Baptist Builders: American Baptists Look Back at Hurricane Katrina Response

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Baptist Builders: American Baptists Look Back at Hurricane Katrina Response

It has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and we began to learn about the devastation throughout the region. In the days following Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, there was a joint effort by Baptists who reached across denominational lines to respond and address the needs of the people in the area.

As Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and surrounding areas, ABC General Secretary A. Roy Medley, Rev. Dr. Tyrone S. Pitts, General Secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and then Executive Coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Daniel Vestel, connected with one another to discuss response efforts moving forward.

The leaders decided in these conversations that they wanted to work together in response following the hurricane. In the first steps of immediate relief CBF, PNBC and ABC would work together to help local churches respond to the needs.

“We arranged to get to Baton Rouge as soon as feasibly possible after the devastation,” remembers Medley. There, the three leaders met, along with Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, then Executive Minister of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention (DCBC), who was asked to provide administrative coordination through the process in order to work with local churches in the area and the larger denominational bodies.

“I recall that in the days following Hurricane Katrina, while serving as Executive Director of the DCBC, I was eager to learn how DC Baptists could join hands, feet and resources with our Baptist partners in responding to such an epic tragedy,” said Haggray. “Not much time elapsed before I learned that the same concern was shared by Roy Medley and Aidsand Wright-Riggins of ABCUSA, Tyrone Pitts of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., Daniel Vestal of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Paul Montacute of Baptist World Aid. During an initial telephone conference, there was never a question about whether we would respond jointly. We only needed to discuss how fast, and in what ways.”

Medley explains, “We called together a meeting of Baptist churches in the area and said ‘We’re here to help. What do you need us to do?’ and out of that, we began our joint efforts.”

“We convened in a Baptist church [in Baton Rouge] that had effectively become a massive shelter and helping center for evacuees. Over the course of about three days, we met with local clergy to assess the severity of the crisis, and decided ways we could help,” said Haggray. ‘We quickly decided on a name for our joint response, “Baptist Builders: Rebuilding lives, Rebuilding families, Rebuilding churches.”

Medley recalls standing in the church’s front yard and seeing an elderly woman in her eighties clutching a plastic bag, like one you would find at a grocery store. She had been saved from drowning in her home because a grandson had gone over to her house to rescue her and carried her out to safety on his back. That little bag contained all that she now owned.

At the original local church meeting, many needs became apparent. Churches in the area were offering many services to people who were displaced in the region – they were housing them, feeding them, doing whatever they could. And, they were being overwhelmed by the amount that was needed. Churches put together a list of their needs, and each denomination provided funding and aid for the joint effort.

American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Regions and Local Churches Respond

The American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) has been a major partner in the advocacy efforts of the NCC for a “just” rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

American Baptist regions and local churches also came to the area, both in Louisiana and Mississippi, in order to help bring aid to the struggling area.

Following the initial response to the devastation caused by Katrina, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies put into operation its longer term plan, continuing to work with redevelopment and housing needs. ABHMS quickly partnered with Habitat for Humanity and others, marshaling resources and volunteers, rebuilding homes, etc.

Home Mission: ’Til the Work is Done” has been coordinated yearly by ABHMS since 2006. ABHMS began partnering on the effort with the Lower 9th Ward CSED in 2010. As a result of all these efforts, much has been accomplished in the ten years following Hurricane Katrina. Since 2005, ABHMS has organized 8,926 volunteers around the United States, including 5,236 volunteers in the Gulf Coast and 957 volunteers for “Home Mission: ’Til the Work is Done” in the Lower 9th Ward. Other highlights in the Gulf Coast over the years have included 25 homes built with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge, seven homes with Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and 21 homes in Pearlington, Miss.

“That’s why the effort was renamed ‘’Til the Work is Done,’” says Victoria Goff, ABHMS national coordinator of Volunteer Ministries. “American Baptists have been helping to rebuild homes, communities and lives in the Lower 9th Ward since the beginning, and we’ll continue to return as long as it takes—until the work is done.”

Over the years, according to ABHMS, innumerable American Baptist mission groups have volunteered in Puerto Rico, inspiring Jesús E. García Briales, pastor of Iglesia Bautista de Metrópolis, Carolina, Puerto Rico, to lead a group of volunteers to the United States to help rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. The impetus was not only the volunteers’ stories of Gulf Coast need and camaraderie but also Briales’ inclination to repay the kindnesses that volunteers had bestowed upon him and his Caribbean island home. Read more on the ABHMS website.

Read more stories about work ABHMS has done over the past ten years, through the links below, “Passionaries Serving in New Orleans,” a series about the volunteers and residents who have been faithfully rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward through ABHMS’ “Home Mission: ‘Til the Work is Done.”

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: CSED’s Warrenetta Banks, Arthur Johnson

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: First Baptist Church of Hanson, Mass., and TABCOM

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: Iglesia Bautista de Metrópolis, Carolina, Puerto Rico

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: Linfield College, McMinnville, Ore.

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: Shiloh Baptist Church, Wilmington, Del.

Passionaries Serving in New Orleans: The late Ward McClendon

Additional information about “Home Mission: ’Til the Work is Done” and other volunteer mission opportunities is available online or by contacting Goff at, 1-800-222-3872, x2449, or 610-768-2449.

“The energy, enthusiasm, and strength in our effort was powerful,” says Dr. Haggray. “Ours was an authentic and intense movement of concerned Baptists combining resources, passions, and talents in helping to rebuild lives. I felt so humbled and grateful to be part of a Baptist effort that wasted no time on bureaucracy, legalities, and unneeded processes. We located needs, mobilized substantial financial and human resources, and responded with everything we had. I know that we made a difference in the lives of those we touched. Our response continued for a very long time in the years following Katrina. We demonstrated that Baptists can do so much good when we work together with common objectives on a shared mission.”