Terry Kendrick Sr. was sitting in the Astrodome in Houston wondering whether he would ever see his family reunited when he crossed paths with a "soldier" from the Soul Factory church.
Kendrick, 40, who lost his home and saw his family members separated after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans on Aug. 29, had spent days shepherding his 9-year-old son, Terry Jr., two nieces and a nephew on a quest for survival. His wife, Alisha, and their older children, Raphael, 14, and Santana, 10, had been separated from him the day before the storm as the city began to evacuate.
After spending one night on a bridge and two in the grim conditions at the New Orleans convention center, Kendrick and his charges made it the Astrodome, only to find that Alisha and their older children had gone to Maryland when a relative had sent for them.
The Soul Factory, which has a church in Forestville and another in the Smallwood Village Center in Waldorf, had sent volunteers to the Astrodome. The Rev. Deron Cloud mobilized his 4,000 members to help the evacuees, and church officials drove a tractor-trailer filled with food and water to Houston. Cloud and his wife, Jill, set up operations in the Astrodome, offering clothing, cash assistance and transportation to dozens of displaced families.
Kendrick said he happened into an area of the Astrodome where Soul Factory volunteers were looking for families in need of assistance.
"If it weren't for them, I'd still probably be sitting in the Astrodome trying to figure out how to get to my family," Kendrick said. "This whole thing has been so horrible. I don't know that we'll ever get over it. If it hadn't been for the church and Reverend Cloud, I don't know what we would have done."
While federal and state agencies and nonprofit groups are working to meet the needs of families displaced in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, many evacuees and relief officials have praised black churches for the assistance they have offered. President Bush has reached out to black church officials and other leaders to help with the relief and with the eventual renewal of New Orleans.
Long a primary source of help for blacks, black churches from Los Angeles to the District have mobilized their congregations to raise tens of millions of dollars; to provide countless tons of food, water, clothing and supplies; and to take in thousands of people left homeless. Black churches have relocated families, tracked down the missing, and helped evacuees find jobs and housing in their new communities.
The Soul Factory's effort took shape when Cloud, 38, was moved by television and newspaper pictures of people without food and water.
"I realized help wasn't coming for some of those people and that I needed to get there," Cloud said in a telephone interview from Atlanta, where he is preparing to drive through the Gulf Coast area to identify communities that need assistance. The Soul Factory's charitable organization, SOLDIERS (Sold Out Living Delivered in Everlasting Righteous Service) was named for the church's help-oriented focus.
"As a church, this is what we are supposed to do," he said.
Cloud said he was appalled by what he saw at the Astrodome.
"It's disbelief," he said. "The first thing you think is, 'This can't be happening.' It's hard for your mind to compute -- people in every hallway, in every corridor, everywhere, with nothing. They don't have suitcases; they have plastic bags."
Guards were posted at showers, and police officers patrolled to keep the peace, he said.
"There weren't a lot, but there were a few bad apples," Cloud said. "We got a report that a man beat a man to death because he attempted to molest a child. They are not reporting those. There have been several men beaten for trying to rape women. They are not talking about those."
Cloud said he and his staff members worked to identify families who need transportation, clothing, money or help reaching out to relatives. That's how they encountered Kendrick.
"He was trying to reach his family in Waldorf," Cloud said. "A relative had purchased plane tickets for Alisha and their two oldest kids, but he didn't have any way to reach them. We put him and his son on a plane to reunite his family."
Since the Kendricks were reunited in Southern Maryland, the church has continued to assist them. They moved out of the Waldorf home of Alisha Kendrick's cousin Gary Ashton, who has taken in several other relatives as well, and into a hotel room paid for by the church.
On Saturday, church leaders surprised the family with the keys to a burgundy 2000 Mercury Sable sedan at Southern Volkswagen in Waldorf. The dealership offered a job to Alisha, who worked as a receptionist before the storm, Cloud said.
The church is also arranging for an apartment, and several members have offered jobs to Terry Kendrick. The family was welcomed to the Soul Factory during services Sunday. Kendrick said they plan to join the church and stay in Waldorf.
"It has just been amazing," Kendrick said. "This whole thing has been like a nightmare. Our home is gone. My job is gone. My wife's job is gone. We have to find a new place to live, new jobs, get our kids in a new school. All the while we are trying to deal with our lives being destroyed.
"I don't know what I or my family would have done without the church's help."