USA: Faith-based groups flock to disaster

The Guardian
God's punishment theory spreads.
"They say that this is God's retribution for New Orleans being a sinful city," said Jason Smith, a chaplain with the inter-denominational Victim Relief organisation, many of whose members have been deployed to the New Orleans area.
"I don't go along with that. God did not cause this; he allowed it to happen. I have had a lot of people asking me 'why did God do this to me?' and I tell them that God is with them today."

Ever since it became clear how much damage Hurricane Katrina had caused, there has been no shortage of people pronouncing authoritatively on talk radio across the United States and in blogs on exactly whom and what God was punishing. The choice of who is to blame ranges from abortionists to the US government for failing to support the settlers in Israel, from the drivers of SUVs who use up too much petrol to all Americans for going to war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, faith-based organisations and religious groups, preachers and chaplains have flocked to the disaster area. Some quietly offer what is necessary in terms of water or access to a mobile phone, others ponder the religious significance of Katrina.

Sitting in a Portakabin outside the River Centre in Baton Rouge, where thousands of evacuees are being housed, Jason Smith, a Baptist from Dallas, Texas, said he was likely to be there for weeks. "There have been some very sad stories," he said. "We talked to one young woman who had tucked her four-year-old into bed and after the storm had come her crib was empty."

There are 300-400 Scientology ministers who have arrived and plan to stay for weeks, too. Larry Byrnes, who was wearing the distinctive Church of Scientology minister T-shirt, said they had mounted similar operations in New York after September 11, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and also in Israel and Africa. "We were the first on the scene at Punto Gordo [where the hurricane struck in Florida] last year." Did he encounter any resistance from people of other religions or none?

"There's no religious aspect towards helping someone," he said. "There's no intolerance of other people's views. People rise to the occasion. In that sense, it's a religious experience because religion means bringing people together."

Duncan Campbell in Baton Rouge
Tuesday September 6, 2005