Holy Rollers — The Church Van Is Hero of Katrina Recovery for Blacks
Tragic events in New Orleans have laid bare America’s bigotry and exposed the lie of equal opportunity
Kevin Weston Pacific News Service, September 13th 2005
MOBILE, Ala.–When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, her winds of despair awakened the organizing capacity of the black church to serve black people. That venerable old cross that has supported African people in America almost since the moment we were stolen away has again proven itself the premiere grassroots organization in our community. The black church van has always been visible on Gulf Coast roads — usually loaded with parishioners going to Sunday school or Wednesday prayer sessions. Now, it carries supplies to storm victims, and transports evacuees to food, shelter and safety. In Mobile, Ala., Paul Robinson — a formerly incarcerated activist who works on voting rights — is loading a church van with water, soft drinks, Pampers and dry goods, alongside half a dozen other men in the 90-degree Alabama heat. This van and three others are headed for Biloxi, Miss. Black people like Robinson are filling in the enormous gaps that the government agencies can’t or won’t fill — direct service, literally to the door of the needy. In the days after Katrina hit, Robinson and other private citizens collaborated with local Baptist ministers to start an organization called Saving OurSelves (SOS). Though New Orleans is on everyone’s mind, the rural Gulf Coast was also devastated by Katrina — coastal Alabama and Mississippi towns like Bayou LaBatre, Codine, Irvington and Ocean Springs. “The smaller areas are the ones that are off the radar screen,” Robinson says. “There is devastation all around. People who are from the poorest of the of the poor communities have very limited access, if any, to the services.” Robinson describes the hardest-hit areas where our people are. “They were typical communities, the Gulf Coast naval ship yards and bases, the casinos and the fisherman. These people have been very impacted. They were functioning. Now they have nothing.” Through his work on voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, Robinson has knowledge of exactly where to find the people in greatest need. “We are out there,” he says. “You got to go into the hood. You get to know these people. We know where they are, and we brought in water, food and ice. They hadn’t had any resources delivered to them.” “A FEMA or Red Cross site may be set up one mile away,” Robinson observes, “but if your car is flooded out, and you have no dollars, you have to walk to the site in 90-degree weather. Someone has to take the initiative to go and handle the immediate situation.” Also working with SOS in Mobile is Tilda Foster, an energetic, God-fearing woman. She has worked tirelessly to find people food and housing since the day after Katrina brought her wrath to the Gulf. Foster believes that the hurricane was a warning from God. The message, she says, was clear — America needs to repent. “We have not been neighborly as a country. If we only pull together when there is a catastrophe then we have not been together. “My neighbor is not just the one who lives next to me. My neighbor is every person in this world. It is a warning by water.” Reverend Bracy of First Baptist Church in Pritchard, Ala., had damage to his home, but his church van has been running all over the Gulf Coast for days. “This is our test,” Bracy says. “God is going to ask us ‘When I was hungry, did you give me meat? When I was thirsty, did you give me drink?’ First Baptist church has passed that test this week.” Main Street Biloxi, Miss., looks like a column of M1 tanks has come through with cannons blazing, taking aim at any solid structure standing. The houses look like they were exploded from the inside. Debris — couches, toys, clothes and tables – -sits piled on front lawns. Survivors, mainly old folks, sit on stoops, while the kids in the neighborhood cut through the streets on dirt bikes, laughing and joking with each other. Cars sit on top of each other, thrown there by Katrina’s water and winds. Churches — three of them within 50 feet of each other — stand gutted like fresh fish. Sitting outside of the Main Street Baptist Church, behind a table overflowing with supplies, is Genece Darden. She is wearing a mask to protect her senses from a sewage plant that backed up and poured a foul stench into the stricken casino town, and from the dead who haven’t been found and removed. In front of her church stands a prodigious stack of supplies — water, baby food, soda, all kinds of dry goods. This neighborhood wasn’t served by FEMA — black people from the surrounding areas have donated these goods, bringing them to Biloxi in church vans and buses. Darden lost everything in the storm. “I had a brick home so the structure is still there,” she says, “but everything in it is gone. It went under water.” Genece took refuge in her church while Katrina smashed Biloxi. “The night of the storm we had about a hundred people” in the church, she says. “We were downstairs in the sanctuary but as the storm progressed and the water rose, we moved upstairs to the old sanctuary.” “We are just thankful to God. I come over every day to help,” she says. Darden could have left Biloxi soon after Katrina, but she didn’t. “This is my community,” she says. “We are making sure people are getting the basic necessities they can use to survive.” Darden works daily handing out food. “All these donations you see are private,” she says — “not from the government, not from FEMA, not the Red Cross.” Asked why this is so, Darden laughs and says, “That’s my question.” “President Bush walked this area a week ago,” she continues, “and the government has not done anything. I haven’t seen my mayor, either. “We are leaning and depending on God and we know he will see us through.” Tim McCants, a stocky young man from Mobile, typifies the sprit that is moving through the black community in the Gulf Coast. “My house flooded out,” he says. “I lost everything. I’m here to help because I know I needed help. Somebody opened up their doors to me. I had somewhere to stay with air conditioning and food. I feel like I should help other people who need it.” “It’s bad down here,” he says of Biloxi. “It smells bad and it looks bad. It’s a lot easier for me, because Mobile wasn’t hit that hard. We were blessed in Mobile.” As dusk falls on Mississippi, a blood red crescent moon hangs over Highway 10 like a freshly used dagger slicing the blue-black sky. The vans are heading back to Mobile. They’ll be back tomorrow.
Pacific News Service contributor Kevin Weston is editor-in-chief of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia, a journal of young life in the Bay Area. Additional reporting/video by Cliff Parker.