Gulf Coast rebuilding: NCC seeks to keep justice at forefront

Episcopal bishop's Ascension Day sermon underscores priorities
May 26, 2006

With hurricane season a week away, a special commission of the National Council of Churches (NCC) promises to "speak truth to power" throughout the long and arduous rebuilding effort of this city and the entire Gulf Coast region.

Eight months ago hurricane damage and destruction "took off the mask" of poverty, race, class and gender in the United States. The NCC's Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast [ will be supporting local ecumenical and community groups "to advocate for justice in the distribution of resources and services for those impacted by the hurricanes, especially the poor."

A report was presented this week to the NCC's Governing Board by the Rev. Melvin G. Talbert, retired bishop in the United Methodist Church and chair of the Special Commission.

"We will speak with the moral authority of our member churches," Bishop Talbert told the Governing Board. "There are times when we will take the initiative to open the doors that need to be opened," he said. We will, says the report, "hold fast to our vision of restored communities of love and justice."

As part of that vision the NCC has partnered with six denominations, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Every Church a Peace church movement to sponsor Churches Supporting Churches. This program will help rebuild 36 destroyed or damaged churches in 12 predominantly African American neighborhoods of New Orleans. CSC's goal is to "restart, reopen, repair or rebuild the churches in order for them to be agents for community development and to recreate their community," said Dr. C. T. Vivian, CSC chair and longtime activist in the civil rights movement. Congregations across the country will be offered the opportunity to help get these churches up and running again. A year-long training program in community development will equip pastors and lay leaders for their expanded work as community developers.

"CSC, concerned about the total hurricane devastation," says Dr. Vivian, "sees this New Orleans project as a model for similar working in all areas of the Gulf Coast."

As this city and the region are rebuilt, there is great concern that poor and low income citizens will be ignored or given little consideration as plans are put forward. Churches have already begun planning affordable housing initiatives as well as community services such as daycare centers. Displaced residents cannot return until schools, hospitals, child care and mental health services are open and operating. Several church organizations can help get such services up and running. The Special Commission will speak up and speak out when it will help local groups or congregations in doing the work on the ground.

Several board members yesterday toured the Lower 9th Ward and other neighborhoods hit hardest by the flooding. Among them, the Rt. Rev. Christopher Epting, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, said little has been done to clean up and remove debris. "The scale is simply enormous!" Bishop Epting says the NCC's interest is in the "systemic realities" of rebuilding the region.

"How can we make sure that people are justly compensated for their loss?," writes Bishop Epting in a sermon prepared for tonight [see excerpt below]. "How can we assure that those who wish to return home can do so safely and with security? How can we stand against those landlords who are now charging 1,100 dollars a month in rent for shoddy apartments which used to go for 300 - because housing is so scarce?"

The Special Commission will employ a local coordinator to direct itswork. The staff presence in the region is seen as critical in keeping the voice of the church at the table in the civic dialogue about remaking a city and region that gives voice to the voiceless. The commission will come back to the region in August for its next meeting one week prior to the first anniversary of Katrina.

In his report, Bishop Talbert said it is the "right of all displaced residents to return to a community that offers security, tranquility and stability of opportunity."

The NCC's Governing Board chose to meet in New Orleans to bring the witness of the church here as well as learn more about the role of the church in the rebuilding efforts. A prayer vigil [ and half-milesilent march was held Monday evening from Canal Street to the Ernest W. Morial Convention Center. Hurricane victims had sought security and safety at the center. Many found only humiliation. Others spent their last moments on this earth at this site.

The NCC gathering was led in a prayer litany calling on God to hear the cries of the people, cries for justice and cries for an equitable rebuilding of this city. Bishop Talbert told the vigil, "We come now as the church of Jesus Christ responding to this crisis."

The Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, NCC's partner relief agency, said the gathering was "symbolic of God's church" in this place witnessing for justice, speaking up for those who are waiting to return and those who lost their lives in this community. "God is using the arms and hands and legs" of all of us in the work the church is doing to help rebuild this community and all those still ravaged all along the Gulf Coast, McCullough said.

The general secretary of the NCC, the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, called on the gathering to repeat, "We are the leaders we have been waiting for."

The church leaders sang hymns as they walked back down Convention Center Blvd. to the hotel where they met. "Amazing Grace" and "This Little Light of Mine" were heard amidst the sounds of rush hour traffic racing by the open-for-business casino, brew pub, and some of the other riverfront hotels that have managed to reopen.

"There's no question that New Orleans will be rebuilt," said Bishop Talbert, "the question is for whom will this city be rebuilt?"

The NCC is the ecumenical voice of 35 of America's Protestant, Orthodox, Episcopal, historic black and peace churches with nearly 45 million members in 100,000 congregations.

NCC News contacts: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252; Leslie Tune, 202.544.2350

Following is an excerpt from the Ascension Day homily preached by Bishop Chris Epting on May 25 at St. James the Less Church, Scarsdale, New York.

A Place at the Table: A Homily for Ascension Day

By C. Christopher Epting

Note: Following is an excerpt of a May 25 sermon preached by Bishop Chris Epting, Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

[Source: Bishop Epting] I just returned last night from a National Council of Churches meeting in New Orleans. We were there to check up on the work of one of our Commissions. It's called the Special Commission for a Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. Our role there is to stand with churches and individuals and families as they attempt to rebuild their lives after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

We toured the area and, I have to tell you, very little has been done in a lot of ways outside of cleaning up most of the muck and garbage which lined the streets for weeks and months last fall. The thing that struck me the most this time was the very scale of the destruction. We see pictures of the lower Ninth Ward where the poorest victims lived and, of course, much of that area really does still look like a war zone - with houses still perched on top of cars and others simply lifted off their foundations and floated down the street.

But the young African American man who drove me around said, "I'll show you a lot more than the 9th Ward" and he drove me through upper and middle class neighborhoods and working class sections of town where the destruction was almost as bad. He said, "And I could drive you 50 miles in that direction and 70 miles in the other direction and it would look just the same!" The scale is simply enormous!

We are aware, of course, that this so-called "natural disaster" was, in many ways, man-made. It was the collapse of the poorly constructed levee system that caused most of the damage. The hurricanes themselves would have been bad enough, but many of the homes could have withstood the wind and the rain. It was the unbelievable power of moving water coursing through those breached levies that did the most damage and took the most lives.

The role of the National Council of Churches is two-fold. We are not so much involved in relief efforts. Unlike the government, our various church organizations are doing a wonderful job there. Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran Social Services, The United Methodist UMCOR have been there since the storms and continue to provide money and grants of various kinds, as well as coordinating the many volunteers who come from churches around the country and around the world!

No, the NCC is more concerned with the systemic realities. How can we make sure that people are justly compensated for their loss? How can we assure that those who wish to return home can do so safely and with security? How can we stand against those landlords who are now charging 1100 dollars a month in rent for shoddy apartments which used to go for 300 - because housing is so scarce?

And so we support something called "All Congregations Together" which links perhaps 30 churches around the country with a new church start or a rebuilding effort in one church in New Orleans or along the Gulf Coast. We support the efforts of community organizing groups like PICO LIFT (Louisiana Interfaith Together) to help average people get to the table when discussions are held about rebuilding their communities. Otherwise political pay-offs and corporate and individual greed will continue to win the day!

Well, what does all this have to do with the Feast of the Ascension, the confirmation of these wonderful people tonight, and the celebration of this Holy Eucharist? You were probably beginning to wonder about that! I think it has everything to do with these things! Today's Collect, the prayer which "collects" the theme of the feast, reads like this, "Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith the perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages..."

The theological point of the Ascension is that, while Jesus was here on earth, like all of us, he was limited in time and space. He could only be in one place, with one group of people, at one time. Apparently even the Resurrection appearances were time and space bound in that way. But after the Ascension we know that Jesus can be present "at all times and in all places" simultaneously! He can be with us tonight in this holy place and, at the same time, we with those black pastors in Louisiana who are not taking salaries right now so that all their churches' resources can go toward re-building.

Christ ascended into heaven "that he might fill all things" and, "according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages." Well, I can testify to you that Jesus is abiding with the Church in Louisiana. Our church and all the churches. And he is doing so at a time which must surely seem like "the end of the ages" to so many!

C. Christopher Epting, Bishop
Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
The Episcopal Church