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Adoption of Orleans congregations urged

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Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young looks at damage to a church in New Orleans Wednesday.

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young looks at damage to a church in New Orleans Wednesday.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Two civil rights activists announced plans Wednesday to involve churches nationwide in helping their New Orleans congregations recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Atlanta-based civil rights leader Rev. C.T. Vivian said the program dubbed "Churches Supporting Churches" will urge churches to adopt 36 New Orleans congregations in heavily damaged neighborhoods. The adopted churches in turn would be anchors for the redevelopment of their surrounding communities.

"Our focus is not simply to build churches but to build neighborhoods and the city," Vivian said during a bus tour that wound through once-flooded neighborhoods still showing scars from the hurricane.

In one area, a person in a white hazmat-type suit and face mask stood on a front lawn; in other areas crumpled houses stood next to heaps of rubble.

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, once a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., described himself as numb after seeing the damage at the East Jerusalem Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit areas. He stepped over debris and nearly stumbled trying to get into the front door.

"I don't know what to think," said Young, a New Orleans native.

One of the biggest challenges for Churches Supporting Churches, organizers said, is finding church leaders who scattered across the country like many of their congregants. Some, such as the Rev. Hall Kelly Jr., aren't sure whether they'll be able to rebuild.

Kelly, who said he returns to what's left of East Jerusalem Baptist at least once a week to pray, said his "hopes and dreams" are to rebuild. Most of his congregants want to return but there are hurdles like high rental costs.

"We're not going to give up," he said, fighting back tears. "It's going to be all right."

This isn't the first effort aimed at helping rebuild churches in the region. For example, a charity established by former Presidents Bush and Clinton had $20 million earmarked for hurricane-affected churches on the Gulf Coast.