Keys struggle to find volunteers

BY PJ HELLER | BIG PINE KEY, Fla. | November 9, 1998

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. (Nov. 9, 1998) -- As disaster relief organizations

focus on the pain, suffering, death and destruction in Central America,

attracting volunteers to assist in recovery efforts in the Florida Keys has

become an even greater challenge for the Paradise Interfaith Network here.

Even before the Central American catastrophe, the interfaith

organization had faced an uphill battle to convince people outside the area

of the need to assist in recovery efforts.

That's because the 130-mile chain of islands are almost totally

dependent on tourism for their survival. So while the interfaith and an

unmet needs committee work to help people who lost their homes and

possessions in Hurricane Georges, Keys tourism officials have been beaming

messages to the world that it's business as usual in the area.

"They're putting up ads to let people know that everything is OK," noted

Jessica Smith, PIN administrator. "But we're still publicizing (the need

for volunteers) in all the church bulletins and through Lutheran Disaster

Response, UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) and Catholic


Smith said that many volunteers initially were choosing to go to Puerto

Rico rather than the Keys because of the greater destruction caused there

by Georges.

"Now, with Honduras and Nicaragua in such dire straits, I think a lot of

people who are going to be willing to volunteer will end up going there,"

she said.

Smith said she remains hopeful that faith-based organizations will offer

to help in the Keys, especially in Big Pine Key and Cudjoe Key, both of

which suffered heavy damage when Georges hit the area Sept. 25. More than

4,300 homes and mobile homes throughout the Keys were damaged or destroyed

in the storm.

PIN initially hoped that Bahia Hondo State Park would open its

facilities for volunteers driving to the area. However, Smith said that

park officials felt the facility was too heavily damaged to allow campers

or RVs into the site. The park did allow PIN to use one of its cabins, she


"We're trying to find a place for people to park their RVs (who come

down to help)," Smith said. "We're working on that."

PIN members hope that people from up north will opt to come to the Keys

when winter weather sets-in where they live.

Meantime, PIN is moving ahead with plans to hold a gala Thanksgiving

dinner for residents and volunteers, Smith said. The event is slated for

St. Peter's Catholic Church on Big Pine Key, which is serving as the

command center for PIN. Some 100 turkeys are expected to be donated by Farm

Share in Homestead, Fla.

A food distribution center has been operating on the church grounds.

The Paradise Interfaith Network, composed of churches from Key West to

Islamorada, was formed in the weeks after Georges slammed into the Keys. It

grew out of an unmet needs committee which was created to help island

residents cope with the devastation caused by the hurricane.

At least one church, however, has declined to participate in PIN.

"Personally, I have never, nor will I ever, be a part of an interfaith,"

insisted Pastor Charlie Sexton of the Big Pine Baptist Church.

Sexton, who describes himself as a "right-wing conservative

fundamentalist," said that because he believes strictly in the scriptures,

he could not in good faith be part of PIN.

The pastor opened part of his church as an American Red Cross relief

center (other parts suffered extensive damage in the storm). Before the

hurricane, he said his church was known as a place where anyone could come

to get food, shelter or clothing.

Sexton said he draws the line, however, at being involved with other

religious organizations, even if their goal is to help the entire community.

"All kinds of organizations do good things and that's great," he said.

"But when you do it under the banner of Christianity, you need to watch

what you're doing."

At the Big Pine United Methodist Church, located nearby, the Rev.

Richard Derreth said he felt Sexton was "clearly missing the boat" about

being in the interfaith

"It wouldn't matter to me, and I don't think to those involved, what

kind of worship or faith people have," Derreth said. "We came to the table

to work together for all our common good.

"We're going to do things that directly benefit his congregation as well

as all the other congregations, all the other denominations, all the other

faiths, no matter what they are, even if they don't have a faith," he said.

"That's what we want to do. To call it an interfaith is just what it is."

Derreth added that establishing the interfaith was something that was

too long in coming. Until now, he noted, the area had what he described as

a "loose" ministerial association.

"The interfaith is what we always wanted but never quite had," he said.

"I think it will bind us together as a faith community, as well as community."

Posted Nov. 9, 1998

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