disaster relief

God in the rubble: Look for strong faith angle in aftermath of killer Alabama tornado

God in the rubble: Look for strong faith angle in aftermath of killer Alabama tornado

When a disaster strikes a Bible Belt location, it’s no surprise when faith reveals itself in the aftermath.

We saw it after major hurricanes last fall.

Already, we’re seeing it again in the spot-news coverage of the tornado that devastated a rural Alabama community on Sunday.

The Associated Press’ main report on the tornado that killed at least 23 people in Beauregard, Ala., contains three strong references to religion.

The first:

“I’m still thanking God I’m among the living,” said John Jones, who has lived most of his life in Beauregard, an unincorporated community of roughly 10,000 people about 60 miles east of Montgomery near the Georgia state line.

The second:

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Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

The "faith-based FEMA" play a crucial role in disaster recovery.

As a journalist, I've witnessed this firsthand in places such as New Orleans, Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.

Most recently, I traveled to Texas to report on people of faith mobilizing emergency shelters and distributing food and supplies after Hurricane Harvey. One of my favorite Houston stories — and yes, there was a religion angle — involved a fast-talking entrepreneur named "Mattress Mack." I also enjoyed writing about a large Oklahoma church group's journey to help Harvey victims.

In a twist to houses of worship helping after disasters, three Texas churches filed a federal lawsuit in September seeking help themselves — from FEMA. It's a fascinating case, one made even more interesting by President Trump's decision to weigh in on it.

I've wanted to dig into the case myself and try to understand it better. However, breaking news and other projects have kept me from doing so (excuses, excuses).

So I was pleased to see The Associated Press offer a primer before a court hearing earlier this week.

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Hold on! Tell me again why places of worship are playing a pivotal role in hurricane relief

Hold on! Tell me again why places of worship are playing a pivotal role in hurricane relief

The Associated Press reports out of Houston that many undocumented immigrant victims of Hurricane Harvey are turning to churches for help.

It's a timely, newsy angle and one that immediately drew my attention, especially since I've recently delved into both subjects myself: Harvey relief and Texas immigration.

However, AP's "nut graf" seems like a case of taking a solid story and trying to amp up the volume just a bit too much. I'd still recommend this story — but with a somewhat major caveat. I'll explain in a moment.

But first, the lede sets the scene:

HOUSTON (AP) — Immigrants came from across Houston to a Baptist church gymnasium and stacked dollies with boxes of cereal, orange juice and household necessities like cleaning bleach.
For many of them, the church was the safest place to seek relief after Harvey devastated Houston and left thousands of immigrants fearful of turning to the government for help amid fears they would get deported. A similar response was seen in immigrant-heavy sections of Florida after Irma swamped the state.
“We have to come together as churches to help the undocumented,” Emmanuel Baptist Church pastor Raul Hidalgo said while mingling with victims and volunteers on the church gymnasium’s parquet floor.

Good stuff.

But see if anything strikes you the wrong way — as it did me — in this next highly important sentence. This is where AP attempts to explain the big picture and boil down why this news matter:

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Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the "faith-based FEMA" is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. 

After deadly tornadoes struck my home state of Oklahoma in 2013, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today on how various Christian groups aided victims based on what each denomination does best.

That story noted the important role of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. National VOAD, as it's known, is an umbrella group for denominational relief agencies and secular charities.

From that story, which is mostly hidden behind a paywall at this point:

National VOAD works to avoid duplication of services by FEMA and faith-based groups—a collaboration that has caused few church-state concerns because no money changes hands, said Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University professor of law and religion.

Fast-forward to this week, and I was pleased to see a national publication highlight the faith-based coordination.

The publication? USA Today.

The reporter? Washington correspondent Paul Singer. 

If that name sounds familiar, it's because we interviewed Singer just last week about why he came to the Religion News Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., looking for faith and religion stories.

Singer's piece on faith groups providing the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA, is a good one:

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Have faith, Houston: Looking forward to more God stories after 'rains of biblical proportions'

Have faith, Houston: Looking forward to more God stories after 'rains of biblical proportions'

No words.

Sometimes, there really are no words — no adequate words anyway — to describe a given set of circumstances.

The flooding in Houston stemming from Hurricane Harvey is one of those times.

"It's catastrophic, unprecedented, epic — whatever adjective  you want to use," National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Blood told the Houston Chronicle, describing the 29 inches of rain unleashed on the nation's fourth-largest city.

Amen!

At times such as these, journalists — particularly local ones such as the Chronicle staff — play such a vital role in keeping their hard-hit communities informed and helping them rally and recover.

Forgive me for saying so (because I know it's a cliché to do so), but my thoughts and prayers are with the countless reporters and photographers putting their own lives on hold to dedicate themselves to their friends and neighbors. Yes, I know they are not alone (think first responders and other public servants on the front lines), but the news media's heroic efforts should not be ignored. We can save discussions of "fake news" and media bias in coverage of politics and social issues for another day.

I read today's Chronicle with an eye toward pointing out any faith angles that I came across.

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The faith and resiliency of Oklahomans

Just before noon Monday, my two younger children and I drove along Interstate 35 through Moore, Okla., under a bright sky. It’s impossible to comprehend the grisly scene along that same path now.

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