Four Pastors for Peace box trucks and three of our yellow schoolbuses made stops in 25 US cities to collect 80 tons of urgently needed aid: nonperishable food, water, clothing, shoes, diapers, baby food, toiletries, and household supplies. The aid has been delivered through the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), a coalition of more than 42 community organizations in Mississippi and Louisiana initiated by the New Orleans progressive coalition Community Labor United. The coalition is demanding that local, grassroots, black and progressive leadership oversee the processes of relief, return, and reconstruction in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast.

IFCO/Pastors for Peace had the honor to sit at the table with some of the key organizers of this coalition, and to witness the strength of their conviction about returning the displaced to their homes and rebuilding their communities – all in a permanent context of self-determination. With even the mayor of New Orleans now saying that there is no intention to bring Black people back to New Orleans, the coalition is determined to resist the plans to gentrify New Orleans and give it over to white entrepreneurs, and determined to reclaim their communities for themselves. Algiers, LA, just across the river from New Orleans, is the site of the “staging area” where displaced African-American community members are working on “trying to make it safe to bring our people home,” according to CLU leader Curtis Muhammad. The coalition is looking for “permanent friends” from the grassroots and communities of faith who will stand with them for this long-term struggle. They are also loo king for international help, because their help will surely not come from this government.

As Curtis Muhammad said, “Think of New Orleans as a big bowl surrounded by water. And that big bowl was filling up with water, with 150,000 people trapped inside; and the whole world watched for six days, as the most powerful government in the world did nothing to help. Why should we trust our government if they were ready to see us die?”

Our seven Pastors for Peace vehicles came together on Friday, 9/16 in Jackson, MS, which has received thousands of evacuees/refugees from the coast. The Mississippi Emergency Relief Committee (MERC) is coordinating distribution of the aid delivered to Mississippi. MERC includes participation from Southern Echoes, Inc., the office of Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Mississippi Artists and Producers (MAP) Coalition, the Nation of Islam, the NAACP, and other organizations. Three truckloads of our aid were donated in Mississippi; one truck was off-loaded in Jackson, one in Gloster, and one in Columbia. Gloster is a small town in southern MS that has tripled in population since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Columbia is another small town in a badly affected rural area. The aid in all three locations will be distributed to displaced people and to the forgotten communities: many small communities are still without water, food, electricity, and communications. MERC leader Hollis Watkins, the president of Southern Echoes, stressed the continuing need for generators for these locations, and for chain saws to cut away hurricane debris and begin the reconstruction process.

On Saturday 9/17, our caravan arrived in Louisiana, and truckloads of aid were off-loaded at warehouses staffed by volunteers in Algiers, Baton Rouge, and Lake Charles. From these and other delivery points, local organizers are distributing aid directly to the displaced. In Algiers, we met with members of the Common Ground Collective, a group of young people who have come from all across the US to volunteer their time and energy to recovery efforts. They are staffing aid warehouses and health clinics, and running a media and communications center in Algiers. They told us that they are cooperating with the US Army in running one of the local health clinics: the Army runs the clinic two days a week, and Common Ground runs it three days. In Baton Rouge, the Islamic Center, where our aid was off-loaded, was serving as a shelter for 65 displaced families. As PHRF requested, a truckload of aid was also delivered to Houston, TX, to serve the many thousands of displaced people from New Orleans who now find themselves there.

The first story we heard upon our arrival in Jackson, MS was one of many about chaotic local relief efforts. The Red Cross had announced that a relief station would be set up in Yazoo City, MS. On the appointed day, 5000 people lined up; they had traveled from dozens of nearby communities in search of aid. What did they find when they got there? Just two poorly prepared Red Cross volunteers; and other people armed with shotguns to keep the crowds in order.

It is evident everywhere we go that there was no adequate preparation for this enormous crisis. None of the cities that are now housing hundreds of thousands of refugees were prepared or planning for this foreseen disaster and it is taxing all their resources. Now the cities that have received refugees are complaining, and the refugees are not receiving badly needed assistance. There are too many stories of needed aid being refused or turned away by the Red Cross, FEMA, and the powers that be.

There are also a number of secondary disasters developing. The relief efforts have been highly militarized. (We came across an Army convoy in a highway rest stop. The soldiers posed for a photograph and told us, “Were here to help.” When asked what their assignment was, their reply was, “Maam, youre asking too many questions.”) People in New Orleans who are trying to survive and to rescue others are being arrested and jailed. Because the courthouse was destroyed, their trials are being held right inside the same jails, creating an atmosphere of occupation, fear, and mistrust. The prison population has been relocated, and no one knows now where the prisoners are or how the relocation was done. Countless families have been separated, and records of their evacuations often are nonexistent; right now 2000 children who got evacuated separately from their families are “lost.”

As we bear witness to the effects of Katrina, and of the permanent hurricane of racism and classism, we see the critical importance of the grassroots projects that serve as alternatives to entities like the Red Cross and FEMA. We also see the need to create a truth and reconciliation commission, to document the victims testimony, expose the underlying causes of this disaster, hold the government accountable, and set some rules for future crisis prevention.

We came to the Gulf coast to listen to the people who are rebuilding their lives and their communities. We hope to be the sort of “permanent friends” that they need, and, with your support, to continue in solidarity with their struggle. As with our international caravans, our goal here is not just charity, but solidarity, as we continue to work for justice. As IFCO executive director Rev. Lucius Walker said, “We intend to stand with the victims now in their hour of acute need, and also in the future as they continue to demand control of the process of reclaiming and rebuilding their homes and their lives.”

We will let you know soon what our next steps concerning hurricane relief will be. We are meeting to discuss the possibility of a follow-up caravan to the Gulf coast. Even as this emergency caravan winds down, two of our schoolbuses have stayed on in New Orleans to give assistance as the area prepares for the onslaught of Hurricane Rita.

And the campaign to free the computers continues as well. Just before we began the caravan to the Gulf Coast, we were in Washington DC with our weekly Wednesday vigil outside the Commerce Department. Yesterday we were in Washington again for our Wednesday vigil and Congressional outreach. That campaign will continue until the computers destined for children in Cuba are released; and we ask you to keep the pressure on Washington with your phonecalls.

The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) is a national ecumenical agency, which was founded in 1967 to work for racial, social, and economic justice. More information is available at www.pastorsforpeace.org.

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