Another side to disaster relief: prayer
President Bush spoke at Washington's National Cathedral to mark Friday's National Day of Prayer.
When President Bush designated Sept. 16 as a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina, he was responding to tragedy in a way that has been a regular element of his presidency: an expression of faith.
The service in Washington's National Cathedral last Friday, at which the president spoke, reminded Americans that hurricane relief is not just about donating money and taking physical steps to help those affected by the storm.
It is also about helping foster a spiritual atmosphere that supports the challenge at hand.
"On this National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, we pledge ourselves to the demanding work of revival, and renew the faith and hope that will carry that work to completion," Mr. Bush said in his remarks at the cathedral. "In the worst of storms, and in the rush of flood- waters, even the strongest faith can be tested. Yet the Scriptures assure us, 'many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it.' "
As with many aspects of the federal response to Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, Bush faced criticism even in his call for a national day of prayer: It came too late, some religious figures asserted. Many churches around the country had already held special prayer services for victims of Katrina and were embarked on their own relief efforts in the Gulf Coast.
For some African-American congregations, Katrina's unmasking of profound poverty among minorities in the region fanned criticism of the Bush presidency.
In contrast, when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the call for a national prayer event came two days later and the National Cathedral service itself was held the next day, on Sept. 14. Bush's speech was hailed as a unifying moment for a nation in shock.
But even if the president today is seen critically by many Americans in his response to Katrina, the focus on national, collective prayer during a time of tragedy is as strong as ever, some organizers say.
"In the prayer movement, [Katrina] has created more unity and cohesiveness within all the different groups than any other single event," says Ronald Simons, a spokesman for Greater Calling Ministries, a teleconferencing contractor in Terre Haute, Ind., that supports groups such as the Presidential Prayer Team (PPT).
The PPT itself, which started in 2001 in response to the disputed 2000 election, organized a "virtual prayer rally" and prayer conference call for last Friday to correspond with the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.
PPT president John Lind says 15,500 people enrolled in the virtual prayer rally. Mr. Lind himself flew in from Phoenix to attend the service at National Cathedral, at the invitation of the White House.
"The service was uplifting, it was solemn," Lind says. "It helped answer some questions in the context of, 'What can I do?' "
Speaking of his own organization's efforts, which he says are nonpartisan, he adds, "Part of what we're trying to do is mobilize prayer, especially during this disaster, but also throughout every day. We want to get people into the habit of praying every day for our president and our nation and our leaders and our armed forces."
Even if most places of worship did not hold special prayer services last Friday, many Americans have made prayer a part of their response to Katrina.
Tony Taylor, the head janitor at Springfield Baptist Church, a mostly black congregation outside Raleigh, N.C., believes Katrina may have had a more personal impact on Americans, and perhaps Christians, than even 9/11.
Since the disaster, the church has spent its Wednesday night prayer meetings focused on the disaster and its victims.
Mr. Taylor says his own reverend had told the congregation that perhaps New Orleans was paying for "its sins and vices." But Taylor himself had simply prayed for the safety of his cousin, who lived in New Orleans. A few days later, his cousin called, safe and sound, from Birmingham, Ala.
"God intervenes in a lot of different ways," says Taylor, working on his church's well on Friday afternoon, as a milder hurricane, Ophelia, buffeted his own part of the country. "Events like [Katrina] test you: Are you a strong believer - or are you one who scatters the fence?"
• Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.