When the levees broke in New Orleans, the Rev. Jerry Kramer scrambled to get his family out alive. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed their tiny house, but within days, Kramer, pastor of the Free Church of the Annunciation, was wading through the filthy floodwaters to help others. Before rebuilding his own home, Kramer helped rebuild homes and find shelter for many others. His congregation took out a million-dollar mortgage to turn the church and several surrounding properties into what they call Resurrection House, which includes a dormitory for volunteers who do construction work or reach out to the needy in the adjoining Broadmoor neighborhood.
As news stories, government reports and academic studies have confirmed, religious organizations were among the few "first responders" to respond well in the days after the storms hit. Since then, whether measured by volunteers mobilized, dollars donated, houses rebuilt or people counseled and consoled, national religious nonprofits like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Jewish federations, Lutheran Social Services and Habitat for Humanity; parent denominational bodies ranging from United Methodists to Southern Baptists; and local churches, synagogues and mosques have led the region's recovery efforts.
What has also been confirmed is that the region's sacred places have been serving civic purposes without regard to anybody's religion. Even religious groups that proselytize by tradition have responded to the disaster by collaborating across once deep religious, racial and socioeconomic divides. "When it comes to serving the needy, we don't proselytize," says the Rev. Travis Scruggs, the minister of home relief and recovery for the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, who is known around town as the "Disaster Pastor." "We love people the way Christ loved them, without turning anyone away. Actions speak louder than words."
Amen. But as I know from my days in 2001 as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, many well-meaning people harbor legitimate concerns about government's partnering with religious groups, even if solely to expand good works. That may be because the civic significance of what faith-based organizations do is little noticed or just taken for granted.
Not anymore, I hope. Ram Cnaan, a social work scholar who is my colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, has documented that, in Philadelphia alone, religious congregations supply scores of different services to the city's low-income families. A conservative estimate of the replacement value of those services--what it would cost to supply them through government or for-profit firms if the congregations ceased--is a quarter-billion dollars a year.
Without figuring out acceptable ways to leverage similar energies in New Orleans, there is no practical hope for resurrecting the city. The U.S. Congress has passed bits of bipartisan legislation, making it easier for faith-based groups to receive public funds and technical assistance. And the Louisiana Recovery Authority stresses the need to involve and support religious leaders and their organizations. But the city's faith-based organizations are now sagging. Unless Kramer's church gets $125,000 soon, its beg-and-borrow construction projects will grind to a halt. Scruggs too says that keeping the grass-roots rebuilding efforts going will require affirmative answers to fervent prayers for more money and volunteers. Catholic Charities and Habitat are short-staffed and stretched thin.
University of Pennsylvania undergraduates with my Fox Leadership Program are headed to New Orleans in May. It will be their fourth trip since the floods. In addition to visiting, volunteering and donating money, I have an additional proposal. At one point during my time in the White House, we discussed moving the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from Washington and into a low-income urban community where it could practice what the President preached about the Federal Government's helping sacred places serve civic purposes in ways that respect constitutional principles and produce measurable results. The Bush Administration should consider relocating my former office to New Orleans. In both symbol and in substance, that would be a real faith-based initiative.
John J. DiIulio Jr. is author of Godly Republic, which is due out in the fall