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Mississippi Red Cross leader inspired by Universalist Clara Barton

'My mission has been to live up to the image of Clara Barton,' says Red Cross staffer; Mississippi, Alabama congregations pick up after storm.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.26.05

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Red Cross volunteers

American Red Cross chapter leader Peggy Owens-Mansfield (in red, left) meets with Red Cross volunteers. (Photo courtesy Pine Belt Red Cross)

When Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi, Peggy Owens-Mansfield was ready.

A member of the Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, Miss., Owens-Mansfield is director of the four-county Pine Belt Chapter of the American Red Cross in mid-Mississippi.

Her district is just far enough from the Gulf Coast that it is designated a “host district” for those fleeing from hurricanes. For that reason, Owens-Mansfield busied herself before the storm, gathering supplies that evacuees would need, including food, water, and medical supplies.

When the hurricane struck there were 1,500 evacuees in 14 shelters in her district. And for more than two weeks she and her staff and volunteers cared for them. She and her husband, the Rev. Doak Mansfield, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, stayed at one of the shelters. It was 24 days before they got to sleep in their own beds at home.

“There were massive trees down and power lines all over,” Owens-Mansfield said. “We couldn’t go anywhere. Most people didn’t have power for 22 days. But all of our shelters held up. And we were too busy to go anywhere anyway.”

At the peak her Red Cross volunteers provided 85,000 meals a day. And now, three and a half weeks out, she’s still working 16-hour days.

Normally her shelters get only evacuees from the coastal regions, but this time local people also found themselves needing refuge as the northeast quadrant of Katrina, with winds of 150 miles per hour, whipped across Laurel, Meridian, and other mid-Mississippi areas. “Eighty-five percent of people in our area had damage,” she said. Her own house, near Laurel, lost a bedroom when a tree fell into it.

Owens-Mansfield has been a Red Cross staffer for 32 years. Before that, her first hurricane experience was with Hurricane Camille in 1969, when she was in college. “I helped with that,” she said, “and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.” Katrina has been the biggest disaster she’s had to handle, “and I hope this is the largest job I ever have to do.”

She started attending Our Home church when she was eight. “As I do this work,” she said, “I keep thinking of that great Universalist Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross. I feel like I’m doing her mission, extending what she conceived and made happen. Being a Universalist is my heart and soul. My mission since I was eight has been to live up to the image of Clara Barton.”

Doak Mansfield says Barton would have been especially proud of the way his wife fended off the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which came through the area sweeping up all the food and other supplies it could.

His wife explains, “FEMA came in and took our whole meat source for the area and gasoline supplies. Then they made the mistake of saying they were going to confiscate all the food our cooks were working on. I was ready to go to jail over that one. They backed down. Word got up to Montgomery that I took on FEMA and won. That’s because I had people who were depending on me.”

Mansfield said the Pine Belt Chapter had T-shirts printed that say, “Taking Care of Business. Making Clara Proud.”

Now, as many people are leaving shelters, Owens-Mansfield spends her days meeting with families, assessing their needs, and helping them register for disaster aid. “The money is there,” she said. “We’re just making sure now that it gets distributed properly and that we’re good stewards of it.”

[Update 10.25.05] In a follow-up interview, Owens-Mansfield said that in the stress of the hurricane aftermath she spoke in a way that was not helpful to her mission. "FEMA came in and there was a miscommunication that they were taking over our existing food supply," she said. "We were so isolated with little ability to communicate or contact the people we needed to and there were so many immediate needs for assistance that such reports took on greater significance than they might have warranted. We were focused on protecting the basic resources that our clients needed for survival."


Eunice Benton, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations MidSouth District, which serves congregations in Mississippi, Alabama, northern Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, toured the Gulf Coast region recently.

“The whole of lower Mississippi looks as if a giant eggbeater came through and chewed up the land,” she said. “From Meridian across through Laurel and Hattiesburg the native pine trees of the region have been dealt deadly wounds and are lying by the roadsides. Further down toward the Gulf—down highway 49 to Gulfport—the scene only gets worse, with signs and roofs and whole buildings in painfully distorted shapes. And in Gulfport a phrase like ‘war zone’ comes to mind quickly: Piles of debris that once were buildings sit behind piles of now-useless furniture and household goods and clothing left on the street. It is a sight that bites into your heart and soul.”

Keitha Whitaker is president of the 24-member Gulf Coast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Gulfport. She said four members lost homes as did three close relatives of members but that all members are accounted for. Whitaker and her family evacuated to Tallahassee, Fla., before the storm, and their house survived with only minor damage.

As the cleanup proceeds it’s hard to move around Gulfport, she said. “Right now it looks like a huge traffic jam here. A trip that used to take five minutes can take an hour or more because of all the relief workers, construction workers, sightseers, and others.” She estimated that 60 percent of the trees in the area are gone, and many homes and businesses were destroyed, completely changing the landscape. “It’s like going to sleep at night and waking up with no frame of reference. The places we used to go just aren’t there any more.”

The fellowship, which meets in a mental health center, held its first post-hurricane service on Sunday, September 18. “It was mostly just an opportunity for us to catch up with each other, to touch base and give hugs and say how glad we were that people survived,” Whitaker said.

The fellowship was beginning to talk about constructing a building, but that’s going to be on hold until it’s determined how many members stay in the area. “Some will probably leave,” she said.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile, Alabama, lost most of its electronic equipment to a power surge from a damaged electrical line. It also lost trees, but had no other damage. Director of religious education Kathleen Murphy suffered major water damage in her home, said Dean Emery, fellowship treasurer.


Meanwhile, Unitarian Universalists continued to respond generously to hurricane relief efforts. Contributions to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, a project of the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, has raised $1.24 million, according to the UUA Stewardship and Development office.

[Update: By Tuesday, September 27, the Fund had received $1.41 million through more than 7,000 gifts.]

Congregations continue to find creative ways to help:

The First Universalist Church of Southold, N.Y., on Long Island, is converting a rental house into temporary housing for hurricane evacuees. “It’s a huge project for our small 70-member congregation,” said the Rev. Beth Marshall, “but one that has been embraced with an energy that is bordering on transformational. We don’t have a family yet, but we’re working with the old ‘if we build it they will come,’ motif.”

The Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Vista, Calif., is close to adopting a New Orleans family of five. It hopes to raise $50,000 from area congregations to support the family for a year and is lining up everything from jobs to a car and furniture.

A children’s bake sale at the Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Diego raised $551 that will go to the Humane Society of the United States Disaster Relief Fund to help animals displaced by the hurricane.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tahlequah, Okla., has adopted a Katrina family that spent six days in the Superdome. Fellowship members outfitted an apartment for the family, hosted them at a potluck, and are transporting them to Jehovah’s Witnesses services.

Those who have helped in any way with relief efforts from Hurricane Katrina, including giving money, can purchase a T-shirt reflecting that fact. On the front the shirt says “Do you know what it means . . .?” And on the back, “UUA Katrina relief.” The shirts are $15 with half going to the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund. For ordering information go to Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference website.

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