Anabaptist churches, heirs to what is often called 'the radical Reformation', are working in support and solidarity with communities still recovering from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southern United States.
Leaders of five Anabaptist denominations visited New Orleans and other areas in Louisiana in late 2006. Belita D. Mitchell, moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren General Board, were part of the nine-member council that visited the region. The council also includes leaders of the Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, and Conservative Mennonite Conference. They meet annually to discuss common concerns among Anabaptist churches.
The council visited devastated New Orleans neighbourhoods, worshipped with an Anabaptist congregation in nearby Metairie, and attended the dedication of a house built by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDC) in the southern Louisiana community of Pointe-aux-Chenes. They also heard from Roy Winter, director of Emergency Response for the Church of the Brethren, and met with local pastors and aid workers.
Enormous challenges are still facing Gulf Coast communities as a result of the hurricanes, the group learned. Among the ongoing concerns are the plight of hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated but have not returned. Many people continue to live in trailers or other temporary housing arrangements in unfamiliar communities far from family, churches, and jobs.
Delays in restoring city services have slowed the return of evacuees, according to Tim Barr, Gulf Coast disaster response coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. Additionally, many evacuees lack the basic resources they need to make the transition home. "The hope is that a lot of people are going to come back to New Orleans, but the reality is that many people can't," Barr commented.
Bob Zehr, a retired Mennonite pastor, thanked aid agencies for their assistance to churches and communities in the Gulf Coast, but added that many needs remain. He said many members of his congregation, Lighthouse Fellowship in Plaquemines Parish, have not yet qualified for housing assistance for various reasons. He fears that some people, such as those in his congregation, are "falling through the cracks."
In a related development, the Disaster Child Care programme of the Church of the Brethren began a new project in New Orleans last week, offering child care at a new 'Welcome Home Centre' organized by FEMA. Child care at the centre is scheduled to continue throughout 2007, and will be carried out by certified volunteers from around the country. (For more about Disaster Child Care (www.disasterchildcare.org.)
The Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination which decsribes itself as being "committed to continuing the work of Jesus peacefully and simply, and to living out its faith in community."
The denomination - not to be confused with the Plymouth Brethren in the UK - is based in the Anabaptist and Pietist faith traditions and is one of the three Historic Peace Churches in the USA. It celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2008. It counts about 130,000 members across the United States and Puerto Rico, and has mission initiatives and sister churches in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nigeria.