US Religious Groups Aid Tsunami Victims

Americans of many faiths are answering the call to aid victims of last month's tsunami in South Asia. The Christian Science Monitor newspaper reports that Catholic Relief Services has collected more than $14 million toward a goal of $25 million. Islamic Relief USA is on its way to raising $10 million. And the nation's 155 Jewish federations have gathered more than three million dollars for tsunami relief. Congregations are expressing concern for victims of the tsunami in other ways as well.

As they welcomed in the New Year, members of Messiah United Methodist Church in Springfield, Virginia, turned their attention to the crisis on the other side of the globe. "For many in our world, 2005 has begun in the midst of pain, tragedy and death," said Associate Pastor Candace Martin in a recent sermon, "the struggles of 2004 were not placed in a box and left on the doorstep of December 31st."

From sermons to special offerings to fund raising drives, American religious groups have been seeking ways to extend sympathy and assistance to those affected by the tsunami. "One of the primary facets of United Methodist belief is that we are to look after our brothers and sisters in need wherever there is anybody who is hurting," says Denise Laux, who coordinates outreach missions at Messiah United Methodist Church. "One example of that is international disasters such as we are experiencing in the world right now."

Methodists have joined forces with other faiths in the United States in the wake of the disaster. Their partners include groups like Action by Churches Together (ACT), which already had people working in areas hit by the tsunami. "Members of the United Methodist Church, the Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Reformed Church, Episcopal Relief and Development, all those denominations," says Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), "we're all talking together to make sure we're working through these organizations that already exist."

Mr. Hazelwood says that, for now, efforts are aimed at providing affected areas with pure water, shelter, food and sanitation. UMCOR is also busy answering calls from people who want to contribute to the efforts.

"We are, like most of the relief organizations, saying that the primary way in which people can help in this particular disaster is through the gift of money," Mr. Hazelwood explains, "because that enables us to buy the materials closer to the area or within those countries to help also stimulate their economy. Plus, people want to use their hands. They want to become personally involved, and so UMCOR collects health kits, and we also do medicine boxes, and we are assisting by sending these health kits and medicine boxes into these areas."

As for the response so far, Tom Hazelwood says that -- while he doesn't have a dollar figure -- the phones at UMCOR are ringing off the wall. Some churches have also devised creative new ways to raise funds for tsunami victims -- everything from auctions of personal items to hymn sings, where people donate money to hear their congregation sing a favorite hymn.

Church members with special skills are beginning to look to the future. Tom Dickinson of Messiah United Methodist Church has traveled around the world building houses for people in need. "I've done a lot of construction work with Christian organizations or volunteer organizations on disasters and other things," he says. "I would hope that eventually we could get groups that can go over and help in building, and in that way provide more than just what funds alone can do."

Denise Laux, of Messiah's Outreach Committee, has also traveled on church missions, including trips to Honduras to provide medical aid. She hopes that such missions will become part of the recovery effort in South Asia. "That's the kind of effort that will involve a lot of Methodists with the tsunami disaster," she says. "Long term, I think there will be lots of opportunities for mission teams to go and help with rebuilding communities, in terms of schools and housing and so on. And, of course, medical missions are just chronically needed all over the world."

Denise Laux hopes those chronic, ongoing needs will be better met in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. She believes the immediate concern generated by the crisis in South Asia could focus new attention on the region and lead to a more permanent commitment to provide help wherever and whenever it is needed.

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