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To raise New Orleans, lift churches, pastors urge

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African-American churches historically have been the heart and soul of black communities, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian – a Martin Luther King Jr. confidant from Atlanta – believes they hold the key to restoring New Orleans' neighborhoods.

So he and a pastor from the city, the Rev. Dwight Webster, have formed Churches Supporting Churches (CSC), a national initiative to revitalize 36 churches in the 12 hardest-hit areas.

When the levee broke last August, Pastor Webster's house in the devastated Ninth Ward filled with water, and his wife's small business was destroyed. Their Christian Unity Baptist Church was built 12 feet off the ground, however, and is now back in shape. Though some 65 percent of its members are still scattered across the United States, they'll soon be holding services every Sunday.

For other black pastors in the city, the struggle has been even grimmer.

"Almost 80 percent of city churches have been destroyed," says Mr. Vivian, who's been galvanized by the crisis, "and guys have two mortgages – for their home and their church – and no money coming in." Vivian and Webster envision partnerships connecting 10 churches across the US with each local congregation.

CSC is but one of the initiatives the African-American faith community has undertaken to respond to hurricane Katrina's unprecedented impact on the Gulf Coast.

As soon as evacuees were shunted in random fashion onto airplanes, church coalitions formed in several US cities to help evacuees locate family members, resettle, and plan for the future.

Individual black churches have raised huge amounts of money to help those in distress, and they continue to send volunteers and resources to the region. For example, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago gave $160,000 to Dillard University and has a partnership with the school. Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, N.J., has pledged to raise $1 million for Gulf Coast restoration, including funds for job training and housing projects.

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