Interfaith to focus on rebuilding homes

BY P.J. HELLER | BIRMINGHAM, AL | May 11, 1998


An interfaith group representing a

broad coalition of organizations in the Birmingham, Ala., area plans to

focus on repairing and rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed by the

devastating tornadoes that swept through the area in early April.

"Our narrow, single focused goal in the faith community with our

long-term work is repairing and rebuilding homes," said the Rev. Mike

Harper. "There are many other needs out there, to be sure. What we're

trying to concentrate on is that long-term task."

At the same time, an "Unmet Needs Committee," a larger coalition of both

faith-based and secular organizations, including city and county officials,

will address other community needs, such as counseling and helping to

families to obtain temporary housing.

Harper, with the North Alabama Conference, of The United Methodist Church, said that construction efforts would take at least one year. The

April 8 twisters in western Jefferson County damaged or destroyed about 1,000 homes and killed 34 people. Many of the homes were

uninsured or underinsured, Harper noted, "so you've got some serious unmet needs out there."

Some 10-15 representatives from the faith community last met Friday, May 22, in Birmingham to select a leadership team and discuss efforts to

help people rebuild and repair their homes. It will be the third meeting of the group since the storms ripped through the area.

At that meeting, the Rev. Ricky Thacker of the First Baptist Church of Sandusky was named chairman and Doris Harris of the Southern

Baptist Convention was named co-chair.

Those attending the meeting represented a "broad-based interfaith group" and included members from Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist,

Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Protestant and Catholic organizations, among others.

"We really are anxious to draw the whole community of faith into the process," Harper said.

Although details remain to be worked out, Harper said the actual work will likely be spearheaded by the Greater Birmingham Habitat for

Humanity affiliate, which in recent years has built more non-profit, low-income housing in the Birmingham area than any other organization,

according to Jan Bell, executive director of the Birmingham affiliate.

She said 47 homes have been built in the past 10 years with another 30 expected to be constructed within the next year. Habitat homes are built

by volunteers, assisted by the families who will occupy them. Habitat sells the homes at cost to the families, holds the mortgages and charges

no interest on the loans. The average price for a Habitat home in the Birmingham area has been $40,000.

Habitat for Humanity International, based in Americus, Ga., has pledged $1 million to assist in the rebuilding effort. Bell said her organization

hopes to raise another $1 million from local sponsors.

The United Methodist Church, meantime, has provided initial funding while a number of other denominations have promised to contribute to

the rebuilding effort. Negotiations were also under way with Jefferson County officials to obtain several hundred thousand dollars for the

rebuilding effort, Harper said.

Each of the religious organizations involved in the relief effort is looking at specific areas where it can help.

The Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, for example, will provide free housing for volunteers who will be working on repair and

construction. It is also providing long-term office space in a local church for Habitat and other officials, Bell said. The presbytery was also

spending $10,000 to upgrade the facility for use and will pay all utilities and phone bills for two years which Bell said will "give us an

opportunity to be out in the community."

Jewish Family Services will assist with case management and will help interview families to assess their housing and other needs; Mennonites

are expected to bring in building teams. Lutherans will bring in work teams, while Seventh-day Adventists will manage warehousing for

materials, including food, clothing and building supplies.

Harper is among those who will serve on the interfaith's four-person executive committee. The others are the Rev. Steve Small of True Life

Baptist Church, Eldon Zimmerman of Lutheran Disaster Response (Lutheran Ministries of Alabama), and the Rev. Sam Pettagrue, pastor of

Sardis Baptist Church.

All four men are also serving on the Unmet Needs Committee, which Small said would allow them to learn first-hand some of the specific

needs of those affected by the storm. Pettagrue said serving on both committees would help avoid any duplication of efforts. Those involved

with the interfaith group said that having a narrow focus on trash removal and rebuilding and repairing of homes, while leaving other services to

the Umet Needs Committee, was a logical approach to dealing with the massive devastation.

"We can't do everything," said the Rev. Milton Booth, coordinator of volunteers for United Methodist Churches. "When you look at the 23

miles of destruction that the tornado left, I think it's very important that we focus in on certain communities and we focus in on doing certain

things," Small added. "If we just look at the whole big picture and try to do it all, we're going to mess it up. We want to be able to accomplish

our objective. So it's very important for us to be focus narrowly on what we're going to be doing." Pettagrue agreed.

"It's a terribly large job so we have to compartmentalize in order to do it," he said. "A lot has already been done, but there is still a lot left to do."

Although there were some advance hints that there might be an attempt made at Friday's meeting on the Birmingham-Southern College campus

to combine the interfaith and unmet needs organizations into a single group, Pettagrue said the topic was not addressed.

"In a real sense we are combined," Pettagrue said. "Many of us who are working on this side in the recovery area are also working with the

unmet needs group. We're just meeting at two different times."

He added that developing better lines of communication between the two groups was a goal discussed at the meeting.

"The criteria we're going to use at every point is the greatest need," he said. "Obviously there's no litmus test of race or sex or religious

affiliation. It's just who's got the greatest need." Pettagrue said he has been moved by the response of people wanting to help.

"The people are really coming together, of all races and cultures and nationalities, from all over America and some from other parts of the world

to make this happen," he said of the recovery efforts.

"It's amazing and I guess rather a miracle that so many people of faith have come to the aid of these victims," Pettagrue added. "That in itself is

very encouraging and refreshing for me and very therapeutic for the victims themselves, just to know that people in the faith community, with

resources and manpower, have come together for the sole purpose of helping them rebuild their communities and rebuild their lives."

Harper said the interfaith effort was having a positive effect by bringing together various faith-based organizations. "The circumstances have

forced us to live what we should have been living all along in terms of community and shared responsibility," he said. "I think this absolutely

has at least the potential of uniting the faithful community in this town in ways that have not been approached since the civil rights days."


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