Black Churches Strive to Soften Hurricane’s Blow

Share via
Times Staff Writer

When parishioners at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church started filing into early morning Mass on Tuesday, they had reason to feel anxious. Many had been unable to contact friends and relatives in Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

“One ailing and aged parishioner asked that we pray for an aunt Martha in Louisiana,” said Father Paul Spellman, whose Los Angeles church of 1,100 families is 80% African American. “Others feared for the safety of children who had just arrived in New Orleans to start college.”

California has been drawing African Americans from the South since the 1940s, when thousands flocked to Los Angeles and the Bay Area seeking manufacturing and defense industry jobs.


But in recent years, it has become one of the top states from which people are migrating back to the South.

Holy Name was among dozens of predominantly African American churches and social organizations in Southern California mobilizing Tuesday to channel assistance to the stricken region.

The Church of the Transfiguration in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district plans to sponsor a collection for storm victims Sunday.

John J. Hunter, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church said, “A number of our members have relatives whose roots are in that neck of the woods.” Since Sunday, the church has collected $10,000, which will soon be forwarded to churches and community organizations in neighborhoods ripped apart by the hurricane.

Meanwhile, many Southland families were desperately trying to arrange transportation and accommodations for relatives left homeless by the storm.

Janet Peaks of Ladera Heights was preparing to take in a 79-year-old uncle whose home just east of New Orleans was destroyed by flooding.


“I put the word out to all my relatives in that area: You’re welcome here,” she said. “We’re family, and families step up.”

Joe Rouzan, former chief of staff for Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, said he and his wife hoped to shelter three or four relatives. “That is,” he said, “if they can find a way to get out of New Orleans and out to California.”

Among others personally touched by the disaster was Danny Bakewell, executive publisher and chief executive of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the West Coast’s oldest black-owned newspaper, and head of the Brotherhood Crusade.

“I can’t find my mother,” Bakewell said Tuesday. “Nor can I find anyone who could give me a status report on her. I can’t even fly there to look for her, because New Orleans is a no-fly zone right now.”

Bakewell last heard from his mother, Marybelle, 80, and his aunt, Delores Brazil, 79, about 5 a.m. Sunday Pacific time as they were preparing to speed off to a hotel on the outskirts of town.

“I never got a call back. I have no idea which hotel she went to,” he said. “And although I know lots of people in black newspapers and the New Orleans mayor’s office who could help locate her, the phones don’t work. I can’t penetrate the power outages.”


Bakewell said the Brotherhood Crusade would establish a special fund for “people wanting to get aid to those in distress, which is virtually everybody in New Orleans.”

Terrel Skinner, a nurse who moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans eight years ago, could not locate his father, grandmother, uncles and aunts -- all of whom had defied orders to evacuate the city.

“I told them to leave, but they decided to wait out the storm in their homes,” said Skinner, who had tried all day Tuesday to reach them. “They all said things like, ‘Oh, well, it won’t be as bad as they say.’ ”

“As far as I can tell, their homes are underwater,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can do but wait.”

With about 100 relatives in southern Louisiana, Ray Leon, policy analyst for Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid, received more comforting news Tuesday afternoon.

“Some of them got hit pretty hard by the hurricane in terms of property damage: torn roofs, broken windows, flooding,” he said. “But we have no fatalities.”


Responding to the urgent need for assistance, the Los Angeles Fire Department dispatched 14 firefighters specially trained in water rescue operations, three inflatable boats, technical rescue equipment and supplies.

Members of San Diego’s Swiftwater Rescue Team are also headed to the disaster area, along with firefighters trained in searching collapsed structures.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has authorized its five members to collect money, clothing, food and medical supplies for the relief effort.

Jo Ann Levi, 47, an administrative assistant at the Church of the Transfiguration, had reason to be thankful Tuesday morning. She finally made contact with her father and sister in Laplace, La., about 30 miles west of New Orleans.

“When we were growing up, my mother, who died this year, was always telling us how to prepare for a hurricane,” Levi said. “But it never came.

“So when I spoke with my sister this morning, one of my first questions was this: Did you do what Mama said to do?” Levi said. “She did it all: boarded the house, filled the tub with water, had candles, flashlights and batteries ready, and food to snack on.”


She said her 81-year-old father, Alfred Sterling, was out early Tuesday repairing gaping holes and crumbled walls at a neighborhood bar and a coin laundry he owns in Laplace.

“My father just had heart surgery,” she said. “But he was never the type to sit around at home when there was work to be done.”



How to help

The following agencies are among those providing assistance to hurricane victims:

* American Red Cross, (800) HELP NOW [435-7669] English, (800) 257-7575 Spanish

* Adventist Community Services, (800) 381-7171

* Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, (800) 848-5818

* Church World Service, (800) 297-1516

* Convoy of Hope, (417) 823-8998

* Mennonite Disaster Service, (717) 859-2210

* Salvation Army, (800) SAL-ARMY [725-2769]

* United Methodist Committee on Relief, (800) 554-8583

* World Relief, (800) 535-5433

* Operation USA, (800) 678-7255

* Catholic Charities USA, (800) 919-9338

Source: Associated Press