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White House rep praises Baptist disaster relief

ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–The White House director of Faith-Based Initiatives told Southern Baptist volunteers, “No longer are you considered a group of last resort, but a group of first resort. The government doesn’t take for granted your contributions, but seeks to take advantage of them.”

Jim Towey spoke to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders at their Disaster Relief Roundtable April 25-27 at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

Expressing the gratitude of President George W. Bush for Southern Baptists’ response to last summer’s hurricanes, Towey said, “The president knows the efforts taken during the disaster relief phase were extraordinary in scope and compassion because government can’t love the way your people did.”

In early conversations with SBC leaders following the hurricanes, Towey said they raised legitimate concerns that government not commandeer the pulpit or contaminate the church’s prophetic work.

“We don’t want to favor one faith or have the government de-fund religion. That will rob the church of vitality and its purity,” Towey said. “At the same time, we don’t want to show government hostility toward any religious organization.”

While faith-based organizations once were expected to change their names, take crosses down from backdrops and remove the name of Jesus Christ from mission statements when seeking federal grants, Towey said that attitude has changed during his five-year tenure.

“We’re looking for ways to make the system of disaster preparedness and relief more faith-friendly so your groups can get in there,” he said. “The president doesn’t fear faith. When people are devastated and have lost everything, they’re looking for hope.”

In a recent visit to a faith-based homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, Towey said he told the expanding ministry’s leader that the government might be able to help with bricks and mortar without expecting the organization to sacrifice faith activity.

“Some of you may have zero interest in government money,” Towey said, “but you have a right to expect cooperation when you’re out there doing works of good and mercy.”

A few days after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush toured a church where 1,500 people found shelter throughout the facility.

“That played out over and over again all over the Gulf State area,” Towey noted. “It’s very exciting to see those responses because it renews all of us in our faith — that we’re not just talking about the Gospel, but living it.

“We saw people like you who transformed sanctuaries into shelters overnight,” he said. “Racial divisions that existed in some of these churches went down. It’s beautiful to see.”

With the hurricane season just a month away, Towey said the country faces many additional threats, including a pandemic flu or terrorist attack that could empty a city the size of New Orleans. Through a government website available at www.fbci.gov, information is available on faith-based community efforts to prepare for such disasters. He expressed President Bush’s “great confidence” in the ability of Southern Baptists to welcome with compassion those people who are hungry, thirsty, suffering, rejected and living in flight.

Towey, along with a FEMA representative and an American Red Cross leader, acknowledged mistakes made and lessons learned from the hurricanes.

“I assure you of the president’s attentiveness. We learned some painful lessons and made some terrible mistakes. We’re going to learn from them and be better prepared for the next emergency when it comes,” Towey said.

The 26 hurricanes and tropical storms recorded in the United States during 2005 broke the record set one year earlier when 11 storms were reported. FEMA issued 48 emergency declarations for shelter operations, evacuating 1.4 million people. An unprecedented number of 1,355 shelters across 48 states housed evacuees.

While nearly the same number of evacuations occurred in 1992 following Hurricane Andrew, FEMA volunteer agency liaison Ken Skalitzky said 80 percent of the residents were able to return home that year, compared to only 20 percent following Hurricane Katrina. Consequently, long-term recovery is a more significant problem in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast devastation.

“You just keep coming back and doing more,” Skalitzky said, praising Southern Baptists as one of the 500 groups that collectively offered 200,000 volunteers who contributed millions of hours of service last year.

Skalitzky pledged the government’s attention to better serving the needs of volunteers in future times of crisis.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t want you to have gas, but we couldn’t access it in a timely manner,” he said, recalling one church that began siphoning gas from abandoned cars caught in trees in order to continue its feeding operation.

Joe Becker, the American Red Cross’ vice president for response, also commended the contribution of Southern Baptist volunteers and challenged them to exceed the records set in rapidly delivered meals.

“You learn a lot about people when they’re stretched beyond imagination, when what we’re doing is 10, 15 and 20 times bigger than what we’ve ever done before,” Becker said. “We are so proud in the Red Cross to be partners with you, and there are a lot of ways that you model things for us that we learn from you.”

While the Red Cross and Southern Baptists cooked and served a quarter-million meals by the fifth day of Hurricane Charlie in 2004, they surpassed 300,000 meals on the third day of Hurricane Katrina and supplied nearly a million meals that were prepared, catered or pre-cooked meals by day five of the storm.

“What we’ve got to figure out together is how to reach a capacity so that on the third day of a disaster we’re already doing a million meals,” Becker said. “Speed matters so much and we’ve come so far in how quickly we can set up and feed, but have a ways to go.”

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  • Tammi Ledbetter