An African-American pastor who brought aid to a Red Cross shelter in Atlanta says he was rejected because, unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, his church didn’t have exclusive rights to serve food.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Pastor Timothy McDonald arrived at a Red Cross shelter to serve baked chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese to hurricane evacuees.
A Red Cross volunteer told him they could not accept his food.
Shocked and disappointed, McDonald approached a man who was serving food and asked him what group he was with.
“I’m with God,” the man said.
“So am I,” McDonald replied. “What organization are you with?”
“We’re with the Southern Baptists,” the man said, explaining that the Southern Baptist Convention has a partnership with the American Red Cross. McDonald’s First Iconium Baptist Church, a modest African-American church in east Atlanta, does not.
“That’s the reason they didn’t want my chicken,” McDonald, chair of African-American Ministers in Action, an advocacy group representing 5,000 clergy in 20 states, told a forum on race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
His story is one of several illustrating a rising concern about African-American churches expecting to have a big role in the relief effort but feeling shut out.
The Red Cross works with partners, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to provide its many services. The SBC, through its North American Mission Board, has been a disaster-relief partner with the Red Cross since 1987.
The Red Cross supplies and distributes the food, while the Southern Baptists set up and staff the kitchens and recruit their volunteers to cook it. The arrangement is prompting some to question whether Red Cross relief efforts have become too sectarian.
People For the American Way, of which Atlanta Pastor McDonald is a board member, questioned whether there exists a “religious test for relief.”
In a Sept. 23 roundtable discussion on National Public Radio, Iva Carruthers, general secretary for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, an international clergy and lay leadership organization, criticized the government for entrusting cleanup to groups that she said will benefit in the end at expense of poor victims.
“How do you justify the fact that Operation Blessing and the Southern Baptist Convention are subcontractors of the Red Cross, and where black churches came with resources–food resources, hot meals–they were denied access to the victims and they were given box lunches provided by Operation Blessing,” she said. “How do you justify that morally?”
In Houston, Second Baptist Church pastor and former SBC president Ed Young organized Operation Compassion to feed evacuees in the Astrodome. He pledged to raise $1 million from the church’s 42,000 members and offered his church’s facilities for training classes.
In exchange, according to one African-American Texas legislator, Young’s church was able to control, and to take much of the credit for, the relief effort.
“They essentially paid a million dollars to control the volunteer effort for relief for Hurricane Katrina, so that all volunteers would be routed through second Baptist,” Garnet Coleman, who has served in the Texas House of Representatives since 1991, said in a Podcast of Bruce Prescott’s Oct. 4 Religious Talk” radio program.
“I think it’s great what they did,” Coleman said. “The act itself is a good and kind act. The rationale behind the act, which is political control, is what disturbs me.”
He described the church’s attitude as: “I want to control what is going on here and put my people in charge and make sure all of these folks have to come through us. That is different than just providing relief. That is a real control mechanism.”
Coleman said Second Baptist does not have a reputation in Houston for working “in what some folks would call an interfaith sense or ecumenical sense. It’s always been about building their own church, as opposed to coming out and providing services.”
Volunteers from a number of religious backgrounds received training and were told, according to a United Methodist report, to avoid proselytizing and respect all religions.
The Southern Baptist Texan added that training included five to 10 minutes of “Scripture-based teaching,” and that Young told those gathered that a Southern Baptist minister would be praying in the name of Jesus. “In this church we will pray in our own way,” Young said, explaining why it is appropriate in a Christian church, while inviting others to approach God in line with their own beliefs.
While the Houston training sessions were open to people of all faiths, only Southern Baptists were allowed to join Southern Baptists of Texas disaster-relief units and wear their trademark yellow shirts.
In addition to securing names, telephone numbers and e-mails for thousands of volunteers, Coleman said, the effort also put the church “front and center in terms of appearing to be the only group that has offered assistance to individuals.”
“The faith community in Houston–all of it, the whole faith community–were offering assistance either in their houses of worship, through donations, the whole nine yards,” Coleman said. “Many of the congregations felt they were basically cut out of serving their own, and that became a bone of contention.”
Young also knew, Coleman charged, that relief money would be coming. “The $1 million was a down payment in an investment to get back five, 10, hundreds of millions of dollars by being front and center,” he said. “And then the other faith communities would be cut out, because they wouldn’t be in the loop that exists with the powers that be in government and with FEMA.
“So clearly they set themselves up to be prepared to receive part of the $250 billion that’s going to flow down. That was a conscious effort to get paid.”
After the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it would reimburse churches and other religious organizations that have provided shelter, supplies and food to survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, NAMB President Bob Reccord went on FOX News to declare that Southern Baptists weren’t in it for money.
In a Baptist Press story alluding to concerns raised by civil-liberties groups about violating the “so-called separation of church and state,” Reccord said he was glad the government was providing a level playing field for relief.
“No faith organization should be penalized in a reverse-discrimination situation for stepping in and helping what the government needs to have done,” Reccord said.
Asked if he expected reimbursement for the labor, Reccord said: “No, that’s not our focus. Our focus is volunteering. The only reimbursement we get is from the Red Cross for the food we serve.”
Reccord estimated the dollar-amount value of labor alone donated by Southern Baptists at $9 million, according to Baptist Press.
NAMB also offered an estimated 1.6 million evangelistic tracts to Baptist state conventions involved in disaster response.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.