Monday, January 23, 2017

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Rebuilding Religiously

M. Z. HemingwayMZweb

The last conversation Wisconsinite Kathryn Huener had with her father was about her interest in volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. An hour later, he suffered a fatal stroke. Shortly after his death in the fall of 2005, she joined with a cousin’s church group to drive to Louisiana and muck out houses. It was supposed to be a two-week trip, but she was still there in 2009, having spent over three years helping Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran Disaster Response manage recovery and rebuilding efforts.

In that time, Huener went from a novice volunteer to someone well-versed in the disaster-relief subculture. In her former life, she managed production of dryer sheets (“You have to be careful not to mix up your ‘April Fresh Rain’ with the ‘Mountain Spring Air!’” she quips). But the seven years she spent working in a chemical plant—and her EPA certification in hazardous materials—came in handy when she was tasked with examining the personal protective equipment volunteers were given before being sent out to work. When her work with LSS/LDR ended this past May, she knew she wanted to continue helping those afflicted by disaster.

They call it ‘getting bit by disaster bug.’ Knowing you can make a difference in nasty situations where people need to be helped—it can be stirring outhouses in 90 degree weather to keep them operating or slugging through a house with a foot of mud and someone’s personal belongings strewn everywhere—when you’re in there doing that, you know you’re making a difference, a bigger difference than scheduling production on dryer sheets.

Huener was one of more than 1.1 million volunteers who responded to Katrina relief and recovery efforts in the first two years following the hurricane, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. While most were short-termers who spent a couple of weeks or more in New Orleans, some, such as Huener, stayed on for longer stints.

The response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated a colossal failure of government at the local, state and federal levels. As the Washington Post put it two weeks after the storm hit, “The Steady Buildup to a City’s Chaos; Confusion Reigned at Every Level of Government.” And yet the aftermath of Katrina also showcased the nonprofit sector’s dramatic success in responding to the immediate and long-term needs of a populace ravaged by natural disaster.

“The failure of all levels of government in the Katrina response activated an unprecedented response by the [nonprofit community, which stepped in not only to support their own constituencies but to fill the void created by an incompetent government response,” writes former Federal Emergency Management Agency official George Haddow in the book Introduction to Emergency Management.

Among the nonprofit groups that rushed to the Gulf Coast to feed, clothe and house the victims, some of the most effective were Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist groups. “[R]eligious nonprofits are leading the charge,” a University of Pennsylvania team reported in “A Survey of Faith-Based Initiatives and Leadership in Post-Katrina New Orleans.”

So what made religious nonprofits so effective? Academics, local activists, and the faith-based volunteers credit motivation, decentralization, and flexibility.


Take, for example, the Episcopal Church. As soon as Katrina hit, and millions of victims fled their homes, Episcopal churches throughout the Gulf Coast got to work. The national Episcopal Relief and Development provided funds to the Dioceses of Alabama, Central Gulf Coast, East Tennessee, Western Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, West Texas, Louisiana and Western Kansas. It partnered with Episcopal Migration Ministries to help settle additional evacuees across the country and with Church World Service to provide medical kits. Food, water, and first-aid supplies were distributed at churches that operated as shelters and community hubs. Over 500,000 people were served in the first year.

As part of the larger Episcopal effort, a group of New Orleans expatriates formed Washington Episcopalians Respond to Katrina (WERK), gathering a handful of volunteers from DC-area parishes to sustain the larger effort. They ran trips in the beginning of every month. Katie Mears of Iowa City tagged along as a part of a group sent by her aunt’s church in December 2005.

“I latched on to one of those trips, which was actually great because it was easy for outsiders to tag along because they didn’t all know each other super well,” says Mears.

Like Huener, Mears started as a short-term volunteer but stayed on to help local residents after her group returned to Washington. Forced to evacuate to Baton Rouge from its headquarters in New Orleans, the Diocese of New Orleans was directing volunteer efforts from afar or depending upon local clergy—who didn’t have the time or resources to manage volunteers—to do so. Recognizing the difficulties of this arrangement, the diocese brought on Mears to manage volunteer efforts on the ground—finding work sites, coordinating projects, ensuring safety, and locating homeowners. Within three years, the diocese had gutted about 900 houses and rebuilt 50, largely on the strength of volunteers from around the country.

Finding a Niche

Originally, the diocese couldn’t keep up with requests for help, so the relief coordinators decided to pick a niche: helping homeowners who didn’t meet other groups’ criteria for assistance, which ranged from a guarantee that homeowners would be rebuilding or a requirement that homeowners be on site during volunteer efforts. The decision to carve out this niche flowed from Diocesan Bishop Charles Jenkins’ encouragement to relief workers to follow Jesus’s command to serve “the least of these.” Mears began working with elderly people who couldn’t economically, physically, or emotionally handle getting back to New Orleans from where they’d evacuated.

“We were working with the most desperate cases, oftentimes acknowledging the gutting wasn’t about reconstruction. It was about closure for the pre-Katrina life,” Mears says.

The diocese continues to serve people who have fallen through the cracks of other programs, including the Road Home project. Designed to reimburse citizens for property loss, the state-run, federally funded program distributes grants to repair damaged homes or purchases them outright for a percentage of the properties’ value. But the program has been plagued by complaints of red tape, delays, and mass confusion. The government contractor running the program inadvertently overpaid 5,000 recipients while tens of thousands of others complained about not receiving payments. Over 140,000 people successfully applied for grants, but many others missed the deadline. Some had their grants stolen, didn’t qualify, or were unable to apply because of mental-health problems.

The work brought challenges, admits Mears. “We work with a lot of people that have mental and physical health problems that keep them isolated. And so you have to be constantly asking, “Do you know a neighbor who’s in their trailer and has no plan on how to get out?”

Because of the special needs of the population being served, the diocese intentionally avoided the paperwork prevalent in other bureaucratic relief efforts. “So if the government process is really depersonalizing, and paperwork-obsessed, and all about proof, what we were trying to be was the opposite of that in every way,” Mears says.

Victims had long complained about the invasive and distrustful nature of the paperwork required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would ask applicants to prove how much money they had spent on groceries in the last month or prove how much time they spent with relatives during evacuation. The diocese volunteers tried a more personal approach. Applicants were asked questions such as “How is your health?” or “Where are you staying?”

“If the person bursts into tears, then we know. That gives us more information than, ‘What was your last month’s budget on clothing?’ That doesn’t help,” Mears says.

The Disaster Subculture

While Katrina showcased some of the most high-profile, faith-based relief efforts, religious nonprofits have been quietly fueling relief efforts for decades. First-time disaster responders frequently say the biggest surprise about faith-based relief efforts is the huge disaster-response subculture.

“I had no clue it even existed, that [it] has been going on for years under the radar, and is a huge part of disaster mitigation,” Huener said.

It’s also one of the things that surprised Daniel Sanchez, executive director of Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca, which sits on 100 acres between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa. Owned by one of the regional divisions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the camp has served as an outdoor recreational facility for Lutheran youth, families, and congregations for 45 years. When the Cedar and Iowa rivers flooded in 2008, Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca hosted dozens of groups engaged in disaster relief.

It is still hosting groups. Some are youth groups looking for a service angle to their annual retreats. Most of the groups, however, are multi-generational and come from the Midwest.

The first time a volunteer is involved in flood recovery, he or she may need to be taught the basics of food safety, mold remediation, removal of asbestos or other hazardous materials, and how to preserve papers, photographs, and books. All of these specialized skills take time to learn. But after a church group has gone through the relief and recovery efforts once, there’s much less they need to be told the next time around.

After years of helping homeowners deal with flood damage in the Midwest, these church groups have become experts in flood relief and are some of the most efficient volunteers in recovery efforts. Many traveled to New Orleans post-Katrina to help with cleanup efforts there. Huener noted that some of the victims of the 2008 Cedar Rapids flooding had made as many as three trips to New Orleans post-Katrina. So last year, grateful Louisianans returned the favor, loading up trailers and driving supplies to congregations in Iowa.

“They took the same message back that they’d been given: It will be okay. You will make it through this,” said Huener. “It’s amazing to see how God’s love for his children is spread through one another…although I don’t know what those Iowans are going to do with all that jambalaya mix.”

Short-Term vs. Long-Term

While most disaster-relief volunteers are of the short-term variety, a significant number are in it for the long haul. And that’s a good thing, said Connie Uddo, a volunteer with the nonprofit Beacon of Hope in New Orleans, since the type of help needed for relief and recovery efforts changes over time. Uddo points out that anyone, even a 14-year-old boy, can be taught in five minutes how to gut a house. After the gutting work ends, the rebuilding process begins and that requires more skilled labor, such as laying tile or hanging cabinets or sheetrock. So while groups did not turn away volunteers early on, now it is a different story:

Some of our young groups [asked], what do you mean you can’t use us this spring?  And I said, ‘Look, I’ve already got a thousand this spring. I can’t take 2,000 like I took last spring. But maybe you could have a garage sale and send a donation because all the funding is being cut.’  I think that’s a way people can help, too, is just try to support us because we’re not really getting the funding anymore, especially the grassroots organizations.

While numbers are somewhat hard to come by, Mission Maker Magazine 2009 estimates that over 1.5 million Americans will engage in “short-term mission trips” this year. Those who travel abroad may go to places such as Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America. Many choose to volunteer domestically, heading to disaster-relief areas such as post-Katrina New Orleans, the flood- and tornado-ravaged Midwest, or western states devastated by wildfires.

Short-term mission trips are a big industry. In Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Princeton Professor Robert Wuthnow estimates the money spent on these trips is upwards of $2.4 billion each year. His research indicates that since 2000, 12 percent of active churchgoers reported having gone overseas on short-term missions as teenagers—up from 5 percent in the 1990s. His research also indicates that about one-third of all Christian congregations annually send teams that average about 18 members.

As the industry grows, those involved are analyzing it more closely. There is no question that volunteers provide an unmatched service of manpower and comfort during the early recovery efforts of disasters. It’s hard to find a pastor in New Orleans, for instance, who won’t praise the help given by such relief workers, but there are increasing concerns about the efficacy of the larger short-term mission industry.

The Short History of Short-Term Missions

Short-term missions are a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Dr. Brian M. Howell, associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois, the short-term mission movement really took off in the 1980s with the convergence of two historical streams: the long-term mission community’s need for specialized help and the burgeoning youth movement.

While Christian missionaries had long built infrastructure and focused on material needs when they were sent abroad, the technology required for that infrastructure became ever more complex. Congregations would field laypeople with particular skill sets—doctors, radio engineers or public health experts—as well as a group of skilled laborers— and work with missionary host organizations to get specific tasks done. So, for instance, if a missionary team in Africa wanted to build a water purification plant, partner churches would send engineers that had the specialized knowledge for that project.

Meanwhile, as baby boomers and Gen-Xers flooded church youth groups in the 1960s and ’70s, congregational leaders looked for service and travel opportunities for them. At first, the trend was to send kids to domestic summer work camps where students would also learn discipleship training. By the 1980s, according to Howell, youth groups began more ambitious trips—building houses in Central America or schools in Africa. Laypeople loved the trips, congregational leaders appreciated how service work inculcated the Christian faith in them, and grandparents and other family members had no problem funding the trip.

By the 1990s, Group Magazine, an evangelical periodical aimed at youth-group leaders, began an entire advertising section on short-term mission trips. The Evangelical Missiological Society’s information service reported a 200 percent growth trajectory in short-term mission trips during the 1990s.


As many as 30,000 Jews across North America have flocked to New Orleans on short-term relief trips since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Originally, the volunteers worked on helping the Jewish community rebuild their own homes and buildings. With most of that work complete, volunteers now work in the wider community, rebuilding houses and constructing playgrounds.

In mid-March, more than 500 of the Jewish federation system’s young leaders helped turn a St. Bernard Parish school that was abandoned after Katrina into a community sports center. What’s noteworthy about this project is that it was the centerpiece of the United Jewish Communities‘ annual National Young Leadership Conference—a conference usually known for its raucous parties in Washington, DC. The group had originally considered moving the event to Las Vegas to keep the party going. Instead, they went to New Orleans to dig ditches, build benches, and haul bricks for the community center.

The UJC’s decision is a reflection of the growing demand for Jewish-themed service, coordinators said. But it also shows how much the rebuilding effort in New Orleans can serve an educational purpose as well. For young Jews, coming face-to-face with the hurricane’s aftermath delivers a compelling message about poverty and class. Volunteer opportunities created by Katrina’s destruction cater to the growing trend among younger Jews in North America to be involved in social justice, said Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

“There are very few places you can do that in North America. New Orleans is a notable example of where you can do that,” he said.

But while the Jewish community in New Orleans is grateful for the short-term help it receives from Jewish brethren across the country, it also has a long-term vision for change.

Prior to Katrina, the Jewish community in New Orleans numbered 9,500 people with19 synagogues and agencies. The total damage to the community was estimated at $90 million, including one synagogue in Lakeview that was completely devastated, according to Weil.

New Orleans has maintained a significant Jewish presence for over 250 years, and Jews have played an active part in civic life. They have established museums, the philharmonic orchestra, hospitals, and schools. But even four years after Katrina, a good 25 percent of the community has yet to return, Weil said.

The national Jewish fundraising campaign raised about $28 million for post-Katrina recovery, and about half of that went to New Orleans. The Jewish Federation used the money to keep organizations operating. It also used the funds to undergo a strategic planning process to help the organization adapt to its new future.

“Disaster brings opportunity. There are things you can do to revitalize that can only be done in disaster relief,” he said. “You see that the future can be different, even better.”

The group launched a newcomers incentive program, trying to regain the numbers they lost and possibly even go further. Some 800 people have moved to New Orleans since the incentive program went into effect in 2007. The federation offers host families, jobs, one year of free membership to the synagogue of the newcomer’s choice, free membership with Jewish dating site JDate, and discounted tuition. It includes $3,000 in moving grants, $2,500 in rental assistance and an interest-free loan of $15,000 for home purchases, renovations, or business starts.

“It’s not enough for people to come just for money, but it’s a nice and generous package,” said Weil.

While the incentive program follows the pattern by which some new immigrants to Israel are recruited (called sal klita), Weil says most Jewish immigration is handled through the market. “Jews have historically moved where economic mobility works best, where there are free markets and professions freely open to Jews.”

Traveling Deep

With vast numbers of religious adherents participating in disaster relief, faith-based organizations ponder how to harness the collective experience so as to create institutional knowledge that people can apply to future relief efforts. “Most people travel widely but not deeply,” says David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center, which advises churches, parachurches, and businesses on how they can achieve “cultural intelligence” more effectively for mutual gain.

One of the promising changes he’s seen in short-term mission trips is that people are more honest about whether the goal of the trip is to convert people or to offer aid, development, or social justice. Most of the groups are, in fact, hoping to help people materially. It’s hard to convert people when you don’t even speak the same language, for instance. He’s also seeing more honesty from groups about what they can accomplish during short-term trips. “Realistic expectations temper some of the motivation that is there. We are not going to cure HIV in four days.”

Relief organizations and recipients of aid readily participate in short-term mission trips because they get money. “That’s the reason they endure being glorified tour guides,” argues Livermore. They might prefer a $20,000 check, but they know they wouldn’t get any aid if not for the visits from North Americans.

But many of the other claims—that these trips change the participants’ long-term visions—don’t pan out. Leaders need to make short-term missions part of a long-term plan about cultural understanding and connection, Livermore says, and debriefing is key to effecting changes in the hearts and minds of volunteers. “You can only sit around singing ‘Kumbaya’ so many times while looking at pictures from your trip.”

Instead, Livermore suggests that organizations should meet with volunteers after a trip and help them see the problems in their own communities. People in their own communities are dying from AIDS, and there are people in their own communities who haven’t yet heard the Gospel. They should suggest that some years the group should raise funds but not take the trip—just send the funds to the community they met on their previous trip.

Sociologist Kurt Ver Beek runs a semester-abroad program in Honduras for Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He moved to Central America in 1986. After years of seeing short-term missionaries build homes in Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, he set out to learn how much the experience changed them and those they were intending to help. He’s convinced that some of the trips are just a waste of money. After groups pay for airfare, lodging, food and other organizational costs, teams may spend $50,000 to build a home, he says. That same home could have cost $2,000 to build with local labor, he says.

There’s room for improvement in faith-based disaster relief, but these efforts—particularly in early relief and recovery—have considerable advantages over government programs. Churches and religious charities, motivated by love and commitment, as well as by the need to satisfy donors, have a different incentive structure than do governments. Frequently when government agencies fail at their missions, they get even more money the following year to “fix” the problem. For instance, the Louisiana state legislature gave the contractor that handled the Road Home program $756 million to manage the program. It did such a poor job that the legislature considered ending the contract in 2007. Instead, the legislature upped the cost ceiling to $915 million. Conversely, when religious organizations and other nonprofits are unable to demonstrate positive returns on donor investments, they tend to see a decline in their operating revenue.

While large bureaucratic failures are all too common following disasters, religious nonprofits have historically stepped in to care for people in need. Motivated by religious commitment, unobstructed by red tape, and flexible due to their smaller nature, there’s little question they have helped in New Orleans and abroad.

As the Diocese of New Orleans’s Katie Mears argues, nonprofits filled in the gaps of recovery and rebuilding efforts. These gaps were larger post-Katrina than in most recovery and rebuilding efforts, but there will always be people who fall through the gaps, and they need the help nonprofits can provide.

“Every house that got gutted is because a nonprofit or a family gutted it. There wasn’t a state solution to that. With rebuilding, again, it’s only possible for a lot of people because they had a nonprofit do it for them.”

M.Z. Hemingway is a journalist and writer in Washington, DC.

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  • Margaret

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  • Margaret

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  • Margaret

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.