FEMA's Ugly Superstorm Sandy Policy: No Churches Allowed

It is stunning how policies in a country so blessed by God can turn into programs that severely undermine the good work done in God's name. This latest federal case is so insidious that it takes your breath away. 

The first people to reach out to benefit the communities in a crisis are the local churches and other houses of worship (hereafter: "churches") that are already in those communities. After Superstorm Sandy hit New York City and the metro area, hundreds of local churches came to people's aid. Christian groups from other locations came, too, and added to the ministries of the local churches. When Convoy of Hope from Missouri showed up with 18-wheeler trucks full of food and other aid, our New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also showed up for a photo opportunity, helping unload the treasures of care and hope from generous people in the Midwest. Also, at least 75 chaplaincy students of our New York Divinity School and its affiliate New York State Chaplaincy Task Force devoted thousands of hours, pouring out physical and spiritual help. Many of these student chaplains live in or near the neighborhoods most affected – and were present and ministering long before other helpers showed up. This is a splendid trait of the vibrant local churches.

Our Staten Island chaplaincy supervisor Rev. Daniel Delgado explained it this way: "The church is always here and committed to serve all of humanity. These trained Christian chaplains were able to respond before anyone else, because they were there already, and as Christians in ministry they are committed to help people in need every day. The current Hurricane Sandy aid to victims is a reminder that God often chooses to love people through our ministry. We don't get paid for this; we do this because we love people." Amen, Rev. Delgado. And thank you for all that you and thousands of other divinely inspired men and women do!

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The storied FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has a policy to discriminate only against the local churches – the ones that do the most and were there first – while it benefits everyone else, at our taxpayer largess.

This is an ugly wrinkle in the evolution of our American society that needs to be addressed: the Federal policy that absolutely anyone suffering the effects of a natural disaster may receive grants from FEMA –with the single absurd exception of churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. This is in spite of the fact that churches do tremendous work benefitting their communities, 365 days every year, as do other non-profit agencies and charities. The tutoring, feeding of the poor, after-school programs, senior-citizen care, emergency preparedness, and other good works are done by both churches and charities, except that the churches also point people to God. And for this positive, divine contribution to society, they are asked to shoulder their own repairs for $100,000s of damages to their buildings, while charities receive generous FEMA grants.

This FEMA anti-church policy is both selective and ugly:

  • For decades FEMA has honored the needs of churches, although perhaps on a selective basis. The Stafford Disaster Assistance Law (1988) that guides FEMA prohibited grants to churches, but exceptions are often made. After Hurricane Katrina, churches received (1) grants for repairs and rebuilding as well as (2) grants for the food they distributed and the shelter they provided for all the other victims. I personally helped lead in hurricane relief twice before, and federal assistance for churches was generous then. Now after Superstorm Sandy, both kinds of grants are cut off from churches only.
  • This policy is ugly in four ways, as I will now show, and we ask you to join with us to try to fix FEMA's ugliness.

First, FEMA's policy is ugly because it treats churches as outsiders individuals, families, retail stores, family businesses, manufacturing companies, government agencies, schools, clubs, restaurants, charities – everyone but churches! If the only difference is the churches' devotion to God – that should not make any difference in public policy. After all, it is their God-orientation that empowers the churches in service to all the people in all the communities. And besides, many of those families, stores, schools, companies, clubs and charities are sincerely devoted to God, too. Let FEMA be forewarned: vibrant worship often occurs in homes, offices, factories and restaurants, too.

With the same good reasoning, we believe that churches should be able to rent parts of school facilities on equal basis with all other groups, too – a right still under contention in New York City, my town.

Second, this discrimination against local churches seems to open the door to other risky discrimination. If our devotion to God should keep churches from FEMA grants, what about fire department aid, police protection, and other long-established government services? If these fine benefits to churches continue with tax-payer support, so should FEMA grants. If we deny FEMA protection to churches now, are we starting down a sinister slippery slope?

Third, cutting off the resources of FEMA grants ignores the immensely positive roles the churches have already played after Superstorm Sandy – including the generous giving of tens of millions of dollars ($10,000,000s) of food, shelter and clothing to all who needed help, without discrimination – much of it donated also through church affiliates. Thousands of churches were the trusted conduits of tons of generous gifts from all over America and the world. To not help the churches with damaged buildings in their present need, is literally to say that we do not care if those churches are fully operational for the next emergency. And yet, all lives would be unimaginably worse in the next emergency if the presently damaged church buildings are not there and open, and with good people offering generous help the next time, in the next crisis.

Fourth, blocking FEMA grants to churches is to pretend to be ignorant of the continuing soul care needed by the many and various victims of Superstorm Sandy. The churches are not the building but the people – the men and women, boys and girls, in the damaged areas, who are suffering in so many other ways already. Instead of the additional substantial and even debilitating sacrifice and burden of rebuilding their church buildings, these struggling victims will continue to need the safe sanctuary of repaired churches to seek and find the enduring soul-strength they desire and deserve.

Continuing this FEMA policy is ugly – because it is (1) a senseless discrimination, (2) a step down an insane and sinister slope, (3) a severe penalty for great and generous deeds, present and future, and (4) a mindless undermining of the priceless soul-care needed by a huge variety of Superstorm Sandy victims.

For God's sake, for New York's sake, and for all the people's sake, please join in urging our leaders – in the White House and in Congress – to fix the present vicious ugliness of the FEMA policy – an ugliness so damaging to our New York communities.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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