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Helping evacuees brings Houston’s faith community together

 


Helping evacuees brings Houston’s faith community together

Sept. 5, 2005

By Steve Smith*

HOUSTON (UMNS) — On a day melted by Houston’s notorious humidity and temperatures reaching 101, more than 15,000 souls from all walks of life, religions, races and ages flocked to one of this oil city’s richest sections over Labor Day weekend to learn how to feed the poorest of the poor.

As one ecumenical leader put it, "Keep your hands clean — and keep your minds open."

United Methodists, Protestants of every stripe, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and people of other faiths — a literal microcosm of Houston’s religious community — participated in training sessions at Second Baptist Church to learn proper, healthy ways to handle food so they could feed hundreds of thousands of evacuees who fled hurricane- and flood-ravaged New Orleans with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"Operation Compassion," an outreach of Houston and Texas officials and the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, planned to provide as soon as possible three meals a day to the 50,000 desperately poor residents living in the city’s Astrodome, convention centers, shelters and churches. Organizers hoped to raise $4.4 million for 30 days of food and lasso 720 volunteers a day.

United Methodist Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Houston-based Texas Annual (regional) Conference announced a commitment to raise $1 million for feeding 75,000 meals a day for the conference’s designated week, Sept. 14-20. Huie said the conference needed 240 trained servers per shift for each of the seven days at either the George R. Brown Convention Center or Hewlett-Packard Center, where thousands of evacuees were bused after city officials declared the Reliant Center convention and sports complex full. The famous Astrodome, the country’s first domed stadium when it was built 40 years ago, is part of the sprawling complex.

"You and I have an opportunity to practice radical hospitality and extravagant generosity in a situation which, God willing, comes only once in a lifetime," Huie said in a Sept. 4 letter to conference churches.

Meanwhile, at the third of at least four training sessions at Second Baptist, interfaith organizers called upon 9,000 volunteers to put aside their differences when they feed evacuees, to avoid proselytizing and to respect all religions.

"This is a great opportunity to give the poorest of the poor new hope and a fresh beginning," said the Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church. "We have divided up the city in teams, and my ecumenical gathering includes Baptists, Catholics and Muslims.

"I’ve discovered denominations and religions I’ve never heard of, but we are coming together to make a difference."

Faith leaders said they realized the enormity of their task but vowed to carry on for as long as necessary. Evacuees might need to stay in Houston and other areas at least four or five months before they can return to New Orleans, disaster experts warned.

"We have to realize that this is an opportunity to not only help the evacuees but also to bring us closer together as a community," said the Rev. Charles Millikan, a United Methodist clergyman and vice president of Houston’s Methodist Hospitals, where more than 300 evacuees received medical services and pastoral care. In addition, Methodist Retirement Communities devoted 80 beds throughout East Texas for evacuees with special needs, he added.

"This isn’t going to be the last storm we’ll face," Millikan said. "We’re also helping ourselves in our own preparation."

Jackie Gaw, a member of Houston’s Genoa United Methodist Church, attended the training session with three fellow congregants, and said she was amazed at the interfaith effort bringing together so many different religions.

"We’re all one in God," Gaw said.

Jaffar Syed, a Muslim pharmacology student at the University of Houston, said he looked forward to working with members of other religions.

"It is my duty as a Muslim to help those around me who are in need," Syed said. "Our prophet, Mohammad, said that he who sleeps while his neighbor is hungry is not a Muslim. If these men, women and children who came to Houston are hungry and I’m sleeping comfortably, then I feel like I’m not doing my duty.

"No matter what religion you are, this is one thing we can agree upon: nobody should be hungry."

Volunteers who wish to help can contact the Texas Conference, (713) 521-9383 or go to www.txcumc.org. United Methodists and others who want to make donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s response efforts can visit www.methodistrelief.org or designate checks for "Hurricanes 2005 Global," Advance No. 982523, and place them in church offering plates or send them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

*Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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