God's Politics

God's Politics

Bob Francis: Repairers of the Breach

I have always felt a bit disconnected from Hurricane Katrina – I was on vacation a half a world away when the storm devastated the Gulf Coast. Cut off from television and the internet, I was not saturated with the images of people on roofs, empty buses parked in rows, flooded and flattened buildings, and mile after mile of debris. I missed those initial days of around-the-clock coverage, and I did not share in what I assume was the national incredulity at the fact that these images beamed into American homes were taken on our own soil, not some third world backwater. Where I was, I only managed to glean some patchy reports that left me with similar bewilderment – something about New Orleans underwater and the Superdome destroyed. I returned home to a nation in shock, like walking into a theater during the closing credits after that fatal twist at the end no one was expecting.


Traveling to the Gulf Coast for a visit to New Orleans and a week of rebuilding work in Mississippi last week changed all of that for me. Like Thomas touching Christ’s hands and side, I joined thousands of volunteers before me in seeing for myself. I saw the empty lots where houses, churches, and businesses once stood. I heard people’s stories of survival during the storm, and I stood alongside them for this one moment in time as they continue to rebuild their homes and their lives.

There are some successes in this whole tale, and we need those silver linings amidst such devastation and despair. Thousands of people and millions of dollars have made their way to the area from the private and nonprofit sectors, and each week those people and dollars bring small but perceptible changes. Our group sanded, spackled, painted and floored, leaving three houses a bit closer to completion than when we arrived. And encouragingly, the mission that hosted us is booked with volunteers until the end of 2008. Indeed, the faith and charitable communities have responded.


But being there, it is clear that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Estimates are that rebuilding will take another 5-10 years. Despite that forecast, some groups and denominations are beginning to pull out as we pass the year and a half mark, and both public and private money for some services is drying up. For example, funding is ending for some mental health support services, so local radio ads encouraged people – soon to be left without professional support – to make use of these services while they can. Some of the free meal programs – for both residents and volunteers – are scaling back. And even though some FEMA trailers are just arriving, local advocates must continually fight for extensions to keep them so that the many whose homes are not yet ready have roofs over their heads in the interim. This is not to mention the fierce local battles occurring over issues like affordable housing policy, development practices, and insurance and government reparations (or the lack thereof).


When we debriefed our trip on the last night, our host organization urged us to come back and continue to tell the story of the Gulf Coast. Just as God calls His people to be a people of remembrance, we must not let our nation or our churches forget that there are those on our own shore – fellow Americans – who need their walls rebuilt, and that it is the work of years, not months. The breach is not yet repaired.

Bob Francis is the Policy and Organizing Assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, in support of the United Church of Christ’s Back Bay Mission with five fellow staff members in partnership with a work team from Pilgrim UCC of Wheaton, Maryland.

+ See multimedia from Sojourners/Call to Renewal’s first Gulf Coast work project in July 2006

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posted April 11, 2007 at 11:33 pm

I just got back from a relief work trip to New Orleans. Here are some statistics (admittedly from my less-than-perfect memory, so please excuse any errors): 265,000 people are still displaced (out of a population of 485,000); 85% of New Orleans was flooded; there are only a couple of hospitals open in the area, and absolutely no mental health beds available; the group I was working with (Episcopal Hurricane Relief) has gutted over 5,000 homes, but they have to stop because they can’t find any more owners–this is a tragedy because the government is threatening to demolish any houses they find that haven’t been gutted. They need our help! Go down there if you can. If you can’t, sponsor a group from your church to go down. If you’re afraid to go to New Orleans (we didn’t see any evidence of crime, but our circumstances were pretty controlled), go to Gulfport. Or Biloxi. But go! Peace,

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Shawna R. B. Atteberry

posted April 11, 2007 at 11:58 pm

Thank you for the update on what’s going on on the Gulf Coast. And thank you for taking the time to go down and help.

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posted April 12, 2007 at 4:18 am

Greetings from New Orleans. I love this city! I lived here in 2000-2001, and moved back here in December to finish my masters. This city has an incredible spirit, a joie de vivre. It s a city populated with real people people who are hurting right now, but holding on to this home that they love. It s hard to listen to Katrina stories sometimes, but that s part of being a nurse. Between school and work I haven t found time to dedicate to volunteer work, so I applaud those of you who have come down here to help out. I volunteered with the Red Cross in 2001 and met people I would not have otherwise. That was one of the things that really showed me the real New Orleans not what the tourists see, and certainly not what you see in the national media.

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Carl Copas

posted April 12, 2007 at 9:51 pm

neuro-nurse, you’ve mentioned your work in New Orleans before. But let me say how much I admire you for walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

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posted April 13, 2007 at 1:28 am

Carl Copas Thanks, but that’s God working through me. I only wish I gave Him more time and energy.

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Carl Copas

posted April 13, 2007 at 6:46 pm

“Thanks, but that’s God working through me. I only wish I gave Him more time and energy.” We all do friend.

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posted April 14, 2007 at 3:42 am

Hey, I know how you felt, I was studying abroad in Western Samoa on September 11th, 2001, and then in New Zealand and didn’t get back to the United States till that December. I didn’t see all the patriotic fervor that sprung out of that day, what I did see and hear were the voices of the people in the rest of the world saying “no, this is wrong.” when America decided to attack Afghanistan. I tried to talk to my mom when I came home about how perhaps President Bush was wrong, and why were we going to war against an entire country when we were attacked by terrorists, not a country, and she said that I just couldn’t understand because I wasn’t here. Not that this has anything to do with Hurricane Katrina, I just understand the feeling of disconnected-ness.

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posted April 14, 2007 at 4:41 am

I’ve been to Mississippi 4 times since Katrina, my first trip was 5 weeks after the storm. I’ll be going back on April 25th leading a United Methodist group from northern California for another week of work. We were so moved by the need in the Gulf Coast that we’ve created a non profit company to help. Please visit for all the details. The need is great and we will provide all the non profit groups that send volunteers to the Gulf Coast a tool trailer at no charge … we need to improve their productivity in getting our neighbors back into their homes. Help us raise the funds so we can help more people in the US in need. Glad you went … keep going back … and help us grow our response to this need that never seems to be in our daily news. All the best Chris Lotz EFORRT, President

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Nancy Kopf

posted April 15, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Way to go, Bob. Isn’t it amazing how God uses all of us with the talents we have? NANCY

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posted April 16, 2007 at 4:03 am

Still much needs to be done! Here’s some pictures and notes from a week 8 of us spent in Biloxi this past march.

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