By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 8, 2005
Immediate actions being taken by the Archdiocese of Atlanta in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina include a special financial collection in every parish and the opening of archdiocesan Catholic schools to displaced children in an effort to alleviate victims’ suffering and help them rebuild their lives.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory asked every parish to take up a collection as soon as possible on behalf of those afflicted following the nation’s worst natural disaster and donate the money directly to Catholic Charities USA. Some parishes immediately took up a collection over Labor Day weekend, while others planned to do so Sept. 10-11. The archbishop also celebrated an evening Mass for hurricane victims at the Cathedral of Christ the King Sept. 7.
“Our hearts break at the sight of the devastation we see in the pictures on the television and in the newspapers,” said Archbishop Gregory. “The comfort and compassion these people need right now must come from us here in North Georgia. We can be their hope in such a desperate time.”
The archdiocese has offered tuition-free placement of displaced children in its Catholic elementary and high schools for the 2005-2006 school year where space is available. Schools will try to place children of Catholic families first, but those who are not Catholic are also encouraged to apply. Some independent Catholic schools in North Georgia, not administered by the archbishop, also announced they will accept children displaced by Katrina tuition-free for this school year.
In addition to asking that archdiocesan schools waive tuition and fees for children of evacuated families this year, Archbishop Gregory asked that organizations within each school, such as parent-teacher organizations, provide students with the necessary supplies and uniforms.
“We must act quickly to re-establish a sense of normalcy for everyone, and for the children, waking up in the morning to go to school is one step in that ongoing process,” the archbishop said.
As of Sept. 7, approximately 131 students had enrolled in archdiocesan schools and independent Catholic schools as a result of the hurricane.
The archbishop asked that money collected by parishes be sent directly to the hurricane relief fund of Catholic Charities USA, which is the agency commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to respond to domestic disasters. (See address page 4.)
“Catholic Charities is one of the major organizations that is a first responder to natural disasters,” Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities, said at a press conference Sept. 2 at Atlanta’s City Hall where he spoke along with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, three congressmen, and interfaith leaders.
Catholic Charities USA will provide long-term recovery services to people in devastated Gulf Coast communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, including help locating temporary and permanent housing, food and clothing, assistance to get people back in their homes, job placement, counseling, and medical and prescription drug assistance. Catholic Social Services of Atlanta is part of Catholic Charities.
Krygiel said CSS in Atlanta, which has six community outreach centers across North Georgia, will provide limited direct aid locally with food, shelter, housing and employment assistance, and make referrals to the Red Cross and other agencies working in shelters.
“It seems the most vulnerable people are the ones always most terribly affected by these natural disasters,” Krygiel said, “so the Catholic archdiocese stands ready to work with other churches, other organizations to try to make a difference and respond as quickly as we can.”
Mayor Franklin said she was “outraged” by the slowness of the disaster response by the federal government to provide relief and rescue victims in New Orleans, and by the initial $10 billion allocation in Congress for the disaster response. She said she and mayors around the country had been waiting for the call to send teams down to help.
“It is time for us to pull together with the local, state and federal resources that are necessary … There are churches, synagogues and mosques all over America willing to help. We ask the president to get on board and lead us so that we can get out of this tragedy.”
The mayor estimated that as many as10,000 evacuees may have arrived in Atlanta, which is ready to accommodate them.
“We will do whatever it takes to help our brothers and sisters in need,” she said.
As of Sept. 6, there were 1,662 evacuees in 16 Red Cross shelters in Georgia and the number was steadily increasing. An unknown number of people were staying in hotels or with families. The Red Cross said the disaster has affected nearly half the country and that 145,000 evacuees were in 580 shelters nationwide.
Gov. Sonny Perdue accepted President Bush’s request for evacuees to be sheltered in Georgia. The Governor’s Office reported Sept. 6 that evacuees were still arriving regularly at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta.New Orleans evacuee Dexter White came to the CSS outreach center in midtown Atlanta Sept. 2, after finishing a double shift on his new job as a truck driver. He was looking for help with housing. He and his grandfather had lived together in New Orleans, he said, and they went to Lake Charles, La., where his grandfather stayed. White got a ride with a friend to Atlanta and found his job through a want ad. He said he started to cry while riding on a MARTA train. A man asked him if he needed prayer and referred him to CSS.
“I’m not asking for a handout. I want to pay back everything given to me. I’m just in dire straits now,” White said. “I’ve always been the type of person to help people. I’m really appreciative of the help I’m getting. I’m blessed.”
White, who is still unable to get money from his bank, plans to start fresh in Atlanta. CSS supplied him with MARTA tokens and made a connection for him with Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta, which paid for him to stay for a week at a motel near the parish. After that he’ll probably stay with a parishioner or move into an apartment.“When I got here I had $43 in my pocket. Basically I’m financially broke,” he said. His home “is gone … It ain’t worth even looking at … I think I’m going to start over here.”
In many parts of the archdiocese, evacuees from the Gulf Coast escaped to the homes of their friends and relatives.Families opened their doors to caravans full of relatives reaching Atlanta who had fled their flooded homes with only a few days worth of extra clothing. They struggled prayerfully to help them absorb the shock and uncertainty of potentially having lost everything, to find temporary jobs and schools for their children, to care for elderly relatives, and to divvy up chores with as many as 15 people in one home.In an interview, Archbishop Gregory noted that New Orleans, where the disaster has had a deep impact, is “the mother diocese of dozens of dioceses in the U.S. . . . clearly the most ancient of the dioceses in the South.” While the city is known as a place of entertainment, he recalled that Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987 and had a historic meeting with the black Catholic community of the United States there.
The impact of the hurricane on Atlanta may be small by comparison to other cities, yet Archbishop Gregory stated that he believes that the upcoming collections at parishes across the archdiocese will be “reflective of the goodness and compassion” of Catholics here.“
But the response will have to go on,” he said. “Immediate relief is the first step. Our response will be layered” as Catholics in the area respond over time to the needs of the evacuees who have come here, as well as to the needs of those who work to rehabilitate the Gulf Coast.Parishes and Catholic schools immediately looked for ways to respond the week of the hurricane, such as Blessed Sacrament Church in Atlanta, which celebrated a special Mass Aug. 31, and the Cathedral of Christ the King, which also held a prayer service Sept. 1. Other parishes and groups used the long Labor Day weekend to hold donation drives and to haul busloads of generators, food, water, and other supplies to the Gulf Coast, and to load up with evacuees for the return trip to Atlanta. A Girl Scout troop from All Saints Church in Dunwoody collected everything from baby shampoo to crayons and coloring books, and the young adult Theology on Tap program is planning a collection.Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta, an independent Catholic school, began a student-initiated, 100-hour prayer vigil Sept. 2 with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, with students and their families praying in 15-minute time slots through Sept. 6. Priests at Mass preached on the Gospel call to get involved, and lectors proclaimed St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “He who loves his neighbor has already fulfilled the law.”
Krygiel said CSS is accepting donations for its local relief efforts, and his office is applying for a $100,000 grant from Catholic Charities USA to support the response in the archdiocese on behalf of hurricane evacuees. He is also working with the United Way and Gov. Perdue’s Metro Atlanta Katrina Response Emergency and Resettlement Planning Task Force; a vast array of service organizations in Georgia are working to provide a more coordinated response and establish centralized service centers to help displaced people.
Krygiel said parishes that wish to provide support can contact him and as planning develops he will provide more opportunities for them to assist.Churches and other groups that held immediate donation drives and rescue operations delivered hope to victims drowning in despair. Spearheaded by the Life Teen community, a group of youth ministers, young adults and people affiliated with Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, including Father Kevin Peek, collected supplies until midnight Sept. 2 and took buses down to Houma, La., leaving food and other essentials and bringing some evacuees back to Atlanta and taking others to Houston for family reunifications.
Pat Miller and an adult group from St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw took three trucks to an area without power, delivering generators, food, cleaning supplies, toiletries and other items. Mike Mullineaux of the Cathedral focused his mercy mission on Catholic parishes in the town of Pass Christian, to deliver generators and other supplies.The Life Teen group at St. Theresa’s Church, Douglasville held a donation drive, and Aaron DuCre of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna collected supplies last weekend at a Blockbuster on South Cobb Drive to deliver to the Gulf. Medical supplies are also being collected for delivery to the area.
Central Presbyterian Church’s Night Shelter, operated in partnership with the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, opened Sept. 2 to provide hospitality for families of patients who have been medically evacuated to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and seeks volunteers to work at the shelter. The St. Vincent de Paul Society is assisting evacuees with direct aid as well, and encourages members to make donations to the national office through the Web site at www.svdpusa.org, which will be forwarded to the local councils in the Gulf region.Saint Joseph Hospital received 30 medical evacuees by early Sept. 7, and its Mercy Care Services program, which provides primary care and social services and is Atlanta’s only health care provider for the homeless, has begun seeing patients at its 11 clinics around the metro area, and is preparing for many more.
Over the holiday weekend Mercy Care went to the packed Red Cross midtown headquarters and transported 150 people to and from their clinic on Buford Highway, seeing patients with everything from snake bites and infected cuts to cancer. They hope to have one of their mobile vans start visiting the Red Cross site.“So many people were not getting health services and many people didn’t want to get out of line at the Red Cross, afraid they wouldn’t be able to get what they needed, food clothing, shelter,” said Toni Graney, marketing and communications manager for Mercy Care.
Tom Andrews, president of Saint Joseph’s Mercy Care Services, said transportation to medical services, which many evacuees will lack, is a longer-term challenge. Those with serious conditions will be referred to hospitals, while hundreds of others will need basic treatment for dehydration and gastrointestinal diseases.“We have outreach workers who go out to help identify what the needs are with homeless individuals and to refer them to agencies that can meet that need and refer them to clinics. We have no idea what kind of response we’re going to have to provide to this because we don’t know how many evacuees will come to Atlanta,” said Andrews. “We will attract a lot of people because a lot of these folks don’t have much.”
Mercy Care seeks volunteers and donations of medical supplies and particularly of toiletry items. “We’re going to need lots and lots of that stuff.”Among independent Catholic schools, Holy Spirit Preparatory School is accepting at least two students for each grade, pre-K through 12, at no charge for tuition, and school families immediately came forward offering to cover the cost of books, uniforms, limited temporary rental housing, and to open up their homes to evacuees. Students also raised money for the opportunity for an out-of-uniform day.
School president Gareth Genner said the kitchen staff will be making meals daily for 150 families at one of the shelters, with students helping, and that a youth last week came to his office almost every hour with an idea for a future charitable project.“We have sufficient pledges from families and staff to cover every need,” said the president. “We feel the best thing we can do is to get these children in school. We can’t restore a sense of normalcy, but we can do what things we can to place them within a supportive community.”
Ninth-grader Erica Leinmiller believes that if she can’t go to the Gulf Coast to help, prayer is “the next best thing.”
“I think everybody should just be in this together and help every way they can to get everyone out of there,” she said. Classmate Maria Guzman was also glad to see her school community pulling together, as she has many friends whose families had homes destroyed or flooded. “A lot of families are being so generous. It just brings out the best in people sometimes. It’s so sad … I hope it helps people out and really encourages them to have a little more hope and faith with everything happening.”
Senior Michael Nelson took extra slots of time praying before the Blessed Sacrament for the rescue of victims and that survivors will be able to start living again.“I think they’re doing the best they can,” he said. “From what I’m hearing they weren’t prepared enough.”
He will try to help the evacuee students enrolling there to adjust to Holy Spirit Preparatory School.Father Paul Burke, chaplain at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fairburn, where 12 students had enrolled by Sept. 7, said efforts to welcome evacuated high school students were going well.
“As they come, we take them,” he said. “We get them suited up and working, being quick so they don’t miss too much school work.”
While most of the children seem to be faring well, it’s been a traumatic experience for the entire family.
“We’re giving the parents a little bit of a hand so they can get other pieces of the picture back together again,” he said. “With the children in school that’s one less thing for them to worry about.”At Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta, Father Jim Schillinger, pastor, spoke in his homily Sept. 4 of his own shock over the magnitude of the devastation and over the slow government response.
There is a time and a place to address all the swirling questions regarding efforts to fund repairs of the New Orleans levees, and about the flaws of the federal, state and local response, he said. But for now the immediate Catholic response must be of compassionate outreach to the suffering, as relief efforts are an opportunity to show unconditional Christian love and truly live out one’s faith.
“For Christians, for the Catholics, the question isn’t who’s at fault or what color they are or where they came from—these questions, there’s a time and a place for these—but the question at least for Christians, for Catholics, is ‘what can I do?’ It’s the only question at least for now,” said the priest. “Let us see what the Gospel tells us to see—men and women who are our brothers and sisters in Christ for whom we are responsible … The need is monumental.”