faith-based FEMA

In coverage of Hurricane Florence, faith-based disaster relief is, again, an important part of the story

In coverage of Hurricane Florence, faith-based disaster relief is, again, an important part of the story

I wrote a news story for Christianity Today this week on “The Crucial Role of the ‘Faith-Based FEMA’ After Florence.”

The piece is actually an update of an article I first reported for CT back in 2013 after a killer tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.

In both cases, I focused on an umbrella group of 65 faith-based agencies and secular charities called the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, known as National VOAD. As USA Today noted in a story highlighted here at GetReligion last year, about 75 percent of those groups are faith-based. They include a number of Christian groups, from Catholic Charities to Samaritan’s Purse, as well as Tzu Chi (Buddhist), ICNA Relief USA (Islamic), the Jewish Federation of North America and others.

Suffice it to say that faith-based disaster relief is an important story, as always, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

So I was pleased to see this headline — “In the Carolinas, Churches Provide Spiritual Refuge and Shelter From the Storm” — in the New York Times on Monday.

I mentioned that front-page report briefly in the Monday Mix roundup of weekend news, but I wanted to offer a bit more commentary on it.

The lede was fantastic:

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Services at Manna Church, a big nondenominational congregation on the west side of town, began at 9 a.m. with announcements.

“We’ve got 10 port-a-potties.”

“They’re setting up showers in the back.”

Pastor Michael Fletcher, standing at the entrance, welcomed the pilgrims arriving out of the pounding rain: A man with his belongings gathered in a soaked towel on his back. A grandmother fleeing her probably flood-doomed house, along with her daughter and five young children.

The largest church in Fayetteville had become the city’s eighth official storm shelter.

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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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After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

In the wake of the Louisiana flooding, a number of my Facebook friends posted about that Deep South state's heroic people coming together and showing their resiliency amid a major disaster.

But here's what I was curious about: how to mesh that totally appropriate narrative with the recent racial protests and violence in that same state.

I wanted to see journalists explore the big picture in Louisiana.

So here's the good news: The Washington Post did exactly that in an 1,800-word takeout on Sunday's front page. Well, sort of.

And that segues to the bad news: The more I read, the more something seemed to be missing. Something big. Something that just might have to do with all those evangelical Christians and Catholics who make up such a large proportion of Louisiana's population. 

Holy ghosts, anyone?

Let me share the crux of the Post story — dateline Baton Rouge — and then explain what I mean:

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God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

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