HOUSTON: In the last week, Joseph Brant lost his apartment, walked by scores of dead in the streets, traversed pools of toxic water and endured an arduous journey to escape the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his hometown New Orleans.
On Sunday, he was praising the Lord, saying the ordeal was a test that ended up dispelling his lifelong distrust of white people and setting his life on a new course. He said he hitched a ride on Friday in a van driven by a group of white folks.
“Before this whole thing I had a complex about white people; this thing changed me forever,” said Brant, 36, a truck driver who, like many of the refugees receiving public assistance in Houston, Texas, is black.
“It was a spiritual experience for me, man,” he said of the aftermath of a catastrophe al Qaeda-linked websites called evidence of the “wrath of God” striking an arrogant America.
Brant was one of evacuees across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi who gave thought to religion on Sunday, almost a week after the floods changed their lives, perhaps forever.
At the Astrodome in Houston, where 16,000 refugees received food and shelter, Rose McNeely took the floods as a sign from God to move away from New Orleans, where she said her two grown children had been killed in past years in gunfights.
“I lost everything I had in New Orleans,” she said as she shared a cigarette with a friend. “He brought me here because he knows.” Gerald Greenwood, 55, collected a free Bible earlier in the morning, but sat watching a science fiction television programme above the stands in an enclosed stadium once home to Houston’s baseball and football teams. “This is the work of Satan right here,” he said of the floods.
The Bible was one of the few books many of the refugees had among their possessions. On Friday, several Jehovah’s Witnesses walked the floor of the Astrodome, where thousands of cots were set up, to offer their services.
On Sunday, the Salvation Army conducted an outside religious service that included songs such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“Natural disaster is caused by the sin in the world,” said Maj. John Jones, area commander for the Salvation Army, who led the service.
“The acts of God are what happens afterwards … all the good that happens.”
“God made all this happen for a reason. This city has been going to hell in a handbasket spiritually,” Tim Washington, 42, said at New Orleans’ Superdome on Saturday as he waited to be evacuated.
“If we can spend billions of dollars chasing after (Osama) bin Laden, can’t we get guns and drugs off the street?”, he asked.
Washington said he stole a boat last Monday and he and a friend, using wooden fence posts as oars, delivered about 200 people to the shelter.
“The sheriff’s department stood across the street and did nothing,” he added.
The Salvation Army’s Jones was one of many trying to comfort victims in Sunday services across several states.
At St Aloysius Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, several hundred local parishioners and storm survivors attended Sunday service. “I wish we could take your broken hearts and give you ours,” Rev. Donald Blanchard told the gathering.
In addition to consoling storm victims, the church’s lead pastor, Jerald Burns, said Katrina’s tragedy needed to be a rallying cry for parishioners, church leaders and government leaders to help the needy.
“It’s not what God is asking of us,” Burns said. “It is what God is demanding of us.
Some people walked out of the church in tears in mid-service.
Churches in many states have taken in evacuees and organized aid for people who in many cases lost everything they had in the storm. But at least some bristled at the role of religion in helping the afflicted.
“We’re getting reports of how some religion-based ‘aid’ groups are trying to fly evangelists into the stricken areas and how US Army chaplains are carrying bibles – not food or water – to `comfort’ people,” Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheist, said in a statement.
“People need material aid, medical care and economic support – not prayers and preaching,” she said.