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‘Church is resilient,’ Louisiana bishop says

 


‘Church is resilient,’ Louisiana bishop says

Sept. 6, 2005

By Betty Backstrom*

BATON ROUGE, La. (UMNS) — Touring parts of Louisiana Sept. 4, United Methodist Bishop William W. Hutchinson got an up-close look at areas of his state that were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

The bishop, along with the Rev. Don Cottrill, provost, and the Rev. Freddie Henderson, New Orleans District superintendent, participated in church services at First United Methodist Church in La Place. Twenty-five people attended. The church sustained no significant damage from the storm, though many homes and businesses in the area suffered dramatically.

"It is amazing, in the midst of so much destruction, that some of our churches have little or no damage to deal with," said Hutchinson, who leads the denomination’s Louisiana Area. "Many churches were not so fortunate. However, the church is resilient. On our visits, I saw signs of great life and praising of God. Although the future is uncertain, believers must take each day as a gift and celebrate it to the fullest."

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi Aug. 29, devastating communities and leaving behind an unknown number of dead. The destruction was particularly severe in New Orleans, where levees protecting the city were breached. The city’s mayor has said the death toll may reach 10,000.

Travel to many areas was severely restricted because of flood waters, downed trees and power lines.

During his Sept. 4 trip around the state, Hutchinson attended worship at the 11 a.m. service at St. Timothy’s on the Northshore United Methodist Church, with 20 in attendance. A normal service for St. Timothy’s typically draws 1,000-1,300 worshippers. A fallen tree had damaged the gymnasium.

The bishop’s group was encouraged by visits to Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Mandeville and North Cross United Methodist Church in Madisonville, since both churches sustained only minor damage.

The Rev. Chris Blanchard, pastor of Destrahan United Methodist Church, traveled to La Place United Methodist Church, bringing bread that was shared during communion. Blanchard’s church, as well as those visited by the bishop, was without power.

While Louisiana church officials began assessing damages and planning recovery efforts, with the help of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, congregations that weren’t hit hard by the storm were already reaching out to those less fortunate.

Carolyn Magee, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Ruston, La., marveled at how her church’s shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees evolved.

"We’re making this up as we go along. Unfortunately, we don’t have a playbook for a disaster of this magnitude," said Magee, whose church had offered shelter to evacuees from previous storms.

Trinity United Methodist Church was housing 180 people, although the number was fluctuating daily. "Some people who were with us have been able to return home to places like Ponchatoula and Moss Point. Others may be with us for months. No matter what, we’ll be here as long as we’re needed," Magee said.

United Methodist churches in Ruston were partnering with Trinity to staff the center, provide supplies and offer spiritual support to evacuees. A clothes closet was bursting at the seams, and requests for items were being met immediately through the generosity of church members and people throughout the community.

Grace United Methodist Church provided extra shower facilities, and the Rev. Connie Breaux with Grambling State University’s Wesley Foundation organized regular worship services for the evacuees.

Close to 50 of the children housed in the shelter registered to attend public schools in Ruston. Trinity United Methodist Church was also working with the local community to place adults in temporary jobs.

"Our task is not only to provide immediate relief but to transition as many folks as possible into temporary housing and employment. Once their feet are on the ground, then they can seek more permanent solutions," said Brian Mercer, youth director for Trinity and shelter volunteer.

Residents leaving the shelter were being given several bags of groceries and other items to help them get started again.

A middle-aged woman staying at the shelter was looking through used clothing for something to wear. "I never thought I would be the one doing this," she said. "I’ve always been the volunteer at my church helping others. Now it’s my turn to be helped."

Mercer added that God’s presence was evident at the shelter. "We’ll be talking about this need or that need, and all of a sudden, someone walks through the door to fill it. Once, we had a minor medical emergency, and a nurse arrived right at that moment."

Shelter volunteers noted that the needs of evacuees were increasing. "Fourteen folks arrived last night," Mercer said Sept. 2. "They had been rescued by boat in New Orleans, and were exhausted and dehydrated. One woman miraculously found her way to us after being taken from a hotel, boated to the highway and left on a highway ramp."

Residents of the shelter included 3-week-old twins, several diabetics and folks with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy. "We have a number of volunteer nurses who tend to minor medical needs; those with more serious problems, we take to a hospital," Magee said.

"People have been so generous. Local furniture stores, church members and folks in the community have provided food, supplies and mattresses," she added.

The church was providing services three times a day and making a prayer chapel available at all times. The Louisiana Methodist Children’s Home in Ruston provided the services of trained counselors several times a day. "This is essential for these people who have been through so much," Magee said.

Reflecting on the importance of shelters like the one at Trinity, one volunteer noted: "This is what the church is supposed to look like."

Donations to support the United Methodist response to Hurricane Katrina 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.

*Backstrom is editor of Louisiana Now!, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual Conference.

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

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