- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

While all eyes have focused on alarming failures of government at every level following Hurricane Katrina’s recent invasion of the Gulf Coast, hundreds of religious congregations, some from 1,500 miles away in California, had teams on the ground in Louisiana ahead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard. While the failures had 1,000 reporters, success was virtually an orphan.

Bearing seeds capable of healing a divided nation and demonstrating how civil society underlies the formal institutions of our democracy, these underreported successes hold powerful messages. They go far beyond this single catastrophe and the examples could fill a hundred Superdomes.

The Texas Salvation Army rolled a convoy of 20 canteen units and scores of trained relief volunteers into nearby Beaumont, Texas, well before the storm, to be near when needed.

The Southern Baptist Convention, perhaps the largest denomination in the affected area, mobilized 3,000 people to feed 300,000 people each day. An Episcopal priest in Baton Rouge turned his sanctuary into an obstetric ward for patients from a nearby women’s hospital.

These first of the first responders are not slick televangelists. They are ordinary people, seeking neither praise nor money to keep themselves on the air. Many left day jobs as responsible managers. How else can one explain how one congregation in Houston could mobilize the efforts of 131 faith-based organizations, including Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Bahaists? Their division of labor could provide a powerful case study for the Harvard Business School. The Adventists, for example, are experts in warehousing, the Quakers in child-care during disasters and the Mennonites, famous builders, can repair devastated homes.

Representing thousands of nodes in an intricate network, they seemed to awaken almost spontaneously. The web of connections that pervade such civic and religious organizations, combined with their more intimate knowledge of the region’s geography and sociology, equip them better for many challenges posed by disaster than a centralized, bureaucratized government agency. They efficiently arranged to adopt one family here and a hundred families there without a memo from a supervisor. A quarter-million evacuees are already placed in Houston homes. And there will be mental health counseling and long-term care after the tears of others have dried.

This phenomenon would not have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French observer who marveled at the ubiquity of volunteer organizations in the young American republic. That such a vigorous private sector is not found in other nations has led some to refer to an “American exceptionalism,” where turning to the state, as scholar Michael Novak has observed, is considered a kind of moral “falling away from the project of self-reliance and self-government.”

The lessons are obvious. Successful democracy, for instance, is built on a pre-existing framework of common values, rather than ethnic solidarity, and may be required to fuse disparate communities into a civil society. For reasons related to their historical state support of religion, many nations have not developed such habits of community. Even in the United States, it is tempting to take it for granted. But in the global landscape, itis extraordinary.

This experience can also be a precursor to more effective public private partnerships. It would be a mistake to conclude such an organization as FEMA is not needed, especially in a massive catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. But we fall short of both our heritage and our future potential if we limit our concern to government efficiency. Government disaster relief alone cannot match the impressive response of local congregations. Public private partnerships have the potential for greater integration and a sense of healing that comes with genuine community.

As the waters subside, we have the choice to rise above the blame game and not squander such a rare opportunity to recapture the habit of a civil society to come together again after such a tragedy. And beyond our own shores, there is no better way to export democracy than by example, for some lessons are better caught than taught.

James R. Wilburn is dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu, Calif.


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