Gulf Coast Consultant: National Council of Churches
Tronn Moller is the Gulf Coast Consultant for the National Council of Churches, which works to connect different church groups working on recovery issues. Tronn points out how churches serve a connecting role both within and between communities that facilitates information and resource sharing. Churches, Tronn explains, have been effective facilitators of rebuilding because of their local knowledge and their deep ties to their communities.
How did you get involved with the National Council of Churches?
Post Katrina, the National Council of Churches developed a special commission for the just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, and the purpose and the function was to listen, stand, educate, and advocate for the Gulf Coast. Their concern was poverty and how that played out based upon what they saw on their TVs. They wanted to see a just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. And they developed a special commission and council, and they found that they needed some eyes and ears on the ground to be able to help them accomplish their mission.
What is the mission of the council?
A very important function for the council is looking at poverty and ways to eliminate poverty….When they saw the poverty on the television, as many people saw, they were somewhat amazed at how [this can] be going on in America….They said we need to begin to do something…in terms of wages, in terms of the right to return, in terms of…the people that are spread out. What are the things that they have, or they need to survive, there, or also, how can we help them be able to come back? And so they saw this as a very important [problem] that they could tackle and began to do something as a national organization, but also begin to do something on the ground, the grassroots level.
What sorts of grassroots initiatives has the council started?
One of the things in terms of advocacy, they identify…several issues where they want to stand with the people. Number one, there was [a] million dollars that was going to be diverted from the ports in Mississippi, so they partnered with those groups to be able to do some advocacy and some educating; “People, not ports” was one aspect. Another aspect is Gulf Coast Civics Works—which is now in legislation in Washington, DC, which we hope is part of the stimulus package—which will bring green jobs, education, and infrastructure, things to help the Gulf.
But one of the other key points was being able to partner with churches to begin to find pathways for churches to be able to engage more in the community. To be able to do some of the grassroots organizing to find out, what are some new things that can be done with communities that maybe hasn’t been done before? How can the church be the eyes and ears of the community? How can they partner with other community groups, businesses, to begin to either deal with that poverty issue, but also to begin to stimulate some conversations and a sense of ownership that exists in other communities, buy in from the people who sometimes have felt powerless? And so part of our goal, and part of my function, is to partner with them to coach them, to be with them….
And so I go in and do board development with a lot of the community groups, do strategic planning with them, do envisioning with them, develop a partnership, develop asset mapping with them, help them walk their community, help them learn who their neighbor was so that they can do some mission and vision alignment with other groups so they won’t feel isolated within themselves, and feel all alone as a island, as a church, or as a group of people trying to rebuild.
Why do churches know what’s happening on the ground in a way other groups don’t?
[Church is] a very interesting connecting piece….The congregants…have this connection to the leader of the church [that] intertwine the communities. They…know who [the reverend] is, they know who the deacon is. Someone up [at the church] either lived in the community or has had some kind of tie to the community. And therefore, they brought information to them.
And so it became very interesting in New Orleans post-Katrina, [that] the church became that place where people exchanged, “Are you coming back, are you not coming back?” “I saw three houses being rebuilt,” or “Such and such is not coming back.” So it became this interesting connecting place, or this place where information was shared after the worship experience. And so they became inadvertently the ears, became the place where information was shared—there’s a FEMA meeting over here, there’s a Upper Ninth Ward meeting over here, and this community association is talking about trying to put the gym back. Recovery School District is having a meeting over here. So that became a gathering place for those communities, so that’s why I say [they] became the eyes and ears for those communities.
How did the churches go from gathering information to providing recovery services?
Churches have always been doing social services. More so since the inception of the whole poverty and the injustice thing, this became a natural for them because the cry of their members became so loud, so that they felt that was a part of their responsibility to react and to begin to do something and be able to help them….
Each of the denominations did something in terms of connecting on the ground. So they felt it was kind of the dire need because the cry was so loud, to that they had to develop some type of social services. The National Council of Churches denominations donated $6.2 billion in converted hours to impact the recovery of the Gulf region within the first year.
Why were churches doing projects that government and other groups weren’t?
They were on the ground because they knew [the people]. They were their neighbors. They were their friends; they themselves had been impacted. As one pastor [said], “I was impacted by this hurricane also.” He said, “So when I called my ecumenical leader, when I called my denominational leader and said hey, I’m impacted, and here’s also some of the [ways] that my congregants are impacted, the denominations knew that they had their heartbeat and their pulse on the ground, and they knew they could get resources to people immediately.” So that was a difference.
When people came down to the ground, they knew they didn’t have to wait for the bureaucratic process. They knew, oh, [the] Episcopal church is open; it’s ready to go, to serve its people. They knew that [the] Presbyterian Church in New Orleans is open; it’s ready to go. You get to Houma; this church is open. It’s ready to go, bring the supplies there. And so they knew that they could cut through the bureaucracy that had been taking place in government….
What are the challenges facing the churches at this point, three years after Katrina?
Some of the churches feel like they’re being locked out of certain levels of the plan, or their members are being locked out of [a] certain level [of] planning, and some of the decision making that’s going on in every development of the city.
One of the ways that the pastors feel locked out is that Recovery School District had a planning meeting at Desire Street Ministries. They went through this whole planning process on how they’re going to redevelop schools….They brought a plan to them, and especially specifically in the Lower Ninth Ward, where they had elementary schools, middle schools—six of them—but no high schools.
So, they [asked], “How can you plan to develop middle schools, elementary schools in this region, but you don’t have a [high] school? We feel that you’ve locked us out of that process of planning, so that our voice could be made. Where are they going to go? You [are going to] ship [kids] outside to other communities? And then, what does that mean for them to be going to school outside of, far away from their community when they’re up by six o’clock, and they’re going to get home by seven o’clock, eight o’clock because they’re going to have to catch the bus to get back here.” And so they felt like they were locked out of that planning process.
Where have churches been successful?
For instance, Desire Street Ministries, one of the churches in the Ninth Ward, has developed some great partnerships—some partnerships that possibly would not have happened pre-Katrina. They’ve partnered with some of the Upper Ninth Ward Associations and have redone six houses. You have several churches who have partnered with [Tulane Hospital], to now provide health care in regions that are low in terms of providing health care in their communities.
You have new relationships, people having conversations in community groups and in church groups that maybe have never happened before. And I would think those are successes; those are the beginning signs of understanding what each side is presenting in terms of poverty, wealth, and access to wealth ….We think that’s a great beginning.
What should the new administration know about working with faith-based and local groups in a disaster?
That’s one of the things that we’re working on. So with the new administration, we think that it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to engage Homeland Security and FEMA and be clear on what we offer as faith institutions nationally, or what we offer locally, to be able to get the resources and things that they need to be able to provide immediate relief to recovery and development. We think that now we have a track record of success….
Churches bring to FEMA, to Homeland Security, a level of expertise in disaster. Being able to provide water, and being able to provide food, being able to provide housing. Those denominations each have an expertise in case management, and they’ll be able to provide the resources. If the resources are provided to them, they’re able to get the resources to those groups on the ground who already have, necessarily, an infrastructure to be able to provide those services for those people who are impacted by further hurricanes.