The young woman who fled her college campus in the wake of Hurricane Katrina stood at the front of a Fort Washington church yesterday, surrounded by well-wishers. Toward the back, a New Orleans family that had been evacuated from the devastation was embraced a dozen times.
And when the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. summoned victims of the hurricane and their loved ones to the altar, more than 100 men, women and children stepped forward.
"We come today because we at the altar are hurting. Some have relatives they have not heard from," said Browning, pastor at Ebenezer AME Church. "Give them strength when they are weak. Let them know you are still in the center."
At houses of worship across the Washington area, people struggled this weekend to understand the catastrophe of Katrina through the prism of their faiths, and to use their religious beliefs as a cornerstone of their response.
Scripture was cited -- from Ezekiel, the reminder to "Love your neighbor as yourself;" from Isaiah, a divine promise to comfort the "Afflicted . . . storm-tossed, and disconsolate" by rebuilding what has been lost; from Hebrews, the admonition, "Harden not your hearts." Special prayers were uttered for victims, rescue workers and government leaders. And church members, including Elegant Pearson, 19, a sophomore at Xavier University who fled after the storm hit, were warmly welcomed home.
"The Bible says when storms come, God will be with you," Browning told his congregation. "The Bible does not give us the answer about why things happen, but it does say God is the answer."
Many, it seems, are seeking solace through a combination of prayer and action.
Two members of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church have gone to Mississippi to work on a mobile feeding truck, the Rev. Jim Baucom told his congregation. Two others will follow soon. Baucom urged his flock to open their homes to evacuees and to donate tools, tarpaulins and other needed equipment.
Jenny Ferry of Falls Church said she would heed her pastor's call.
"I'm single, but God has blessed me with a house. I have an extra room and an extra bathroom," Ferry said. "I'll offer whatever I have up to God, because it's all His."
At St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, a parishioner pledged to personally match whatever funds were raised from fellow congregants. At St. Joseph parish in Charles County, a youth group gave up its weekend camping trip to hold a car wash and combined the proceeds with funds intended for the camping trip, donating more than $1,000.
In a sermon at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Northwest Washington, Bishop Martin D. Holley urged worshipers to give more than they could comfortably afford. Rather than criticize the government's response to the disaster, he said, congregants should focus on what they could do to help.
"Many might say that help is too long or too late in coming," Holley said. "But before we judge with a hardened heart, let us remain open to God's graces . . . and respond with a softened heart."
At the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, the Rev. John K. Jenkins outlined plans to collect and deliver truckloads of supplies in coming weeks. Some church members will travel to the storm-ravaged area to assist with rebuilding. And all of them, he said, should pray.
"The greatest thing the church has to offer is the element that some people don't put a lot of stock in -- and that is prayer," Jenkins said. "We need to pray for these families and the people who are helping them."
For members of Washington's large immigrant community, many of whom have experienced the desperation of being displaced, the opportunity to give took on additional meaning.
"When we came here, the American people helped us," explained the Rev. Phero Long after Mass at Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Silver Spring. "Now we have to help them."
Parishioner Thinh V. Nguyen fled in 1980 from Vietnam to Thailand. Now he maintains equipment at the National Institutes of Health.
"A lot of us didn't have anything," said Nguyen, 56. "Some of us have a good life now. Some of us have a stable life. It's our duty to help. It's the American tradition."
More than 23,000 Vietnamese Americans live in Louisiana, according to the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies. The Rev. Pham Thuy, who was visiting the Silver Spring parish from Richmond, said he worked with Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana and Mississippi from 1995 to 2001. Many had worked on fishing boats in Vietnam before the communist takeover and made their livelihood the same way in the Gulf.
"They left their country to come here and rebuild their lives," Thuy said. "And now everything is lost."
At a Hindu temple in Beltsville, there were plans for a blood drive, among other relief efforts. Members of the BAPS Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, part of a global socio-religious organization, are accustomed to responding to such calamities, leaders there said. Many had family and friends affected by the tsunami in South Asia earlier this year and by a devastating earthquake in India a few years before that.
Manan Patel, a youth leader from Gaithersburg, said that it is important for young people to be involved in the relief effort.
"It provides a strong foundation for us," said Patel, 17, "to understand that no one can take life for granted."
Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler, Hamil R. Harris and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.