Religion today

Waveland, USA - In a city reduced to rubble by Hurricane Katrina, John King and Chris Johnson have formed an unlikely friendship at the uneasy intersection of church and state.

King led a caravan of Amish volunteers from Pennsylvania to Mississippi just days after the storm hit to help clear debris. Johnson was one of the first people he met in Waveland, the city's homegrown parks and recreation director.

Now, with the parks in ruins and little time for recreation, Johnson spends his days working alongside King and his fellow Amish, who are gutting and rebuilding hundreds of homes. "It has changed our lives," said Johnson, 47. "If it weren't for the faith-based groups helping out, the city of Waveland would be half the size it is now."

Katrina ravaged Mississippi's Gulf Coast, leaving roughly $125 billion in damage in its wake and nearly wiping some cities off the map. Waveland is still littered with massive amounts of debris, and police estimate fewer than 1,500 of its 6,600 residents have returned since the storm hit Aug. 29.

With government agencies stretched thin by the massive scope of the Gulf Coast recovery effort, groups from every conceivable religious denomination are shouldering a heavy share of the workload.

Amish and Mennonites are mucking out and rebuilding homes across the coast, with dozens living together at a religious-affiliated summer camp in Pass Christian.

Lutheran and Islamic groups are providing free medical care to thousands in Biloxi.

Southern Baptists have cooked an estimated 14 million meals in New Orleans and other hard-hit communities.

The Salvation Army has had roughly 52,000 people working in Louisiana and Mississippi since the storm.

"We feel it's our duty to do it because it's God's work," said King, whose Amish volunteers have gutted more than 300 homes in Waveland alone.

Johnson, who's not a regular churchgoer and had never met an Amish person before the hurricane, has come to admire their dogged work ethic and respect their way of life, which shuns modern technology. "They're probably some of the hardest workers I've met in my life," the lifelong Waveland resident said. "You don't have to teach them anything. You just show them where the house is."

Tens of thousands of volunteers from hundreds of faith-based groups have poured into the region. That virtually bottomless well of labor makes them a valuable resource for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps coordinate their efforts to avoid duplication.

Volunteer groups have been the "only show in town" as the work shifted from emergency relief to long-term recovery and rebuilding, said Ken Skalitzky, FEMA's voluntary agency liaison for Mississippi, Alabama and six other states.

"FEMA is limited in the amount of assistance it can provide a family," he said. "There's been an incredible reliance on faith-based and other volunteer agencies."

Indeed, some religious groups are using federal money to expand their Gulf Coast operations - an arrangement that's stoked a fiery debate within the faith-based community.

In December, FEMA doled out $66 million in Katrina-related grants for 10 social service and volunteer groups, including Catholic Charities, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran Disaster Response and the United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana.

Those grants, administered by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, pay for caseworkers to help around 100,000 displaced families find housing and other necessities.

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said faith-based volunteers must be treated like "foot soldiers," not "candy stripers." They can "love" and support Katrina victims in a way the government cannot, he added.

"It's very difficult for government to express mercy and compassion," Towey said. "Some want to secularize the public square and banish them from it, but the president realizes we're enriched by their contributions."

Some argue government funding of faith-based initiatives undermines church groups' independence and violates the separation of church and state.

"I have never seen a government program that does not have strings attached," said the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "It's an ironclad rule: What government funds, government regulates. There's just no way around that."

Other such groups are forging ahead on their own, free from bureaucratic red tape and government restrictions.

Correna Robinson didn't need to wait for help from FEMA after Katrina destroyed her uninsured home of 50 years in Gulfport. Her church rounded up volunteers to build her a new house from scratch.

"I was too blessed to be distressed," the 69-year-old Robinson said recently as she relaxed on her new front porch. "This is a godsend."

It took seven days for a group of volunteer contractors from Alabama to build Robinson's three-bedroom home off Hewes Avenue, in one of Gulfport's poorer neighborhoods. "God rested on the seventh day. My builders played golf on the fifth day," joked Eddie Hartwell, Robinson's pastor at St. James Baptist Church and coordinator of the volunteer effort.

More than 2,000 volunteers have passed through Hartwell's church since the storm. With their help, his fledgling "Disaster Recovery Ministry" has gone from passing out hot meals to building and repairing homes without government assistance.

"We're doing it for a little different reason than the government agencies," Hartwell said. "To them, it's their job. With us, it's our God-given responsibility to help one another."

In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Mennonite Disaster Service of Akron, Pa., dispatched more than 700 volunteers to repair homes in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The group, which pays for the work with about $6 million in private donations, has decided against applying for government grants.

"There's nothing in our charter that would prevent it. It just gives us the autonomy we're looking for," said MDS spokesman Larry Guengerich.

Despite the Amish's reputation for a cloistered lifestyle, King said they've been helping hurricane victims rebuild for years.

"We're not as reserved as people think we are," said King, who frequently returns home to his wife, six pre-teenage children and construction business in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. "This is not a totally new thing for us."

King said his volunteers, who rotate through Waveland every week or two, will be here for several years. They recently trucked in prefabricated homes for roughly 60 people, setting them up on property near the remnants of Gulfside United Methodist Assembly, a church retreat that Katrina leveled.

"We're getting more rewards than we're putting into it," King said.