A proposal in which America’s houses of worship become houses of refuge. By Marc Gellman - Newsweek
Sept. 14, 2005 - I have a half-baked idea that perhaps we can finish baking together. I would want to call it the Starfish Project. The advantages of my idea is that it has no staff, no cost, no letterhead, no 800 number and no concert. The disadvantages of my idea is that you can’t do it alone. You need a group of people to create it, a group dedicated to the work of compassion, a group very much like, indeed precisely like, your church or your synagogue or mosque or temple. The idea is for every house of worship in America to adopt one family from the perhaps as many as 200,000 families who have been made homeless by the storm and to take care of that family for the next two years.
The Starfish Project emerges from the facts I believe are clear now:
No families will be able to return to most parts of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for many months and perhaps for well over a year.
The people housed now in almost 400 shelters in various states cannot live there for much longer.
Most families cannot be resettled together in large groups without swamping local school districts and local social services.
Wherever they are resettled, individual families cannot adopt them; the task is simply too large.
And wherever they are resettled, the federal government cannot do all the work these families need because it is too big and is necessarily distracted by the gargantuan task of rebuilding that lies ahead.
Therefore, it is clear to me that the best solution to this emergency is for the houses of worship to step up to this sacred task and help resettle these families in their towns. Religious congregations are perfect because they are larger than a family and smaller than the government. They are perfect because they already exist. They are perfect because they are already spread out all over this great land, and most of all they are perfect because it is their mission to do this. The moral integrity of not just America is at stake now. The moral integrity of America’s churches and other holy communities is at stake now.
For religious communities located in cities where these evacuees are already resettled, the task of finding them is easy. For communities that have not yet received families, it is easy enough to ask your congressional representative to request that some displaced families and individuals be sent to your town. And then once they are near you, the next step in my half-baked idea is for your church to find them and welcome them and see to them and help feed and cloth them and help the kids get registered in school and help them find a place to live and pray and make a new home for themselves until the storm and its aftermath passes into some future night.
The houses of worship across America must now become houses of refuge. That is the Starfish Project. I have no idea how this can happen or if it can happen. I know that many churches and synagogues have already opened their doors and their hearts to do this, but I have no idea how to go about the process of getting up to 200,000 families adopted.
All I know is that we need to do this to fulfill God’s commandment and my favorite story. God’s commandment comes from the prophet Isaiah, “You are a refuge to the poor, to the needy in distress, a shelter from the storm” (Isaiah 25:4). A check to the Red Cross is good but it alone is neither refuge nor shelter. A shelter is an opening of arms wide enough to catch them. A shelter is using our blessings to ease their burdens. A shelter is bringing them close to our hearts and holding them until they are strong enough to walk on their own to the next place they will decide to live. A shelter is a group of families of faith and hope, giving faith and hope to those who have just come up out of the waters and deserve to find more than a desert on the other side. America’s houses of worship are perfect shelters for the victims of this American storm. Some are already doing it now. More must do it tomorrow. And my favorite story comes from a book by Loren Eiseley, “The Star Thrower.” This is my version of his brilliant parable….
A young man was jogging on the beach one morning when he saw an old man ahead of him bending down and picking up starfish and throwing them into the sea one by one. As he came close the young man asked, “What are you doing?” The old man answered, “There was a storm last night and many starfish were washed high up onto the beach. If I don’t throw them back, the sun will kill them by noon.” The young man laughed and said, “You are a fool old man. The beach is miles long and there are thousands of starfish stranded on it. You can’t get to them all before the sun dries them out and kills them. What you are doing, old man, just doesn’t matter.” The old man threw another starfish into the safety of the waves and said, “It mattered to that one!”
We can’t save all the people made homeless by this catastrophe, but we can save that one. We cannot help reconstruct the broken lives of all the displaced persons, but we can help to reconstruct that one. We cannot read a story to every crying child, but we can read a story to that one. We cannot be all things to all people in need, but today we can be, we must be, starfish savers to that one.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.