Posts tagged with: churches

mooreOne of the powerful scenes after Hurricane Katrina was church organizations cutting their way through the roads with chainsaws so they could set up hot meal tents the very next day. Church responders have transformed into “well oiled machines” and are being praised by The Red Cross and federal agencies.

Because of Katrina, and tornadoes like the ones that decimated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Joplin, Mo., churches in those communities can offer a level of expertise to the local houses of worship in Oklahoma. Christian organizations, who have already mobilized for Oklahoma, are vital not just in the initial response, but will remain a force in the community long after the news cameras and headlines vanish.

One of the most significant problems after Katrina was that some victims, because of the shock of having everything decimated that they physically own, often became paralyzed by inaction and fall into long-term dependency. Many church agencies are now highly trained to handle these situations and can come alongside victims to help them take the first initial steps important for putting their life back together.

It is becoming much harder to make the once valid criticism that evangelical churches in America do not focus enough of their efforts and attention to serving the poor and meeting physical needs. Natural disasters, many of which have hit some of the most religious regions of America, have mobilized armies of evangelical volunteers and workers who are transformed by the words of Christ who commanded us to simply “love each other.” (John 15:17)

One of the major focuses of On Call in Culture is to remind Christians that discipleship doesn’t end when Sunday service concludes. Yet in going about our daily work, we should also be careful that we don’t neglect the important role the church can fill when it comes to matters of vocational stewardship and daily cultural engagement.

Over at (re)integrate, Dr. Amy Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, offers ten suggestions for how the church might encourage whole-life discipleship and vocational stewardship:

1. During corporate worship services, pray for members by vocation. This could take a variety of expressions:

  • pray aloud for a different occupational group (e.g., educators or businesspeople) each week
  • invite congregants who are facing difficulties on the job to come forward during or after the service for prayer
  • pray for individual members by name and vocation

2. Visit church members at their places of work.

3. Recognize vocational achievements and awards of congregants in the church’s newsletter or on its website.

4. Offer an adult education class that helps participants discern the dimensions of their vocational power (skills, networks, etc.) and gets them talking about how to deploy that power to advance Kingdom foretastes in and through their work.

5. Encourage the church’s small groups to incorporate regular times of discussion and prayer focused on members’ work lives.

Read the rest of her suggestions here.

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In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:

In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.

In the forthcoming Fall 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we interviewed Dolphus Weary. His life experience and ministry work offers a unique perspective on the issue of poverty and economic development. His story and witness is powerful. Some of the upcoming interview is previewed below.

Dolphus Weary grew up in segregated Mississippi and then moved to California to attend school in 1967. He is one of the first black graduates of Los Angeles Baptist College. He returned to Mississippi to lead Mendenhall Ministries, a Christ centered community outreach organization to at-risk individuals that takes a holistic approach to solving problems of poverty. Currently Dolphus Weary is president of R.E.A.L. Christian Foundation in Richland, Miss., which strives to empower and develop rural ministries to improve the lives of Mississippians. Among his numerous degrees, Dolphus Weary also received a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He is a nationally sought out speaker and writer and serves on numerous boards across the state and country. Weary recently spoke with managing editor Ray Nothstine.

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The title of your book is, I Ain’t Coming Back. What story does that title tell?

It tells a story of a young man who grew up in rural Mississippi. I grew up in a family of eight children. My father deserted the family when I was four years old and we lived in a three-room house, not three bedrooms, but a three-room house. All nine of us packed in there. We had holes throughout the house so I understand poverty.

As I grew up, I understood the difference between the white community and the black community. The school bus I rode, you could hear it coming down the road from miles away because it was so dilapidated. The new school bus passed my house. So, being poor and seeing racism and separation between the black community and the while community, I saw that the best thing I could do one day was to leave Mississippi.

I got a basketball scholarship to go to a Christian college in California, and when I got ready to leave Mississippi, I said, ‘Lord, I’m leaving Mississippi and I ain’t never coming back.’

I think that the other part of that is God put me in situations in California where I discovered that racism was not just unique to Mississippi or the South. Racism was found in other places as well, and I had to conclude that racism was not where you came from, but it’s an issue of the heart, and began to deal with that on an all white college campus in California. Then God began to point me back toward Mississippi, so I returned in the summers of 1968, ’69, and in 70. I traveled with a Christian basketball team and toured the Orient. We were playing basketball and sharing our faith at halftime, and there the coach challenged me about full time Christian service as a missionary in Taiwan or the Philippines.

That is when I began to think about am ‘I going into a mission field or am I running away from a mission field?’ And it became clear to me that I was running away from Mississippi as a mission field. After graduating from college and seminary, my wife and I moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi and we started asking a question. The question we asked ‘is our Christian faith strong enough to impact the needs of a poor community, or is the best thing we can do is tell poor people to give your life to Jesus and one day you’re going to go to heaven and it’s going to be better?’

We began to internalize that to say that Jesus is concerned about you right now. We ended up developing a Christian health clinic and elementary school, a thrift store, a farm, a law office, a housing ministry, to try to take this precious gospel and make it into reality for poor people. Telling them that God loves you, he wants you to go to heaven, but God loves you right now and He wants you to live a decent life on this earth. What the Lord did was bring me back to be a part of the solution and not just to talk about the problem or simply walk away from it.

You also declare that meeting the social needs of people is the duty of the body of Christ. Many now feel that is a concept that is primarily the duty of government. Why is it important that the church lead on poverty issues?

For a long time the evangelical Church in America had this mission of just getting people saved. In Acts, we see the Church caring for people as well as feeding and clothing them. We have gotten away from that. We feel good about going to Africa and Asia. We feel good about flying 50 people across country, paying X number of dollars to fly 50 people to stay a week somewhere. Rather than taking that money and empowering the people in the local community, some want to just take a group and fly somewhere while ignoring their own backyard. We need to rethink mission. Over the last 30 years, we have been preaching a message that says let’s go to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, as we move to the remotest parts of the world. The Church, the body of Christ, needs to have a holistic view of reaching people, not just preparing them to go to heaven, but preparing people to deal with some of the social needs as well. I think that the Church has the greatest opportunity to hold individuals accountable and to move people along towards growth rather than along a line of dependency. We are really empowered to do that best in community at the local level.

What do you like most about Mississippi and why are you proud to call it home?

Mississippi is one of the best-kept secrets. The cost of living is still reasonable here. Mississippi is on its way up. It was just 40 years ago or so where Mississippi said we do not want industry, we do not want businesses. About 30 years ago, there was a major marketing push in business magazines saying, “Rethink Mississippi.”

In other words, Mississippi is a place for tremendous opportunity. I love the fact that we are changing. I love the fact that we are moving in a wonderful and fantastic direction. I have traveled all over the country, all around the world and I still believe that Mississippi is a good place. I am proud to call it home. Mississippi is still a place of courtesy. I believe with all my heart that there are many great people in this state.

I have written quite a bit on the church response to natural disasters here at Acton. “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” was the feature piece in the last issue of Religion & Liberty.

John Tozzi over at businessweek.com has written an excellent article highlighting Louisiana’s outreach to the business community during natural disasters. From the article:

As Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana in 2008, state officials wanted to avoid the food shortages that had followed Katrina three years earlier. So they bought thousands of MREs—“meals ready to eat,” foil-bagged military rations available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—for about $8 each. They also called local caterers and restaurants to see whether those businesses might help feed evacuees. The food vendors, it turned out, were able to serve fresh, hot meals of jambalaya and red beans and rice at half the price of FEMA’s rations. “We probably saved close to half a million dollars during that one event by tapping into the private sector,” says Pat Santos, who oversees disaster relief in Louisiana.

Tozzi points out that FEMA has also stepped up their efforts to partner with businesses, realizing the private sector often provides greater resources and a better response time for disaster relief.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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This video was captured by Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa at Five Points Baptist Church in Northport, Alabama. Northport is just outside Tuscaloosa.

Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa has been leading from the front during the tornadoes that decimated parts of Alabama. Their Facebook page is a command center for leading and directing volunteers to areas of greatest need. ESPN highlighted some of the work of Toomer’s on their network.

In a letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa wrote:

In one way or another none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZeZMRBIVaE

Here is the dramatic front page of The Birmingham News this morning with the headline “Day of Devastation.” It is imperative to highlight just some of the Christian responses to the tornadoes USA Today is reporting has now killed over 240 people. Just one example of the amazing response in Alabama: A facebook page titled “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” already has over 36,000 followers. The page is a network of Auburn fans who have put their sports civil war on hold to respond to the hardest hit Southern city, Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. The page already has a photo posted of Auburn students raising money and collecting donations for the community of their arch-nemesis.

Christian ministries are instrumental for disaster relief because they are first on the scene and when they respond from outside the community they remain committed. Social networking sites are proving to be invaluable. Last night, I saw a friend from seminary in Tupelo, Mississippi organizing an impromptu effort to bring drinks to people in overcrowded emergency rooms caused by the storm.

Stories of groups like The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) literally cutting through massive amounts of debris so they could set up hot food tents the day after Katrina was common in Mississippi. See my post titled “Faith-Based Charities Understand Long Term Need” concerning the Katrina disaster. My own church here in Grand Rapids, just got back from a mission trip from my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. Christian churches from all over the country are still heavily involved in contributing to Katrina recovery efforts. This will be the case with the response to the tornadoes as well.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the Christian ministries already committed to responding to the devastation caused by the tornadoes:

The devastation in Haiti is heartbreaking. For most of us, it is far too easy to be distracted from the tremendous need right now in Haiti because of our own daily circumstances. In many ways I reacted similarly to Jordan Ballor when he confessed he initially thought reports of the earthquake had to be exaggerated. I say that because I was living in Cairo, Egypt when they had a 5.8 earthquake in 1992. The earthquake caused destruction to some buildings in the older part of the city, and the fatalities grew to over 500. While the loss of life was tragic in itself, for most people life did not change in Cairo. CNN at the time was broadcasting widespread destruction and fatalities in Cairo in front of the few buildings that were totally demolished. This reporting caused my mom to panic who was visiting Turkey at the time and other relatives in the United States were left scrambling trying to contact my family in Egypt.

Amid the devastation, chaos, and suffering the good news we see, and there is not a lot, is the U.S. involvement in Haiti. Many pronouncements today focus upon the supposed havoc our country wrecks around the globe, but no other country has ever proved to be more responsive, compassionate, and giving than this country when moved by suffering. It’s a comforting testimony to the character, faith, and compassion of so many Americans. Another blessing for Haiti will be the long term assistance and stability Haiti will receive, with so much of it coming from faith based relief efforts. See my post dealing with the exceptional service faith based groups and churches have provided for victims of Katrina. While governmental agencies largely botched much of the Katrina relief effort, it was church groups and agencies who were the first responders with shelter, water, and hot meals. This was the case in my former neighborhood on the Mississippi Seacoast. Many of those faith groups are still actively involved there as they are committed to long term rebuilding efforts.

One greatly needed federal body of assistance for Haiti is the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. military is simply the greatest in the world and the security they can provide for a country that is plagued by poverty, lawlessness, and corruption is critical. The Marines have a unique and catchy unofficial motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.” The U.S. Armed forces will be a great friend for Haiti, as they have been before in recent history. Sometimes people forget the immense problems with aid distribution when there is no rule of law and rampant corruption in a country. In an upcoming Religion & Liberty interview with Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute, she will also powerfully remind us about the severe obstacles of trying to transform human rights without morally challenging the corrupt and tyrannical leaders who violate those rights.

The American Christian missionary community in Haiti is substantial, largely because the needs there are so severe. This was the case long before this horrific earthquake; it will be even more so now. Please continue to pray for the protection and work of missionaries in Haiti and support them financially. Many local churches already support ministries in Haiti as well. We know they have the ability to make a tremendous impact. Find out what your local church is doing to help, and find out how you can help them. Some other good news that will emerge from this suffering will be the wonderful testimonies of compassion in the name of the Gospel. As is the case in so many tragedies, many of the best people in Haiti providing comfort will be those specifically called there by the king of Kings.

It’s not quite gotten to the point of robbing Peter to pay Paul, at least not yet, but following the spate of foreclosures on residential and commercial properties, you can expect another rash of foreclosures on church buildings across the country. There are a number of factors that will contribute to this phenomenon. In no particular order:

  • In many churches the same people who overbought McMansions run the church’s finances. They wanted to be as comfortable at church as they are (or were) at home, and so they led the church into overbuying.
  • The general economic decline will lessen the ability and/or willingness of members to give.
  • Decreased tax deductions will disincentivize giving by the heavy-hitters who carry the major financial water in nearly every congregation.
  • Zoning boards and municipalities that have been frustrated for years will leap at the chance to convert tax-free church buildings into potential sources of tax revenue.

In general, many churches have become a bit too comfortable in this world and a bit too eager to worship in temples rather than tabernacles, if you catch my drift. This economic downturn will expose the priorities of these congregations and their members. The onerous mortgages for multi-million dollar expansions will tap the resources and the generosity of many congregations, preventing them from funding missionaries, Christian day-schools, charitable work, and ministry programs. You will hear cries about religious freedom and persecution, especially related to the last point listed above, but in many ways these churches will simply be reaping what they have sown.

The good news? “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”