“I Like What They Do About God”
By Christy Tate Smith
J'Nay Joichin, "almost 9" and a Hurricane Katrina evacuee survivor, still dreams about the 2005 killer storm that trapped her in her New Orleans home. "I thought we were going to die," she says from the safety of her new home in the Acres Homes area in Houston, Texas, where her family sought refuge.
A new home was just the beginning for J'Nay and her sister Jasmine, 10. Both are in the loving hands of G.R.A.C.E. Community Services, a ministry funded by United Methodist Committee on Relief. The disaster recovery mission is changing lives and bringing hope to Katrina survivors while developing a ground-breaking ministry to empower disaster response ministries among Houston's vast ethnic minority church community. Thirty churches have already been trained in the two months since G.R.A.C.E. Ministries opened its Disaster Institute.
A Vision in an Acronym
J'Nay and Jasmine were two of about 40 children and parents who gathered on a Thursday night in late October to celebrate their remarkable progress in their new Houston schools. The celebration-at G.R.A.C.E. Community Services' After School Program and Computer Lab-included awards for grades, prizes for helpful attitudes and certificates of attendance at "Man to Man," a mentoring program.
The vision of founders Ruama Camp and Joshua Mitchell can be found in the acronym, G.R.A.C.E., Generating Resource Awareness through Disaster Case Management and Education. Camp and Mitchell have a goal of reaching 50 ethnic minority churches by next year. "Through disaster response these churches are discovering new ministries and new opportunities for service," Camp said.
For the children and adults who are in the caring hands of G.R.A.C.E.'s case managers, family recovery looks like love. J'Nay and her sister, as well as friends Irenea Sheffield, 9, and Shaquerria Simon, 6, rank the things they like best in the after school program in the following order of importance: snacks, help with homework, snacks, computer lab, the people, and, of course, snacks. However, for J'Nay the best thing about G.R.A.C.E.'s after school ministry is this: "I like what they do about God."
Exemplary Role Models
Ministering to the learning and emotional needs of children who, according to Jasmine, thought they "weren't going to make it" through Katrina are four remarkable men-three professional teachers and a young man whose personal transformation serves as inspiration to the teens who attend the program. Camp's vision in hiring included subject matter (she hired a school principal, a science teacher and a math teacher, and her case management supervisor is an English major), but even more importantly, she recognized the strong influence of exemplary men in the lives of children whose own fathers are too often absent.
Former principal Alonzo Tibbs directs the education program for the children, teaches orientation classes for adults who visit one of G.R.A.C.E.'s two computer labs and hopes next month to begin an adult learning program that will provide GED classes for adults.
Success was the main agenda item on that October night. While the children giggled their way forward to receive awards and hugs, parents struggled to share their words of thanks to G.R.A.C.E. One compelling story came from the New Orleans-accented words of Sherry Cain, unemployed for the last 15 years while she raised her children.
"It's a miracle from God," Cain said of her new job. When she became frustrated with practice interviews, G.R.A.C.E. instructor Javodrick Warfield refused to allow her to quit. "We interviewed and interviewed and interviewed each other," Cain said, and when she applied for a job on Tuesday, she received word of her success on Thursday. Happily employed for almost three weeks, Cain believes she and her children will be able to forge a new, happy life in Houston. "We are truly blessed," she says. "We didn't have any of this-computers, job training, family advocates-in New Orleans."
Founded and established on faith, G.R.A.C.E. Community Ministries, supported with UMCOR-donated grassroots grant funds, sees ministry to Katrina survivors as an urgent call to the faith community. Workers there answer the phone with these words: "Great things are happening at G.R.A.C.E. Community Services." And they are working to make those words come true for Houston's Katrina survivors.
Christy Tate Smith is a disaster recovery consultant with UMCOR.