For the past five years, members of Westminster Presbyterian Church have traveled to the Gulf Coast, helping rebuild homes ruined by Hurricane Katrina.

They’ve slept in church basements and befriended the families whose homes they’ve repaired. Like thousands of other church volunteers, they’ve been part of a massive faith-based effort to help that flood-ravaged region recover.

So when Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was looking for a place to house workers coming to assist flood victims in Nashville, Westminster was the first to volunteer.

The church converted a classroom to house volunteers, installed 30 bunk beds and put in two new showers for workers to use.

“It was the right thing for us to do,” said Terry Rappuhn, an elder at Westminster, on West End Avenue. “We wanted to step up and help.”

All across Middle Tennessee, congregations such as Westminster are gearing up to host faith-based work groups to help Nashville rebuild. Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faith groups have set up centers to coordinate workers.

They’re part of a network of faith-based voluntary organizations active in disaster — VOADs.

Many of these groups don’t agree on theology but have set aside their differences to help disaster victims. And they can tap into extensive church networks to provide volunteers and funds to assist flood victims — inside and outside their faiths.

First of the responders

Faith-based groups provide hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance every year, said Diana Rothe-Smith, executive director of National VOAD, a coalition of nonprofits that respond to disasters.

“They are the first of the first responders,” Rothe-Smith said. “They can get there before other resources because they already have the most direct connections to the community.”

Faith-based disaster aid groups are effective because they cooperate, she said.

Each faith group has developed niche areas of expertise.

Baptists, for example, specialize in mucking out flooded homes and cooking massive amounts of food. United Methodists organize and train volunteer case managers. Presbyterians organize housing and hospitality. Lutherans and Mennonites excel at supervising construction.

Those systems have been honed in recent years on the Gulf Coast and, more recently, in the aftermath of the 2007 floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. More than 13,000 Methodists and Presbyterians have volunteered in Iowa over the past three years, along with other faith-based volunteers.

Rob Moreland, a Tennessee-based field representative for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA, said many faith-based groups plan to work in Nashville for several years.

“The sprint is over,” he said. “Now it’s a marathon. It’s called long-term recovery for a reason.”

One of the key components for the faith-based rebuilding will be getting trained case managers out to meet with flood victims, Moreland said. On Thursday and Friday, the United Methodist Committee on Relief will train volunteer case managers at Christ Church on Old Hickory Boulevard.

They’ll learn how to walk families through the recovery process. That means helping them identify assistance from government and charitable sources.

“Case managers will be the glue that holds long-range recovery together,” Moreland said.

Different states, faiths

In some cases, faith-based groups already have identified flood victims they can help. These often are folks who are underinsured or have no insurance, or who don’t make enough money to pay for repairs.

Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief already has close to 350 projects lined up. The group will send people this week to scout out those projects, with building crews expected to arrive the following week from Texas, Alabama and other states.

The crews usually can handle drywall and carpentry tasks, said David Acres, head of disaster relief for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

“They can do four to five houses in a day without a problem,” Acres said.

The volunteers will be staying at Harpeth Heights Baptist Church in Bellevue and other local congregations, sleeping on the floor in classrooms and church gyms.

Presbyterian groups of volunteers will begin arriving in mid-June. The local Presbytery is hoping to add a second site to host volunteers in the coming weeks.

Twenty-two groups of Lutheran volunteers already have made plans to come to Middle Tennessee and will stay either at the Rau-Wood Lutheran camp in Bellevue or at Faith Lutheran Church in Lebanon.

These groups will pay their own transportation costs and often will cook their own meals, said Cathy Thoreson, executive director of Lutheran Services of Tennessee. The Lutherans also may house groups from other denominations.

Witnesses bring skills

Jehovah’s Witnesses volunteers also will begin rebuilding projects this week. They have already identified 116 projects, said Jerry Hahn, spokesman for the regional building committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses. About 80 percent of those projects are for Witnesses, but the volunteers will help others as well.

The building committee usually oversees construction for the Kingdom Halls where Witnesses worship. Committee members are usually builders or people in the construction business.

“When disasters hit, we switch into disaster relief mode, and all those resources and that expertise come to bear,” Hahn said.

About 400 Witnesses were expected to volunteer over Memorial Day weekend. Some planned to cook meals and coordinate volunteers from their command center at the Kingdom Hall at 129 Whitsett Road in the Berry Hill area. Those with building skills planned to work on flood-damaged homes.

To work in a flood-damaged home, Witnesses volunteers must be at least 18 and have been baptized.

“This is a spiritual work,” Hahn said. “We are helping people primarily from a spiritual point of view — their whole lives have been turned upside down, and spirituality is a key thing in times of disaster. ... So we want those who participate to be fully committed.”

Keeping the spirit

The faith-based assistance won’t stop once rebuilding is completed.

Nashville-based Church of Christ Disaster Relief will supply flood victims who qualify with new appliances, clothing and furniture once homes are repaired. The group has shipped out $2 million in food, cleaning supplies and other disaster relief aid from its Nashville warehouse to 21 local congregations.

Those local Churches of Christ then distribute the aid to people in their communities.

“You don’t have to be Church of Christ to get help,” said Joe Dudney, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We’ll help anybody we can.”

Dudney’s organization has worked in more than 300 disaster areas since it was founded in 1994. They’ve shipped out more than $120 million in relief, $40 million to Katrina victims alone.

He sees disaster relief as offering spiritual as well as charitable aid. Those who receive assistance are more likely to take Christians seriously when they share their beliefs, he said.

“We see this as a mission work,” Dudney said. “It opens doors for the church to reach out to people.

“I don’t care how many missionaries you’ve got out there preaching — if I wait on you and help you, that turns you.”

Reprinted with permission. This story was originally printed in The Tennessean on June 1, 2010. Copyright 2010.