Out of Deep Waters: Gulf Coast bishops write Congress about hurricane relief

Letter urges justice and decisions that respect the dignity of all
November 14, 2005

The U.S. Congress is considering more than 150 bills related to the damage wrought during this year's hurricane season.

The bishops of three Gulf Coast dioceses most affected by the damage wrote November 9 to all members of the U.S. House and Senate outlining the values they hope would be considered as the 109th Congress considers hurricane related legislation.

Bishops Philip M. Duncan II (Diocese of Central Gulf Coast) Duncan Gray III (Diocese of Mississippi), and Charles E. Jenkins (Diocese of Louisiana), working with the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations in Washington D.C., said those values "come out of our faith promise to strive for justice and protect the dignity of every human being and are fundamental to Christ's admonition that we serve the least among us."

The full text of their letter follows:

November 9, 2005

Dear Members of Congress:

We write as three bishops of The Episcopal Church whose dioceses suffered enormous devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our concerns are ones shared by all in our church as we call upon the Congress to help us address not only the aftermath of the hurricanes, but also what our Presiding Bishop has called "the first devastation, before the havoc wreaked by wind or water, is in fact the poverty."

We understand that there are now over 150 bills before Congress related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We do not have the resources to comment on each of them, but we do feel that there are values which should be considered as they are addressed – values that come out of our faith promise to strive for justice and protect the dignity of every human being and are fundamental to Christ's admonition that we serve the least among us. In our own dioceses, we are seeking to discern our way forward using resources both traditional - prayer - and innovative - strategic planning. As you move forward with your legislative agenda, we hope you will consider these guidelines and examples of their significance:

As we rebuild we must remain mindful that the effects of poverty, racism and difference in class exist not only in the areas that were devastated by the hurricanes but in nearly every community in the United States. Therefore funds to help the victims of the hurricanes must not come at the expense of others who are poor. As a nation we have a shared responsibility to provide the essentials of nutrition, shelter, health care, and education for our most vulnerable residents. Justice is not served if in order to meet the needs of hurricane survivors, Congress cuts programs that serve the least of these, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, child care and child welfare services.

Congress should support short- and long-term relief and reconstruction by allowing increased flexibility for programs to accommodate the many unusual circumstances resulting from the hurricanes. This would include: allowing access to health care through Medicaid; relaxing residence requirements for existing programs; giving legal immigrants assistance from programs for which they are not normally eligible; allowing temporary relief from the new bankruptcy reform legislation; and assistance with education.

Congress should not take steps that are counterproductive to the long-term reconstruction and rebuilding of healthy communities. We need incentives that will encourage the return of residents and the interest of new ones. We already know that inattention to our environment was a significant factor in the damage to our area. We applaud the President's decision to reverse his suspension of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements in our region; but we remain opposed to his granting of exemptions from Affirmative Action Program (AAP) requirements for new federal contracts handling Hurricane Katrina relief and legislation that would waive environmental regulations.

We have been deeply moved by the generosity and compassion from those at home and throughout the world in the wake of the hurricanes. Yet we know that our own resources – whether individuals, parishes, dioceses, Episcopal Relief and Development or other providers - nor the many religious and non-profit organization now working in the Gulf Region can do what needs to be done without full partnership with government. The federal government has and should continue to support the charitable social programs of faith-based groups where all are served and all are eligible for employment. Our own parishes, schools, and camps continue to serve those dislocated by the hurricanes.

We are grateful for the monies already allocated by Congress, but we all recognize that this rebuilding must be a long-term commitment by all of us. We know, for instance, that in Florida there are those still living in FEMA trailers a year after the hurricanes of 2004. We are hopeful that Congress will pass the Affordable Housing Fund as part of the Federal Housing Finance Reform Act but without provisions that would undermine participation in the democratic process. We are pledged to long-term development and to rebuilding in ways that address fundamental problems of poverty about which we have all reached a new understanding.

In the baptismal promise that we Episcopalians repeat throughout our lives, we state that "we will strive for justice and … respect the dignity of every human being." In the aftermath of these devastating hurricanes, we urge you in your deliberations to address not only the immediate needs but the underlying injustices that added so greatly to this tragedy.

Sincerely,

The Rt. Rev. Philip M. Duncan II, Diocese of Central Gulf Coast
The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, Diocese of Mississippi
The Rt. Rev. Charles E. Jenkins, Diocese of Louisiana