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Storm evokes words, acts of faith

In the wake of Katrina, local religious leaders shape sermons to reflect the lessons that may be found in the catastrophe.

Published September 3, 2005

On one TV newscast, looters in New Orleans ransack stores and wade off with armloads of food, clothing, appliances and guns.

On another, good Samaritans risk their lives pulling exhausted and frightened survivors from crumbled buildings.

These stark images of good and evil in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are being incorporated by local pastors into the sermons they will preach at services this weekend.

One thing is for sure: No one seems to blame God for the catastrophe.

"None of us, to my knowledge, believe this is an act of a vengeful and willful god,"said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior pastor at Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater. "It's a tragic and humbling reminder of how minuscule we are and how vulnerable we are, and that we do need to pay attention to our place in creation."

The Rev. Mark Mendes, senior pastor of Church of the Isles, a United Church of Christ congregation in Indian Rocks Beach, agreed.

"We are not the type of church that blames God for this disaster," he said. "We're the type of folks who think God is crying for the victims."

At Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater, Rabbi Arthur I. Baseman said he was shocked to hear one person say the city of New Orleans was practically wiped out because of the sinful gambling that takes place there.

"I think that's absurd," he said. "Our goal should be responding to the tragedy and be partners with God in relieving the suffering of these people."

Helping the wounded is also on the mind of the Rev. Robert J. Schneider, a priest at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor. Before the storm hit, he thought he had his message all planned out.

"It's Labor Day weekend," he said. "I was going to talk about the dignity of work, that we (should) see human labor as a way of being co-creators with God and that creation is never complete."

Then Katrina came roaring into the Big Easy and he had to write a new message. He chose to talk about new beginnings.

"We can see the best of human nature come together to rebuild the city," Schneider said.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg reacted to the crisis by immediately planning a fundraising campaign.

The Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch, bishop of St. Petersburg, posted an open letter to parishioners on the diocese Web site.

In it, he said "early reports to me this morning indicated that half of the buildings and structures belonging to the Diocese of Biloxi no longer exist."

"Salesian priests staffing two parishes and a high school in New Orleans reported that while they were safe and alive, the structures they administer were severely damaged," Lynch wrote.

"I have sent word to Archbishop Hughes in New Orleans and to Bishop Rodi in Biloxi that I am prepared to send them each help in the form of $100,000 against any proceeds we will receive in a diocesanwide collection which I am asking you to take up in your parish on the weekend of Sept. 10 and 11. I only await their designation of the best way to send the money to them. I am also awaiting some word from Archbishop Lipscomb in Mobile about his needs," he wrote.

The Church of the Isles also will raise money for the relief effort for the next three Sundays.

The Unitarian Universalists have established an international relief fund.

Janamanchi knows there are still people who will ask where is God in all this.

He has a ready answer.

"God is in the helpful hands and the caring hearts that are now responding as they did for the victims of the tsunami," he said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or

[Last modified September 3, 2005, 01:20:24]

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