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Mississippi churches give thanks, respond to storm’s damage

 


Mississippi churches give thanks, respond to storm’s damage

Sept. 5, 2005

By Woody Woodrick*

GULFPORT, Miss. (UMNS) — When Sept. 4 dawned, many United Methodist churches across the Gulf Coast held Sunday worship services.

They held services despite lack of electricity, water and, in some cases, stable buildings. But the services were held, giving those whose lives were irrevocably changed Aug. 29 by Hurricane Katrina a chance to grieve, question and give thanks to God.

"Being here gives me a sense of peace in my heart that everything is going to be all right," said Cathy Gilmore, who attended one of two services at First United Methodist Church in Gulfport. "I wanted to be with people I’m used to worshipping with. It gives a sense of normalcy. It gives a sense of feeling everything is going to be all right."

"People realize they were saved for purpose, just like John Wesley was," said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, referring to Methodism’s founder. "This is how people feel who were not directly impacted."

Six days after what many are calling the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, a few signs of progress toward cleaning up appeared. Electricity was on in spots in Gulfport and Biloxi. Most major roads were clear, and neighborhood streets were passable. Crews clearing streets were being replaced by power crews.

As the flow of relief supplies began to gain pace, help through the United Methodist Committee on Relief arrived. However, Ward pointed out that UMCOR was always there. "UMCOR is us," she said, at the first session to plan how the church’s Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference would respond.

Phones calls began streaming into the conference office in Jackson almost immediately, despite the building having no power. United Methodist groups from around the country began calling the Rev. Jeff Pruett of Tunica, conference UMCOR coordinator, with offers of truckloads of supplies. Churches also offered shelter to those who fled the storm.

"I’m greatly encouraged," Ward said. "Our people are energetic and resourceful."

While the denomination was eager to respond, Pruett said UMCOR would have to do some things differently in the United States.

"Ordinarily, our mission is safe, sanitary and secure housing — what somebody needs to stay in their home," Pruett said. "What I see is a broader scope to ministry because of the immediate needs. The devastation has been so huge that distribution of goods has been hampered. We’ve got to find a way for us to meet needs in the communities."

Ward encouraged churches to be creative in their response. "Our communities all have evacuees from this storm among us," she said. "We need to open our doors to them. You don’t have to leave home to make an impact. All of our efforts are important."

UMCOR placed three staff members in Mississippi — the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Barbara Tripp and Mary Gaudreau.

When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the combination of Category 4 winds and a record storm surge from the Gulf tore apart businesses, homes and entire

communities. Some 169 Mississippians were confirmed dead as of Sept. 4, and that number was expected to rise.

As of Sept. 2, no United Methodist clergy were reported injured or dead. Pastors in the affected areas were being encouraged to call their district superintendents or the conference office.

Food, water and ice were needed in all areas where power and gas were in short supply, Pruett said. Flood buckets and health kits were also needed, he said.

The Rev. Ray Stokes of Gulfport Trinity United Methodist Church listed several items needed: antiseptics; paper products; antibacterial cleansers; rubber gloves; Clorox; garbage bags (30- and 40-gallon sizes); canned vegetables and meats; crackers.

Ward encouraged United Methodists to be sensitive to neighbors around the state who lost loved ones or whose property was damaged. "We need to be caring friends who walk down the street and reach out to our neighbors. Being close is so important."

That was evident Sept. 1 when the group visited Trinity Church. Stokes showed obvious signs of stress and fatigue as he related stories of love, compassion and hardship that he and his church have experienced.

"We were down to our last gallon of fuel for our generator," Stokes said, "when a man from Georgia brought me some gas."

Since the storm, Trinity Church has been feeding people in the community despite having no electricity or water. The principal of a nearby elementary school brought over food from the school’s freezer that would have otherwise gone to waste. Other sources supplied food, too.

Churches buildings were hit with varying degrees of severity. At Leggett Memorial United Methodist Church, facing the beach in Biloxi, only the frame, half the roof and the back wall of the sanctuary remained. All the pews and the carpet were washed away. The building housing the offices and classrooms was smashed.

Most of the buildings at Seashore Assembly, a retreat facility that owns the Leggett land, remained standing but would likely have to be razed. The first floor of Fazer Hall, a motel-like building for guests, was gutted. Arlean Hall, a United Methodist Women’s retreat center on the grounds, also lost its first floor. Manager Art Steinaway said the foundations of both buildings were compromised by the rush of water. Van Hook Hall was leaning, and Steinaway said it would have to be torn down.

Seashore Retirement Community, owned by Mississippi Methodist Senior Services Inc., was seriously damaged. Its 58 residents and a few staff members rode out the storm and were later moved to other Senior Services facilities.

Also in Biloxi, St. Paul United Methodist Church downtown had roof and water damage.

In the Moss Point-Pascagoula area, Safe Harbor, Pascagoula First and Eastlawn churches were damaged. Pascagoula First was reported to have 12 feet of water inside the church.

Bay St. Louis Main Street United Methodist Church and Diamondhead United Methodist Church were reported to be OK. The status of churches near Pass Christian was unclear.

Gulfside Assembly, a historic camping and retreat center west of Biloxi in Waveland, was destroyed. The center is owned by the United Methodist Church’s Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Mollie M. Stewart, president of the Gulfside Board of Trustees, talked to Gulfside Assembly Director Marion Martin, who examined the property. "It’s hard for me to even believe it. It’s devastating," Stewart said in a jurisdictional news release. Once the board meets in October and an assessment is made, Stewart said she would be able to determine the next step for Gulfside.

Donations to support the United Methodist response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy can be made online at www.methodistrelief.org and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for "Hurricanes 2005 Global," Advance No. 982523, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

Information on providing health kits, flood buckets and other relief through UMCOR is available at http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor/kits.cfm.

*Woodrick is editor of the Mississippi Advocate, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Mississippi Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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