Reaching out to a community shattered by the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the Diocese of Louisiana relocated its offices to St. James Church in Baton Rouge, a major distribution center where staff and volunteers work around the clock to meet the needs of evacuees.
“St. James is open 24 hours day and night, so that evacuees can come here and take a shower,” said Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana. “We are in the process of gathering food and essential items to take to our evacuation shelters.”
The priests in Baton Rouge, especially those trained by the Red Cross, have been working 24 hour shifts as chaplains in the shelters. St. James is coordinating with the downtown Episcopal churches in providing ministry to those shelters. “The Episcopal Church is like a good family,” Jenkins said, “and when a crisis comes, a good family pulls together.”
A week after Katrina’s waters flooded New Orleans; Jenkins expressed gratitude to the state of Texas and the Diocese of Texas, who “have been wonderful in responding to our needs.” He also recognized the response by Episcopal Relief and Development, which immediately provided $50,000 to assist.
“A team from ERD was on the ground with us immediately, not just sending money, but with expertise, leadership, compassion and presence,” Jenkins said. “We here in Louisiana feel the Episcopal Church with us, through prayer and through the presence of ERD.”
Planning a strategy
ERD President Robert Radtke arrived within days to help the diocese with its recovery plan for evacuees. “We will help the diocese create a strategy so that they can reach out and minister to the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been dispersed throughout the state,” Radtke said. “We will also be reaching out nationally, as many churches throughout the country have opened up their doors as shelters for evacuees.”
Although many Episcopal churches in New Orleans were directly affected by the flooding, Christ Church Cathedral appears to have sustained little damage, Jenkins said after a flight over the city Sept. 4.
“We hope to be amongst the first back into the city,” he said. “The issues of tropical disease and water-borne disease are an important part of our consideration, but I think we will be allowed back in before others, and then the Episcopal Church and ERD can be there as a service for residents as they return to the city.”
Different look and feel
Baton Rouge has taken on a dramatically different look and feel, not only because of the number of people who have taken up residence there, but also through the grief that many parishioners share with the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, said the Rev. A.J. Heine, an associate priest at St. James, the city’s oldest Episcopal Church.
About 300,000 evacuees have been added to the 500,000 who live in Baton Rouge, 80 miles from the coast, now making it the state’s largest city. Heine described how St. James worked with other downtown churches so that they could help one another rather than duplicate efforts. “We met to compare resources and compare what we had already started to do, and to see how we could support one another.”
The parish has shower facilities and teamed up with First Baptist Church, which is housing mothers with newborn children. “We have parishioners who welcome the mothers, give them towels, clean undergarments, bars of soap, shampoo, and … try to give them some semblance of home and what has become the great luxury of a hot shower,” Heine said.
St. James also opened the doors of its day school and is supporting people who are housing refugee or relief workers by cooking them breakfast every morning. “We tell displaced families who come to us: Don’t worry, we will make room for you. We will share what we have and offer what we can, and we will make a place for you,” Heine said. “Some of the most emotional times I have experienced is to see these parents break down when they realize that their children will be taken care of.
“It’s a radical hospitality that we are called to, and we are looking for ways to take the resources that we have, the people that we have, to the needs that are out there and find ways to somehow ease some of this suffering and to show the light of Christ in the midst of it.”
Need for prayer
The church also offers daily Eucharist and has set aside part of its facility for displaced clergy, providing a place to work and to contact their parishioners. One of those, Stephen Craft, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New Orleans, evacuated with his wife on the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
“We are doing our best to work with the bishop and the diocesan staff,” he said. “We’re learning our new role as clergy in the Diocese of Louisiana in the face of this disaster.” “This has been a spiritual awakening,” he concluded. “This is a time when we as priests had better be practicing what we have been preaching in terms of the power of prayer, as the only way we’re going to be sustained though this will be through the power of prayer.”