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Memphis Churches Lead In Helping Flood Victims

In Memphis, Tenn., water levels remain near record highs and have only just begun to recede. Hundreds of people are still living in shelters, which the interfaith community of Memphis is leading the effort to provide.

Marcello Gonzalez, 29, stands inside the sprawling Hope Presbyterian Church just east of Memphis. He says the last time he saw the mobile home he owned with his wife and two little boys, it was full of water.

"I got my two kids, and I had to bring them over here because I don't have nowhere to go," Gonzales says. "We're here now, and I want to say thank you to this church for help. They give us some food and they have showers, mobile showers in here."

Gonzalez raves about how well his family is being treated at Hope Presbyterian, which is serving as the largest shelter for residents displaced by the floods in Shelby County.

There are close to 180 people sleeping on cots and inflatable mattresses. They are fed three meals a day and get help with transportation, health care and other services.

"We're doing this because we just believe that's the church's responsibility," says Scott Milholland of Hope Presbyterian Church. "Step up and be the church, take care of people and serve people — it's in our DNA and it has been."

What's unique about this effort to shelter, feed and clothe flood victims in Memphis is that it's not being run by the Red Cross. That organization is usually the lead charity in providing shelter services in disasters, which it has an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do.

The Red Cross is in Memphis operating shelters as well as providing other disaster services. But when displaced residents check into Shelby County's center, they're assigned almost exclusively to one of the faith-based shelters that are part of the initiative called Shelby Cares.

"The interfaith community, not just Christian but Jewish as well, has looked up and said we want to take responsibility for the citizens of Memphis and we're willing to fund it," says Craig Strickland, senior pastor at Hope Presbyterian and coordinator of Shelby Cares. "We believe that's what the faith-based community should be about."

In between briefings at the Shelby County Emergency Management command center, Strickland recalls that the impetus for the initiative was Hurricane Katrina nearly six years ago. He says there was an enormous outpouring from the faith community in Memphis to help out during that crisis.

"A light bulb went off, and something changed," Strickland says. "I don't know what. I think the church realized that they had abdicated part of their responsibility in society and they wanted it back. And so they began helping in Katrina. The problem was finding a strategic way to do that."

Strickland says clergy started working with county officials well over a year ago to begin developing the strategic framework for this local, faith-based disaster response. The flooding is its first major test.

Just a few weeks ago, the director of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives was in Memphis to take stock of Shelby Cares, which Strickland thinks could be a national model.

So, what does the American Red Cross, which often leads churches into responding to disasters, think about this?

"It is a little bit different in that the churches are taking a more independent role in the community, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing," says Laura Howe, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

"It's interesting and refreshing in some respects to see the faith-based community coming together and taking the lead on their own, and there may be some things they can teach us, too," she adds.

The bottom line, Howe says, is that people are being taken care of at a time when the need is great.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.