Image: Jacqueline Johnson
Nicole Young  /  AP
Jacqueline Johnson, director of the Mississippi faith-based Coalition for Community Renewal, registers a group of out-of-state volunteers to help with hurricane recovery in Gulfport, Miss., on Oct. 15.
updated 10/31/2005 7:52:55 AM ET 2005-10-31T12:52:55

The Mississippi agency that promotes President Bush’s faith-based initiative usually draws about 25 church groups to its sessions on tapping government funds for social service projects. This month, that number nearly doubled.

It is just one sign that, as congregations in the Gulf Coast and surrounding states begin to focus on long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina, a closer relationship between churches and state and local governments is developing.

The trend fits neatly with Bush’s second-term goal of encouraging states and cities to get more involved with his faith-based initiative, since large sums of tax dollars go to states as block grants. The states “control where the money goes,” said Bryan Jackson of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Policy, a nonpartisan research group.

The mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., faced with aiding hundreds of evacuees, opened a local faith-based office weeks earlier than he had planned this fall.

A Houston interfaith nonprofit joined high-level city planning meetings about helping the displaced. And emergency management officials in Memphis and Tennessee’s Shelby County are drawing up plans to incorporate churches into the county’s disaster relief operations.

Churches helping where government can’t
Jackson said that about half the states have faith-based offices — or a faith-based liaison within a state social service agency — to help religious service groups obtain government funding. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, was among the latest to start a state initiative, noting that the churches’ hurricane response showed that faith groups can help people in ways government can’t.

The Bush administration is using that same argument to steer federal relief dollars to religious service organizations. On Wednesday, FEMA announced a $66 million grant, funded by donations from other countries, for the United Methodist Committee on Relief and a national volunteer group that will help Katrina victims.

In Mississippi, the disaster brought together local congregations and the state-funded nonprofit that builds support for the Bush initiative. Jacqueline Johnson, director of the Mississippi Faith-Based Coalition, regularly visited churches to check on their relief work and wound up in much broader conversations about the benefits of accepting government grants.

“At first, they were more or less reluctant to connect with us” because groups feared government funding would undermine their independence, Johnson said. Now, many local religious leaders are moving toward setting up separate nonprofits where they can hold any government money they receive, but keep it apart from their congregational work, she said.

In Chattanooga, Mayor Ron Littlefield opened his faith-based office early when a rescue flight chartered by former Vice President Al Gore landed there and other evacuees arrived on their own.

“It dawned on us that this was exactly what an Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships is all about,” said Todd Womack, the mayor’s spokesman.

Lou Keels of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, which runs government-funded programs including Meals on Wheels, said the group’s relief role raised its profile with city officials. The nonprofit and a large Houston congregation trained more than 40,000 volunteers who served food at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Religious groups aiding with planning
“We were put into some of the major planning meetings,” Keels said. “We were already on very good terms with our city and county governments, but it has strengthened those relationships.”

Diana Jones Wilson, president of Faith Partnerships in Raleigh, N.C., said she was not surprised by these developments. Her network of churches expanded into disaster relief after Hurricane Floyd hit the state in 1999. The group now trains churches in other states to provide relief aid and sent a team of clergy to Louisiana to advise congregations after Katrina.

“Churches tend to become more engaged following a disaster,” she said.

Claude Talford, director of the Memphis & Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, hopes that will be the case in his area. Churches with no experience in disaster aid were helping the thousands of evacuees in his region. He now plans to include them in the county’s disaster response blueprint, so they can play a more central role in the future.

“We’re going to try to harness that energy,” Talford said. “We’re going to look at how we can get the faith-based community in and get them organized.”

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