SUMMIT, N.J. – The origins of Fountain Baptist Church could hardly be more humble. In 1897, a small group of blacks, most of them gardeners or domestic workers, began praying together in a rented room in Summit.

The church now has the distinction of being one of the few nationwide ever to raise $1 million for a specific charitable cause.

Members of the congregation in Summit have been donating money for the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort since May 2006, when Fountain Baptist announced its $1 million pledge. The members met the pledge three weeks ago and celebrated the achievement Sunday in the spirit of the season, at the church’s annual Thanksgiving services.

The Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, which monitors big donations from American nonprofit organizations, said it knows of only one instance in which a single church has made a larger charitable gift: Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles gave $3 million to help El Salvador earthquake victims in 2001.

Michael Williams, a trustee of 1,900-member Fountain Baptist Church, said: “Anytime you help someone and know they’re going to be blessed by your effort, there’s no better feeling. For us to make sacrifices – because that’s what it was for many of us – to do something for people who basically have nothing – while we’ve been blessed with, from their perspective, everything – it feels great.”

The church beat its own two-year pledge timetable by six months. Many members know people from Louisiana or Mississippi who suffered in the aftermath of the hurricane, which devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

Williams cited the biblical story of Job as part of the inspiration for his church’s generosity. Job was a righteous, prosperous man suddenly shattered by misfortune through no fault of his own.

“They know that, in fact, this could happen to them at any moment,” Williams said of his fellow Fountain Baptist members. “When you look at what happened to the people in New Orleans, one day things were pleasant and sunny and all was well, and in one week’s time you go from having all that you had, to life being turned completely upside down.”

“Christians have a model for that in the life of Job, who had everything and then, on the next day, he had nothing. Those of us who look at that just realize, there were many people in that situation.”

According to the Rev. J. Michael Sanders, the pastor of Fountain Baptist, about $400,000 has paid for job and life-skills training for 200 families in Louisiana and Mississippi; $300,000 has helped 30 pastors whose churches were devastated by the storm, either physically or through member relocations; $200,000 has paid for housing and community-building projects; and $100,000 has gone toward general and administrative costs.

The Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, an African-American Baptist organization based in Washington, has administered the donation.

Patrice Edwards, a Fountain Baptist member for 17 years, said she expects the congregation’s giving to continue.

“I don’t think the efforts are going to be over,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work that has to be done in that area. It’s not like we met a goal and that’s it. There’s still a lot of work to do in New Orleans.”

About 1,200 Fountain Baptist members contributed, giving an average of $833 apiece over the 18 months. The two largest amounts donated by individuals were $33,000 and $15,000, according to church officials, who said those donors wished to remain anonymous.

Sanders, pastor of Fountain Baptist since 1983, said he is particularly proud his church kept giving as national attention shifted away from Katrina victims.

“After a while, people often forget certain things and people lose their commitment, their excitement or concern,” he said. But among his church’s membership, “everybody lived up to their commitments.”

Some members of the congregation traveled to the Gulf Coast to see the devastation firsthand.

Williams, who traveled there multiple times, recalled meeting a man in Biloxi, Miss., who told him of having to position his feet on a doorknob and hold onto the roof of his house during the storm just to avoid drowning.

“It was very sad to know there were people who had lived there and there was nothing there other than debris,” he said. “There were water levels that were much higher than my height.”

“The next feeling was, “What can I do?’ and then knowing, recognizing that what I could do is going to be small relative to the larger problem at hand.”

Indeed, Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $150 billion in damage. Government aid has dwarfed the approximately $6 billion donated by American companies, nonprofits and individuals. Two years and two months after the hurricane, many areas remain dramatically underserved by relief efforts.

The problems frustrate Williams for another reason. He cited July reports by the Congressional Research Service that the U.S. government spends $10 billion a month on the war in Iraq.

“How could we have committed to spend massive amounts of dollars in a country where we don’t live … trying to rebuild Iraq?” he said. “Something hasn’t been done obviously to that magnitude in New Orleans or Mississippi. I went to both areas, and the devastation is hardly describable.”

Fountain Baptist has a long history of charitable giving. The church donated several hundred thousands of dollars to both the United Negro College Fund and to Baptist Convention headquarters building in South Africa. It also gives tens of thousands of dollars a year to help 850 students in Kenya, and for its 100th anniversary it gave $10,000 to each of 10 nonprofit organizations and charities in Union County.

It is unusual for a single church to make such large donations, said Barbara Leopold of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the City University of New York.

“So many people have forgotten about New Orleans or have just thrown up their hands at what seems to be the slow-moving response of the idea of government rebuilding a city,” she said. “Clearly, these are people who haven’t forgotten.”

JM END DIAMANT

(Jeff Diamant is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at jdiamant(at)starledger.com.)


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