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First in Prayer, Religious Groups Also First to Mobilize Aid

September 5, 1992

Undated (AP) _ The Rev. John Roth slogged up the watery aisle of St. Thomas By-the-Bay Lutheran Church with sneakers under his liturgical robe the first Sunday after Hurricane Andrew barged through.

Christmas candles glowed in place of electric lights. The 40 families able to make the service were on one side of the pulpit because the roof was missing on the other half of the church in southern Dade County, Fla.

″Whatever they’ve lost, the church is still here. And we’re still here supporting one another,″ Roth said in a telephone interview. The church now also serves as a distribution center for drinking water, food, and building materials.

The reasons for Hurricane Andrew and the misery it caused will remain a theological mystery.

But in contrast to the slower-moving government bureaucracy, religious groups around the country began meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the devastated area the moment the winds died down.

At San Joachim Roman Catholic Church in Miami, the Rev. Antonio Silio said that after the hurricane ripped through, ″I was ready to cry because I felt there was nothing I could do for my people.″

Two days later, he had set up a food distribution warehouse in the damaged church and a makeshift first-aid clinic in the parish hall. With contributions from churches as far away as California, San Joachim has cared for nearly 20,000 families.

Yet by Friday, Silio said, ″From the government I have not received one aspirin.″

In Charleston, S.C., Ron Holbert recalled that when Hurricane Hugo struck his city three years ago, religious groups there were a primary source of sustained relief.

″Churches are the first one on the line,″ Holbert said as he and his wife prepared to take a truck full of chain saws and fuel to join other Southern Baptist volunteers in south Florida.

A thousand out-of-state Southern Baptist volunteers have come to the region, and that number is expected to at least double by Monday, said the Rev. Cecil Seagle, head of the Brotherhood Department of the Florida Baptist Convention.

″We are here to stay until we are able the best we can to eliminate the suffering that we have seen as we walk among people,″ Seagle said.

A donation of 15,000 pounds of kosher food from Hebrew National of New York, the kosher meat company, was particularly appreciated by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which has helped many of the area’s Jewish residents observe religious dietary laws.

Observant Jews may break the kosher laws in time of need, but ″many Jews would really not eat non-kosher food unless they were on the verge of disaster,″ said Rabbi Solomon Schiff, chaplaincy director of the Jewish federation.

On the national level, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked the nation’s prelates to urge their 55 million-member flock to open their pockets in special collections for hurricane victims.

And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America plans to send ″disaster- grams″ to their 11,000 congregations to solicit assistance.

Even as they sought to help needy neighbors, in houses of worship throughout southern Florida, people there gathered to give thanks as they sought to make sense out of a furious accident of nature.

″There are no atheists in the foxhole,″ Schiff said. ″That applies here as well.″

Many synagogues held special ″gomel benshen″ services based on a prayer thanking God for surviving a brush with death. The special services give thanks that the death toll in what may be the nation’s costliest natural disasters was not worse, Schiff said.

More than 50 deaths have been blamed on the hurricane in Florida, Louisiana and the Bahamas.

Even at the Homestead Jewish Center, a synagogue that was destroyed, ″a symbolic victory″ was won when volunteers recovered its Torahs and other holy objects from the rubble.

″It’s an emotional treasure that gives you the feeling all is not lost,″ Schiff said. ″We can rebuild.″

The director of the Inter-Lutheran Disaster Response, a cooperative agency of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said contributions from religious groups have been critical throughout these early days of recovery.

″There’s a lot of devastation and there’s a lot of destruction, and that has to be faced,″ the Rev. Leon Phillips said. ″But there is a lot of love and concern of people for others, and that is to be the sustaining, and ultimately, the triumphant force.″

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