- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — The Rev. Michael Tracey, who leads Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church here, knows how people are drawn toward religion in times of crisis.

Standing outside a battered church where 300 disaster-weary residents attended Mass yesterday, Father Tracey said that when all else has been stripped away, “people gravitate toward something that will give them meaning, direction, purpose and hope.”

In New Orleans yesterday, historic St. Louis Cathedral held its first Mass since Hurricane Katrina struck the city. The Associated Press reported that hundreds attended the service at the nation’s oldest active cathedral, whose ornate stained-glass windows were undamaged by the storm’s 150-mph winds.

Since Katrina devastated the region last month, not only have storm victims been drawn toward faith, but faith has been drawn toward the crisis.

While Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief efforts have been widely criticized, victims in southern Mississippi say the true backbone of relief has been thousands of church volunteers pouring in from as far away as New England, Chicago and California.

“I know FEMA is overwhelmed, but it’s the church groups, that’s where the help is,” said Jade S. Caldwell, 41, as she picked through boxes of nonperishable food and cleaning supplies stacked in a parking lot by church groups working together across denominational lines.

“If it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t be eating,” she said of the people returning to their shattered homes in Bay St. Louis.

Nearby, dozens of residents living in temporary trailers and mold-infested homes formed a line outside a large tent erected by the Christian Life Church, a Georgia-based evangelical group.

A cafeteria in the tent, run by 2,000 volunteers flowing in from nationwide branches of Christian Life, is serving about 5,000 meals a day to struggling residents, said Pastor Jimmy Blackwell, who arrived here last month.

More than 250,000 people in Mississippi were left homeless by Katrina, which flattened homes across a 70-mile swath along the Gulf of Mexico.

Basic needs are being met, electricity restored and some houses rebuilt, but the economy of small towns west of Gulfport and Biloxi remains almost nonexistent.

The once-thriving shrimp industry is jeopardized by sewage and oil that have polluted Gulf waters, and thousands of acres of oyster beds were ravaged by the storm.

While FEMA and other state and federal agencies are working overtime, church organizations have been able to move more quickly without the hindrance of bureaucratic red tape. Response from groups such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army also has been fast and widespread.

Residents here say church groups such as Christian Life were on the ground feeding people and handing out water nearly a week before any federal relief showed up.

Mr. Blackwell said Christian Life arrived with a convoy of 15 vehicles four days after the storm, “like a ship that comes in to people who’ve been deserted on a desert island. Nobody had reached them yet.”

Donations to church groups pale in comparison to the billions approved by Congress for the federal government response. Christian Life officials said last week they had topped $1 million in donations, but they can stretch their dollars by using church volunteers.

“People come from all over without fanfare, without notoriety, without expecting any recompense,” said Father Tracey, whose damaged church building and adjacent parochial schools are being cleaned out by dozens of Catholic volunteers from distant communities.

Just 100 yards from the shore, Our Lady of the Gulf Church is one of Mississippi’s oldest. Built in 1908, the four-story brick steeple has survived dozens of hurricanes, including Camille in 1969. Though the pews and most of the interior were swept away by Katrina, the steeple is still standing.

Other churches nearby were not as lucky. A steeple topped by a white cross is all that remains of the Christ Episcopal Church down the road.

Members of these churches are struggling to cope with the destruction. On Friday, Pam Metzler, a lifelong resident of Bay St. Louis and member of Our Lady of the Gulf, sighed as she sat in the debris-strewn parking lot of her church.

She perked up momentarily when her mobile phone rang. “Maybe that’s FEMA; maybe that’s my insurance company. Maybe I’ll get lucky today,” she said.

Instead, it was her sister on the line, trying to sort out an ordeal faced by thousands here.

“We had to gut the house that my daddy built,” Mrs. Metzler said, explaining that her sister was confounded by what to do with three pieces of their mother’s furniture salvaged but covered with mold.

“I want it in the carport; she wants it in the yard because she’s afraid it will contaminate everything,” Mrs. Metzler said. “It think it’s irrelevant because everything’s contaminated at this point.”

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