Louisiana team brings Gulf Coast recovery issues to national stage

August 28, 2008

Four members of the staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana participated in a lobbying and advocacy effort at the Democratic National Convention August 25 to 28 in Denver, Colorado. They served as part of a 40-member team of the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 community and faith-based organizations in the Gulf Coast region.

The coalition members have signed a declaration, "One Nation, One Gulf, One Promise," in which they call on the next President of the United States to commit to rebuilding the Gulf Coast by "ensuring access to education and job training, encouraging investment in small businesses, creating affordable housing opportunities for those who are still displaced, streamlining the federal bureaucracy and creating long-term disaster recovery plans for every region in the U.S."

Representatives of member organizations of the Equity and Inclusion Campaign will also participate in the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota September 1 to 4.

The Diocese of Louisiana's delegation to Denver was led by Dr. Courtney Cowart, director of advocacy and community affairs for the diocese's Office of Disaster Response. She said the Equity and Inclusion team carried out an "intense" lobbying and awareness effort, attending caucus meetings, distributing information and meeting directly with elected officials.

"We've really discovered two things that are needed to make the Gulf Coast whole again," said Cowart. "We need to continue to engage the community and the country as volunteers, to be sure. But we also need to claim our political power and be engaged in advocacy on the issues as the church and people of faith. We need to make our combined voices heard."

"I guess you could say that we in the Gulf Coast region have been 'activated' to claim this part of our identity as people of faith," she said.

An expanded ministry
Cowart traveled to the Gulf Coast shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005, as part of a team dispatched by Episcopal Relief and Development. At the time she was a staff member at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, New York and had been involved in coordinating recovery efforts staged through St. Paul's Chapel following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Within six months of her initial trip to the region, she became director of the newly-formed Office of Disaster Response for the Diocese of Louisiana. She served in that capacity until January 2008 and now focuses her work around advocacy and community organizing.

She has written about her experiences of managing recovery efforts following two major disasters in a new book, An American Awakening, (2008, Seabury Books, New York) which will officially be launched in a public ceremony at St. Paul's Chapel on October 6.

Cowart reports that the needs created by Hurricane Katrina thrust the Diocese of Louisiana into new ministries and areas of service "that it probably never expected to do." She said that in the wake of the storm the diocesan staff has swelled from six persons to nearly fifty, resulting from a significant grant from Episcopal Relief and Development and "generous gifts" from individuals and congregations throughout the country.

Nell Bolton became the new director of the Office of Disaster Response in January. A native of New Orleans, she was working for a Catholic relief agency in Nigeria when Katrina struck.

"I knew at once that there was no way I was not going home," she said. She returned to New Orleans six months after the hurricane and joined the staff of Trinity Episcopal Church where she worked on issues of justice and social healing surrounding the recovery and rebuilding efforts. She now manages a department of the Diocese of Louisiana with over 20 staff members and an annual budget of two million dollars.

Bolton said that she and the Louisiana team had come to Denver to bring the needs of Gulf Coast recovery to national attention and to make sure that those needs are high on the priority list of the new presidential administration. She says the needs of the Gulf Coast are really a microcosm of needs faced by the entire nation.

"Our needs -- creating affordable housing, protecting the environment, rebuilding the workforce, maintaining the infrastructure, recreating a strong educational system -- are really American issues," she said.

"We are at the epicenter of bringing these issues to light and we are inviting others to join us."

Bolton said that there is still much to do to rebuild the Gulf Coast and that "those who have come to help us can attest to it."

Among those who have come to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region to help with recovery and rebuilding are more than 7,000 Episcopalians from across the country whose efforts have been coordinated by the Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response, Bolton reported. She said that some people "are making their sixth and seventh visits." She said people come and work, leave exhausted but excited, return home and recruit new volunteers and repeat the cycle all over again.

As a result of all this practical assistance, Bolton reports that the Diocese of Louisiana has earned "some real credibility and trust" in the community and has attracted the attention and interest of a wide variety of people.

One such person is Shakoor Aljuwani, a 60-year-old African American community organizer who initially collaborated with Cowart and the Diocese of Louisiana on a massive community-wide planning meeting following Hurricane Katrina.

Today Aljuwani is not only a staff member of the Diocese of Lousiana working in community organizing, he is also a fairly new Episcopalian. Raised as a Muslim, he was baptized into the Christian faith by Bishop Charles Jenkins on Easter Day 2007.

Aljuwani, along with another member of the diocese's community organizing team, Shedrick White, were also part of the Equity and Inclusion Campaign team in Denver.

"They are not exactly the typical face of the Episcopal Church and that is very exciting," said Cowart, "They represent many of the new ministries the diocese finds itself involved in following Hurricane Katrina."

One example of such new ministry is the work that White is doing within the public school system in New Orleans on behalf of the Diocese of Louisiana. A well-known rap poet, White has been instrumental in organizing "poetry clubs" where youth are invited to express their feelings and vent anger through writing instead of through acts of violence. The clubs are so successful that White has been invited into several new schools during the upcoming academic year.

Through significant community involvement Bolton says the Diocese of Louisiana has become a player in discussions about long-term planning.

"We are starting to ask questions about what kind of communities we are rebuilding and the Diocese of Louisiana is trying to be a strong voice in the process," she said.

"We are committed to rebuilding a 'beloved' community, an ‘inclusive' community, a 'just' community."

An ominous context
On Wednesday, August 27 the work of the staff members of the Diocese of Louisiana and other representatives of the Equity and Inclusion Campaign in Denver suddenly began to play out in an unanticipated context. The mood in the "Gulf Coast Recovery Information Suite," the coalition's headquarters in the Denver Convention Center, had become ominous.

Hurricane Gustav was headed toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

On that day Bishop Charles Jenkins sent an email to his staff members in Denver announcing that he was activating the diocese's emergency readiness plan.

In a letter posted on the diocesan website August 28, Bishop Jenkins said:

"Hurricane Gustav continues to look as though it will make its way into the Gulf this weekend. Given this forecast, we have a responsibility to protect those entrusted to our care. I call on the leaders of this diocese, both lay and ordained, to prepare for a potential landfall along the Louisiana coastline."

Jenkins said the emergency readiness plan is designed both to "protect our staff and to insure our ability to provide ministry resources that will be needed in case Gustav does strike us."

"The three year anniversary of Katrina is upon us," said Bishop Jenkins. "If the Lord has taught us anything through this ordeal it is that the Church needs to be ready to care for her people. Take care and be ready, and may God bless us all."

-- Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI.