Churches aid rebuilding, but state faith office remains in background
by Tim Lockette
Assistant Metro Editor
Jun 30, 2011 | 2042 views |  0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the days after the April 27 tornado, Ten Island Baptist Church in Ohatchee provided shelter and supplies to storm victims and later helped people apply for FEMA aid.

The church worked with the Red Cross and the local Emergency Management Agency — but the pastor of Ten Island says he’s never been in contact with the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In fact, he didn’t know there was a state agency for that.

“We never associated with them,” said the Rev. Lee Bridges. “I’d never heard of that office.”

In the two months since the state suffered a massive tornado outbreak, local churches have been the backbone of the recovery effort — hosting shelters, feeding storm victims and aid workers and even building houses for uninsured storm victims. Church groups often completed construction while other storm survivors were still haggling with their insurance companies. Unhindered by red tape, and able to draw on a legion of volunteers, churches often outpaced government relief efforts.

In the rush to help the needy, many churches never sought help from the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives — which, by name at least, would seem to be the agency charged with church-related response efforts.

But now that money is running low, and volunteer fatigue has set in, church officials are looking to the state government for help.

“Local churches are tapped out,” said Sid Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun Baptist Association. “Some of us are just wore flat out, and nobody’s showing up to help.”

In a telephone interview, Nichols — shouting over the sound of construction — said the CBA had built three houses for local families and was working on more.

But the homes cost $35,000 each and the local Baptist recovery effort is nearly out of money. Church volunteers have given all they can afford, he said, in time and effort. Someone, he said, needs to step in and help. Asked if he’d heard from the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, Nichols said no.

“I sure would like to, though,” he said.

Rev. Brad Williams, pastor of Greenbrier Road Baptist Church in Anniston, is also running out of building funds. His church has built two houses, for about $20,000 each. They’re now about $13,000 into the third house, in the Willow Point Community, but Williams is not sure where the next $7,000 will come from.

“We’re just going to step out on faith,” he said. Williams said he contacted the office of Gov. Robert Bentley — but not the faith-based initiatives office specifically — weeks ago “to let them know what we’re doing.”

“We never had any response back,” Williams said. “Though I know the governor is very busy with storm recovery,” he said.

Help might be coming to both Nichols and Williams through a fund administered by the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. But if the money does come, it probably won’t be here until August.

What’s in a name?

Alabama’s faith-based office is one of a number of such offices established around the country during the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2001, Bush signed an executive order creating a White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to provide support to church-based charities and relief efforts.

It was a controversial move. Supporters said churches were far better suited to charitable work than federal agencies were. Opponents warned of an erosion of the separation of church and state.

But in Alabama, the change was not that radical. In 2004, the administration of Gov. Bob Riley changed the name of what was then known as the Governor’s Office on Community and National Services.

Jon Mason, director of the office, said he’s not aware of any major changes in the role of the office since the name change.

“Our office works hand-in-hand with volunteer agencies,” he said. “But we’re less on the ground with the troops, to use an expression, and more in a coordinator role.”

Despite the organization’s name, the eight-person office spends much of its time, and most of its roughly $3 million budget, administering Americorps, a federal program that supports a wide variety of community service and volunteer programs.

The office’s other role is in disaster relief. Mason said he and his co-workers coordinate “the VOADs” — short for volunteer organizations assisting in disasters — to make sure their efforts aren’t duplicated.

Religious organizations were part of the VOAD coalition before the “faith-based” name was applied to the office, Mason said. The office worked, and still works, with Catholic Social Services and the Southern Baptist disaster recovery effort, in addition to organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.

Mason said the VOAD, and his office’s work, are much better known in southern Alabama than in Calhoun County.

“The VOAD structure is much more robust in South Alabama, because of the hurricane experience,” Mason said. In the northern half of the state, he said, “disaster” usually means an isolated tornado, and is usually handled with local resources.

Still, two months after the storm, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is about to step into the local recovery effort. The office has been asked to oversee the distribution of $3.1 million in aid funds from the governor’s office. Local recovery agencies met Wednesday to discuss how to apply for that money.

A long wait

“These funds will be available sometime in August, I think,” said Curtis Simpson, of the United Way of East Central Alabama. “I don’t see us getting anything before that.”

On Wednesday, Simpson convened a meeting of the Long-Term Recovery Committee, a local group charged with securing funds from the governor’s $3.1 million. About two dozen local aid workers showed up at the meeting at the United Way’s offices. They were from several agencies, including FEMA, the local EMA, First Baptist Church of Williams, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and others.

The group tentatively agreed to apply for $294,000 in state aid, the maximum allowed to Calhoun County’s 1,400 FEMA aid applicants.

Simpson acknowledged that for local agencies strapped for cash, August is “a long time to wait.”

But aid workers didn’t wait. The meeting led to a wide-ranging discussion of needs in the storm zone. One group had 3,000 bags of ice available for distribution. Another group shared news of a “dozer days” program, in which local churches collect to pay for one day of bulldozer work in the storm zone. Other groups seemed eager to replicate the program.

Eula Tatman, interim director of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, said her organization will soon give out $20,000 in funds collected from local residents. She said the money might be well spent on a “dozer days” program, or to keep house-building projects going.

“Sid Nichols’ work might be right for that,” Tatman said. “What I’ve heard is that they’ve got the manpower, they just need the money.”

Simpson also mentioned the local VOAD, which last met formally in February. Many in the group had never heard of it.

Changing back

Mason, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that even before the storms, the office was considering changing its name. It sometimes gives people the wrong impression, he said.

“I think some people see us as the Department of Religion, which is not our role,” he said.

Mason said no new name has been proposed yet — but in conversation, he sometimes defines the office as an “office of volunteerism” or an “office of service.”

While the office doesn’t have enough personnel to have a hands-on involvement with individual churches, Mason said his co-workers do “a huge job, without a huge staff.”

And the office’s current “faith-based” name, he notes, is not inaccurate.

“It capsulizes what we do,” he said. “In some ways, it’s misleading, but in Alabama, it explains who we are working with.

“But it’s a very long name,” he concluded.

Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.
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