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Churches Rebuild New Orleans, One House at a Time

c. 2006 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ In the early morning light one day last week, Inman Houston, a Southern Baptist seminary student and staffer at First Baptist Church New Orleans, climbed onto a makeshift table and called for prayer among a crowd of ragtag volunteers gathered in a parking lot in the city’s […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ In the early morning light one day last week, Inman Houston, a Southern Baptist seminary student and staffer at First Baptist Church New Orleans, climbed onto a makeshift table and called for prayer among a crowd of ragtag volunteers gathered in a parking lot in the city’s 9th Ward.

At the sound of “Amen,” more than 100 volunteers _ including a baker, a cardiac surgeon, a group of collegiate golf coaches, some graduate students and scores of teenagers, retirees and vacationers from all over the country _ broke up and swarmed over the skeletal framing of 10 houses under construction.

Nine months after the storm, organizers say these houses are the first evidence of a new phase in the help that faith communities have poured into New Orleans since the first hours after Hurricane Katrina.

Relief that began with providing for the immediate needs of dazed families _ hot food, temporary shelter, electronic cash cards _ eventually gave way to supplying stabilized homeowners with tens of thousands of volunteers to help gut their ruined homes.

Church leaders say denominations are gearing up for the third and longest phase of their commitment to New Orleans’ recovery: the years-long task of rebuilding ruined housing.

“When you drive around town and see so much damage everywhere after all this time, this is the place to come to see something happening,” Houston said. “Something hopeful.”

The three-bedroom, $70,000 homes are the work of Habitat for Humanity, an evangelical home-building organization, and the Baptist Crossroads Foundation, a partnership of several local Southern Baptist churches and ministries.

They are the first of 40 that more than 3,000 volunteers from 30 states will build in New Orleans this summer.

And those 40 are the first of more than 8,000 homes and apartments that evangelical, Catholic and Episcopal churches plan to build or repair over the next few years to partially restore the housing stock wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.

“These aren’t homes, they’re families,” said Tobey Pitman, a Southern Baptist official gearing up a separate program to repair 1,000 homes. “This is kingdom-building work, a way to apply the gospel that’s in our heads and in our hearts and take it out into the streets where people live.”

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They work in programs like Nechama, Reform Judaism’s storm relief agency; the Catholic Church’s Operation Helping Hands; and Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical relief organization headed by evangelist Franklin Graham. The Rev. Darryl Tate, who heads Louisiana’s United Methodist storm relief effort, said his agency provided job assignments and housing for 2,500 volunteers this month alone.

The progress has not been uniform. Indeed, some pastors say the scale of the Katrina experience is so huge that some churches are still dispensing household supplies.

“I’m still doing the same things now I was doing last October. The only difference is now I have electricity,” said the Rev. Jerry Kramer, whose Episcopal Church of the Annunciation doles out diapers, bleach and other goods five days a week.

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Katrina recovery in all its forms is “the biggest domestic relief effort we’ve ever faced,” said Linda Beher, a spokesman for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Although the effort is massive, it does not yet imperil that church’s other domestic works, she said. “Our donors have been incredibly generous,” Beher said.

“I believe $77 million has been gathered just for hurricane relief. I’d say we’re well-funded for hurricane relief and our other efforts.”

Some of the housing going up now will be built by volunteer labor and sold at or slightly below cost to qualified buyers.

Some, like the 1,100-square-foot, wood-frame homes going up in the 9th Ward, come with zero-interest, 20-year mortgages that will leave new homeowners with a monthly note of only $500 to $600 including insurance and taxes, said Habitat Executive Director Jim Pate.

And some, like Providence Community Housing, a major new Catholic initiative _ and by far the largest of all the efforts _ will help homeowners rebuild and add thousands of new homes and apartments to the area’s housing inventory, some targeted for people with special needs.

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The varied efforts reflect denominations’ different strengths and fields of experience.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has years of experience dealing with chronic poverty, harnessing expertise from working with federal antipoverty programs to develop and manage housing for the poor and disabled. It plans to use that experience to seek federal tax credits to help attract $25 million, according to a summary prepared by Jim Kelly, the local head of Catholic Charities.

Providence Community Housing, the church’s new post-Katrina housing initiative, hopes to use professional labor to help 1,000 families repair their homes, build 4,350 new homes and apartments, and repair 1,150 storm-damaged units owned by Christopher Homes, the archdiocese’s housing agency, a local Catholic Charities spokesman said.

By contrast, autonomous but loosely linked evangelical churches are forming smaller partnerships to build fewer homes. But with strong traditions of aggressive, hands-on volunteerism and assets like Habitat for Humanity _ which has learned to organize disparate volunteers into home-building crews _ they have been able to launch sooner.

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In the coming weeks, activity in the 9th Ward will quicken, organizers say. Between now and mid-August, 200 to 300 volunteers will be on site any given day.

Although unadorned by the ornamental millwork that decades ago distinguished even blue-collar homes, the plain wooden houses are nonetheless recognizably New Orleanian. They are narrow and deep, with front porches across the width of the house. Concrete piers lift them 5 feet, 7 inches above the ground, well in excess of Federal Emergency Management Agency flood plain regulations, said Pate.

After volunteers dug out the foundations in the spring, contractors laid the subsurface plumbing, set the piers and laid the subfloor on them in preparation for this summer’s volunteer push. Professionals will install the electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems, but volunteers will do much of the rest.

Under Habitat rules, each homeowner has to invest 100 hours of “sweat equity” in his or her home, and 250 hours in others’ homes.

Margie Perez, a singer-songwriter who was flooded out of an apartment when Katrina hit, recently worked on what in a few weeks will be her house. With other volunteers she put up walls and attached exterior sheathing. In time, she will hang drywall, then help paint its exterior blue with white trim, a scheme she picked herself.

Pate said the homes appraise at $92,000; Habitat sells them to homebuyers for $70,000. Perez said her total monthly note will be less than $600, “less than I’m paying for a one-bedroom (apartment) now _ and I get to help, which is amazing.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in News Orleans.)

KRE/PH END NOLAN Editors: To obtain photos of rebuilding projects in New Orleans, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

See related story, RNS-JAKES-QANDA, and sidebar, RNS-NOLA-CHURCHES, transmitted June 14, 2006.

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