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NCC to keep justice at forefront of Gulf Coast rebuilding
New Orleans, Louisiana—May 25, 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. “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 its work. 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-mile silent march (pictured above) 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?”
NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252.
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