Posts tagged with: churches

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

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.

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.”

Among the critical issues at the confluence of religion, culture, and economics is the question of TV screen size. In a move hailed by gospel-focused churches everywhere, the NFL has modified its rules, which had previously prohibited churches from sponsoring showings of the Super Bowl on screens larger than 55 inches. Church interests had argued that there was no such restriction on, for example, sports bars. One is tempted to conclude that there will no longer be any noticeable difference between churches and sports bars.

Sarcasm aside, I’m sure someone out there will argue that the church can have a positive influence by holding Super Bowl parties in a Christian context. Maybe. It’s no doubt a function of my traditional Catholic bent, but I can see no way in which the prospect of viewing the Super Bowl in a church is appealing, and a number of ways it is not. Have your party at home, and keep it Christian-like.

As for the fact that Senators Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter had taken up the problem in the chambers of Congress, well, what is left to say about such things?

I remember riding back to seminary in Kentucky a couple years ago with a young lady and we pulled off the expressway to grab a bite. As we were getting ready to pay our bill, the young lady, who happened to be from Mississippi, said, “God is telling me to give 100 dollars to this young man behind the counter of this restaurant. ” Needless to say this young man was thankful of God’s decision to speak through the young woman in this manner.

An article by Heather Donckels and a study by empty tomb, inc shows that Southerners as a group give the most to church and religious organizations. Empty tomb, inc. is a Christian research organization in Champaign, Illinois.

If there are any Southern evangelicals who have been a member of a church during a building campaign, this study makes even more sense. Midwesterners placed second in the study. While Southerners lead in overall charitable giving, they give less as a group to charities outside of the religious domain.

Donckels notes in her piece:

The North American Religion Atlas, using data from the 2000 census, shows a high concentration of Protestants in the South while Catholics dominate the Northeast. For example, only 8 percent of people in the South are Catholics, compared to 42 percent of New Englanders.

Francis Butler, president of the Washington-based Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, said research shows Catholics give about 1 percent of income to charity. Protestants, meanwhile, generally give double that, he said.

While this may be one factor of many, there is obviously more to giving than denominational demographics. One obvious factor may be that religious participation and church attendance is higher in Southern states, compared with other regions. Cultural differences are probably more of a factor than denominational factors.

Also in the article, University of Mississippi professor Charles Reagan Wilson is quoted as saying:

The South’s approach to giving has stressed private charity over governmental assistance. 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.

So it seems, there is still a flickering spirit of Jeffersonian political philosophy alive in Dixie.