faith-based initiative.
Bob Reccord of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board testified Sept. 13 before a Senate subcommittee in support of the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, which he said would help religious organizations provide essential services to victims of disaster.
“Providing a tax break here, or lifting a cap there, is wise public policy when the net result helps people to help people,” Reccord said, according to Baptist Press. “Allowing millions of non-itemizers the opportunity to deduct their charitable gifts is the right thing to do. We applaud the bill’s provision allowing corporate deductions for charitable donations to be increased.”
Bishop T.D. Jakes, who gave the sermon at the Washington National Cathedral service on Bush’s day of prayer for hurricane victims, told the president that more money should be channeled directly to religious groups responding to the tragedy.
“I felt it was incumbent upon me to share with him that the faith-based community is working with 10 percent, or a tithe, of people’s income, while the government is working with 30 percent of everyone’s income,” Jakes, a best-selling author and pastor of The Potter’s House, a 30,000-member Dallas megachurch, told the Associated Press.
Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, said churches can deliver some types of aid better than government programs.
“In about four weeks, most people are going to start forgetting about this crisis,” Warren wrote in a Sept. 7 column. “Short-term charities and relief organizations will be gone. There’s only one thing that lasts forever and keeps standing in a community, and that’s the church. Long after all these others are gone, the church is still going to be there.”
Amid criticism of his handling of the Hurricane Katrina response, the president has highlighted relief efforts by the private sector.
“Our citizens have responded to this tragedy with action and prayer,” Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. “We ask God’s comfort for the men and women who have suffered so much. We pray that the missing find safe return, and those who were lost find holy rest. And we sought the strength of the Almighty for the difficult work that lies ahead.”
“In the life of our nation we have seen that wondrous things are possible when we act with God’s grace,” he continued.
In remarks Wednesday to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Bush said: “The American people have got a role to play in this effort. And since this storm, our nation’s armies of compassion have rallied and have come to the aid of people who are in desperate need of help. Our charities, and houses of worship, and idealistic men and women across this country have opened up their homes, their wallets, and their hearts–there’s been an amazing, amazing outpouring of help.”
Reccord told the SBC Executive Committee this week that 5,000 Southern Baptist volunteers are working in disaster regions and, if calculated, their labor would be worth more than $5.2 million. Through Sept. 18, Southern Baptists had served more than 3.5 million meals.
Reccord said religious groups moved faster in responding to Katrina and helped in ways the government cannot.
“Our people are doing what they do because of the spiritual heart that they have,” he said. “And so they carry that passion, that desire to help and meet all needs–physical, spiritual and emotional. And a lot of situations in government would be focused just on the physical.”
“This validates what President Bush has been saying all along,” said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “President Bush feels like ‘Let’s open up these funds to all comers.”’
Opponents, however, say it is a mistake to set policy based on Katrina response. Critics of the president’s faith-based initiative raise concerns about the separation of church and state and question whether Bush views the federal government as being primarily responsible for assistance in an emergency.
“Americans need to be careful about faith-based organizations as the solution to disaster relief and recovery” warned Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
“Some political ideologues are using faith-based initiatives as a way to undercut government responsibility,” Parham said. “Their mantras are ‘Government is bad’ and ‘Let faith groups do it.'”
Most of the charitable organizations identified early on a FEMA Web site as accepting donations for hurricane victims were faith-based, including Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing.
In Tulsa, Okla., FEMA turned to Catholic Charities to help with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 evacuees, with no experience of long-term relocation, even though a coalition of non-profit agencies including the Red Cross had had a disaster plan in place for years.
At the request of Gov. Brad Henry, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma opened Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center. Volunteers worked around the clock to prepare for an anticipated 3,000 evacuees to be held temporarily at the 360-acre encampment.
Nine days later, the governor said the camp would not be needed after all, because not as many victims poured into the state as anticipated.
“FEMA no longer wants to house evacuees in temporary shelters, but in long-term housing such as apartment complexes and some private homes,” Henry said in a Sept. 13 press conference.
In a letter to the Baptist Messenger, Henry applauded Oklahoma Baptists for their willingness to help: “While the conflicting signals from FEMA over the past two weeks regarding the use of Falls Creek were surely frustrating, your commitment and compassion did not waver.”
“Many faith-based groups do have a proven record of cooking hot meals and distributing second-hand clothes for short periods of time in disaster areas,” Parham said. “But faith-based organizations have little record of repairing broken levees, restoring electricity, reclaiming toxic environments and rebuilding public spaces. Those are the duties of a good government.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.