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YDS Community Reaches Out to Victims of Gulf Hurricanes

By Gustav Spohn, Director of Communications
and Jeffrey Pierce '06 M.Div.

With the rest of the nation, the Yale Divinity School community looked on with a sense of urgency as the recent hurricanes transformed New Orleans more and more into a city underwater. Attempts to telephone friends and loved ones in New Orleans and other parts of the flooded and wind-swept region frequently failed, adding to a feeling of helplessness. This is the irony of such an “unprecedented event.” It creates a need like never before to communicate with those known and loved, while at the same time renders that communication next to impossible.

In the wake of the storms, however, stories have begun to emerge that give some hint of the broader YDS community's involvement with—and response to—the devastation wreaked by the hurricanes. In New Haven, YDS students, faculty, and staff remembered people in the devastated regions in song and prayer; initiated a drive to collect books for damaged theological libraries; organized a clothing drive; and began preparations for a volunteer student trip to the area. In the Gulf states, some alumni were relocated while others were involved directly in the relief efforts and offered suggestions on how needs may be met.

“All week in Marquand Chapel, our ecumenical worship services have been responding to the disaster in prayer, song and symbolic action,” said Dean of Chapel Siobhán Garrigan in the days following Hurricane Katrina. “We have spoken our anger, cried our grief, sung our demands for justice, and prayed hard for consolation and guidance… We have remembered the dead, prayed for the suffering, and called on God to show a path to a future in which we do not let this happen again.”

“Virtually everyone has someone (family members and strangers) living with them for the unseen future,” reported Betsy Irvine '80 M.Div., a resident of Baton Rouge, LA and executive director of the largest Americorps program in the state, the Louisiana Delta Service Corps. “Housing is surely one of the major issues we face in the coming months. Immediate needs for food, shelter and medical attention appear to have been met. It is the longer term needs for housing, schooling, and employment that present the greatest challenge.”

A temporary home for emergency personnel

The home she and her husband, Stuart Irvine '80 M.Div., have in Baton Rouge was used to house out-of-town doctors and emergency personnel in the days immediately following Katrina, since their home is so close to the Louisiana State University campus, the primary medical center for all evacuees. Stuart Irvine is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at LSU.

The Irvines' church, University Presbyterian Church on the LSU campus, houses new mothers and about-to-be mothers. Said Betsy Irvine “We have had as many as 18 moms, newborns and various siblings, living in Sunday School classrooms. The generosity of the community (of the country) has been overwhelming. We could diaper every baby (and then some) for at least a year with the supplies we have.”

Her organization, working with agencies such as Presbyterian Relief and local churches, is involved in efforts to relocate those who have lost their homes to other parts of the country. “Communities (churches, municipalities, etc.) would assume responsibility for these groups much in the same way they did for the refugees from Southeast Asia,” explained Irvine. She invited persons interested in helping with the relief effort to e-mail her at birvine@ladeltacorps.org.

Peter Nagle '96 M.A.R., described his trip to deliver $6,000 spontaneously offered by his faith community—The Benedictine Grange, a Roman Catholic monastery in West Redding, CT— to an African American parish in Houston, the Church of St. Peter Claver, that ministers to the poor.

“We spent time with the people there, which was not easy because they were so busy,” recounted Nagle. “But they generously gave us their time and we listened to their story. This is a church community that is known in the whole region as a place for the poor to go in a time of need. ANY time of need. This was simply their mission: to help the poor, and in particular African Americans...

“... The attitude was—you could just sense this—‘we will pass on whatever we receive.' And that's what they do. Whatever they have, whatever they receive, they turn over to whomever needs it, whenever they need it. This is what the poor do, as we know from our other ministries to the poor around the world. And why we who have so much can learn everything we need to know from them.”

Tsunami experience put to work in Gulf states

Arthur Keys '73 M.Div., president and CEO of International Relief and Development (IRD), reported in a letter to friends of the Arlington, VA-based agency that IRD was able to apply some of the technical expertise gained from its tsunami response in Indonesia and Sri Lanka to assist the victims of Katrina, sending supplies and cash assistance valued at more than $500,000, and establishing a multi-specialty assessment team to work in media, logistics, public health, and long-term recovery planning.

Keys noted that IRD welcomed cash donations for its work in the hurricane-stricken areas, for use in supporting immediate shelter and relief activities, as well as distribution of medical supplies, health kits and other relief provisions along the Gulf Coast. Donations can be made by visiting the IRD web site at www.ird-dc.org or by calling (877) 844-5644.

Debra Johnson '76 M.Div., executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Affiliate of the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, described more specialized relief work. Her organization is helping Katrina evacuees who are breast cancer patients and survivors in a variety of ways, including providing wigs, bras and prostheses, and assisting women to continue in their cancer treatments. Johnson requests funds to provide testing and treatment for Katrina breast cancer patients and survivors.

“It is imperative that we help the Katrina evacuees now as they work to rebuild their lives,” said Johnson on Sept. 20. “As I write this I am waiting for a woman to come to my office for a new breast prosthesis. She and her 5-year-old granddaughter were trapped in their apartment in New Orleans. She had to break into the apartment above them to escape the floodwaters. They waited days for help.

“When she called yesterday she was so happy to hear we could help her. She had to throw her prosthesis away because the floodwaters ruined it. She told me that she could probably live without it, but her granddaughter thought she looked funny. And all she wants to do now is make things as normal as possible for the little girl.”

Johnson asked that persons interested in assisting her organization be in touch at djohnson@y-me.org or 713-624-7155.

Love: from concept to action

Katrina also reached into the classroom of Richard Stadelmann '58 M.Div., associate professor of religious studies at Texas A&M, who teaches an undergraduate course entitled “Concepts of Love.” Stadelmann noted, however, that his students have moved beyond the conceptual: “Almost all of my approximately one hundred students have been working in various shelters.” In place of the usual term paper for the course, most of his students are keeping a log and writing an analysis of their experiences of relating philosophical concepts of love and working with disaster victims.

Stadelmann worked with officials at Texas A & M contacting faculty and students from universities in New Orleans and the Gulf region affected by the storm. Hundreds of those students and several faculty members from the affected schools ended up relocating to Texas A&M, he said.

Allan McNicol ‘69 B.D., professor of New Testament at the Austin Graduate School of Theology, reported that his church, Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ, gave more than $40,000 in a special contribution mainly for meals for the displaced. In addition, he said, the church is actively involved in helping relocate and resettle many of the displaced in the Austin area.

Similarly, Heather Templeton '05 M.A.R. and now an MBA candidate at the University of Texas, is coordinating relief efforts at Wilshire Baptist Church, which she attends in Dallas. “So far we have adopted 30 families and purchased furniture, food, bedding, etc. for each family,” attending to the families' immediate needs.

Churches from further afield are likewise involved in the relief effort. According to Nicholas Hood III '76 M.Div., his Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit is supporting a Texas-based program helping to resettle up to 100 evacuated families.

Destruction “almost too much to believe”

George Duerson '60 B.D. and his wife live in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans and were relocated when Katrina blew through. Shortly after the hurricane struck, Duerson wrote, “We are now with our daughter and her family in Katy, Texas, waiting for the electricity and water to be restored. When we are able to return home I will be working at the Munholland United Methodist Church in Metairie to help in the recovery efforts. The destruction is almost too much to believe.”

Earl Johnson '76 M.Div., the national volunteer partner and coordinator of the American Red Cross Spiritual Care Response Team, said, “Yes, I've been very involved with Katrina and Rita Hurricane response, coordinating appropriate spiritual care from the American Red Cross national headquarters with our professional chaplaincy and faith group partners. I've also been the liaison with the US Department of Health and Human Services, NORTHCOM (the Pentagon's homeland defense agency), and NVOAD (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). The American Red Cross has deployed over 80 chaplains to the affected area and supported shelters in every state of the union.

On Sterling Divinity Quadrangle images of devastation brought a notable gravity to the first days of the fall term, prompting a flurry of “practical” activity that complemented the prayers and songs that filled Marquand Chapel.

Susan Olson '93 M.Div., Director of Career Services, began collecting books to rebuild the theological libraries of clergy in Gulfport, MS, whose churches and homes were flooded,

“Obviously, food, health and shelter are the higher priorities,” Olson said in an e-mail to the YDS community. “Clergy in the affected areas are, though, ministering in conditions that we can only imagine. Restoring some of those lost books might be an act of compassion for these clergy who are undoubtedly running on fumes.”

Olson also made arrangements with YDS Book Store Manager Lisa Huck '88 M.Div. to accommodate those who preferred to donate money. Funds collected were to be converted into gift cards from the bookstore that would enable clergy to order books they needed.

Eric Jeuland '06 M.Div. and Jane Eppley '07 M.Div. conducted a critical resources drive on the Quad that resulted in six carloads of mostly clothing, some toys and toiletries that were driven to the Salvation Army in New Haven for delivery to Katrina victims

Student James Aevaliotis '06 M.A.R., in consultation with Associate Dean of Berkeley Maryetta Anschutz, began coordinating with other YDS students about the possibility of a student volunteer trip to the Gulf Coast to help in relief efforts. Tentative plans were to travel to Mississippi over the Thanksgiving break, when there may be a clearer sense of how divinity students could be most useful.

Helping in New Haven

Aevaliotis and other students were also helping out locally, by making themselves available to the Mayor's office to aid in the relocating of families to New Haven and by organizing food/clothing/money drives. Habitat for Humanity announced plans for building pre-fabricated housing sides in Connecticut for shipment to the Gulf Coast, and the students were hoping to recruit volunteers to participate in that.

For many, there is anxiety about the future, with a growing concern for long-term needs. Irvine suggested that, while many immediate needs have been met, “It is the longer-term needs for housing, schooling, and employment that present the greatest challenge.”

“I felt guilty for leaving just as the hurricane hit, but I realize the work of recovery will still be going on when I get back,” wrote John Whittaker '69 M.A.R., '74 Ph.D., professor of philosophy and religious studies at LSU, who had left Baton Rouge for a sabbatical in Canada.

There are also problems that are systemic in nature. In a letter to alumni, Dean Harry Attridge wrote: “The disaster has exposed significant underlying tensions in our political and economic systems, factors that our graduates will have to confront as they lead communities of conviction in the days ahead.”

On September 22, Marquand Chapel hosted El Salvadorian peace activist Jose Innocencio “Chencho” Alas, and in his homily Chencho suggested that the hurricane did what others could not: it acted as prophet, pointing to the enduring inequity and injustice in this nation.

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