- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When the news hit that tornadoes had ripped through Alabama, helpers sprang into action. They handed out water and medical supplies. They provided food, clothing and shelter to the many victims and cleaned up the mess that Mother Nature left behind.

FEMA? No, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The New York Times highlighted the group’s humanitarian efforts in a recent article:

“From an elaborate ‘war room’ in a church building in Montgomery, Ala., to direct lines of communication with federal and local emergency agencies, the Southern Baptist disaster ministry is a model of efficiency.

“Its renowned chain-saw crews were cutting fallen trees so medical crews could get to the injured in the hours after the tornadoes hit. They had an enormous mobile kitchen, complete with a hot-water heater for dishwashing and five convection ovens.”

If you’re like many Americans, though, you probably aren’t even aware of the role the SBC plays in helping disaster victims. “We’re the best-kept secret out there,” Ron Warren, cleanup and recovery coordinator for the Alabama Southern Baptist disaster relief group, told the newspaper.

But the fact that private charities outperform government agencies should surprise no one. For the agencies, it’s a job. Although they can be - and often are - staffed with good, caring people who do their best, it still comes down to a paycheck. For private charities, however, humanitarian work is a calling. They do it because they want to.

One reason is obvious: They’re local. They’re physically close. When they go to the scene of a disaster, in many cases they’re helping friends and family members. And that personal touch really makes a difference, both for the person helping and the person being helped.

Any help is gratefully accepted, but “there’s always a sense of comfort when you see someone who looks similar to you,” says Juliet Choi, senior director of partner services for the American Red Cross.

Religious faith often plays a role in motivating these charitable works. And one of the smartest things for government to do is not to supplant these groups but to recognize their strengths in the areas where government often fails. That is what motivated President George W. Bush to create the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“There were a lot of groups that felt like they weren’t plugged in before,” says David L. Myers, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A Mennonite minister, Mr. Myers serves as a liaison between faith groups and government emergency officials to better coordinate relief efforts.

Preparing for emergencies - and responding to them effectively - calls for just this kind of integrated approach.

Not all of us, of course, can rush to the scene of a disaster. So we do what many Americans do: We pray, which surely finds its answer in the number of groups and individuals willing to help, and we donate to charity.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year may well dampen such giving. His call to raise the tax rate on high-income earners beginning in 2013 is well known, but he also wants to reduce their income-tax deduction for charitable giving beginning in January. “This both weakens the incentive for the wealthy to give and shifts the perceived responsibility for social welfare from individual donors to the state,” writes Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, in a recent paper.

This would be a big mistake. We’ve seen in recent weeks, in Alabama and elsewhere, how much good private charities can do. We should be doing all we can to make this “best-kept secret” better known - and inspire others to emulate the fine example these groups set.

If there’s one area where the public and private sectors can work effectively hand-in-hand, it’s disaster relief. Let’s not spoil it. Let’s help those who help others.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).