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‘We will rise,’ Louisiana pastor says of flooded church

 


‘We will rise,’ Louisiana pastor says of flooded church

Sept. 9, 2005       

By Cathy Farmer*

The day after Katrina whirled ashore, the Rev. Jerry Hilbun waded two and a half blocks through waist-deep water, avoiding balls of fire ants, snakes and rats, to get to his church, First United Methodist of Slidell, La.

The 55-year-old pastor, a Memphis, Tenn., native and graduate of United Methodist-related Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., managed to drive back into Slidell before the barricades went up. He and his wife had weathered the storm with his aunt, Marilyn Hunt, a retired Air Force nurse, in her apartment in Ocean Springs, near Biloxi, Miss.

“I went to Ocean Springs to get my aunt and take her to Memphis, but she refused to go,” Hilbun said. “So my wife, Eleeva, and I, my aunt and a friend of hers were only four miles from the beach when Katrina came ashore.”

The apartment complex was battered for 12 hours with 145- to 155-mile-an-hour winds. The eye passed within two miles.

After watching huge chunks of plywood, shingles, windows and siding fly by, Hilbun feared the worst for the building that houses his 1,700-member congregation. He was determined to get back into Slidell.

After his slog through drowned streets, he found the city-block-wide building still standing — in three feet of water.

“There was an eerie silence inside,” Hilbun said. “The sun was reflecting from the water onto the ceiling, and you could hear dripping. Hymn books were floating everywhere. The carpet was bubbling up from the floor, the sheet rock coming down.

“But we will rebuild,” he said. “We will rise from the ashes and continue to serve in ministry in that place.”

His congregation, he said, is “resilient, creative and energetic.” He has received e-mails and phone calls from members in states as widely scattered as Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan and Arkansas.

“I’m encouraging them to go work at the nearest United Methodist church to help with the stream of refugees,” Hilbun said. “We still have a task, to do God’s own redemptive work wherever we are.”

Hilbun’s own home by Lake Pontchartrain was under 25 feet of water, so he took his family north to Memphis, where his parents live. The drive, which took 12 hours instead of the more usual five and a half, was an obstacle course.

“Trees down, power lines down, commercial shrimp boats grounded, abandoned vehicles everywhere, people walking with siphons and cans — looking for gas — and in many places only one open lane,” he said. He also described massive convoys of National Guard trucks, tree trimmers and electric company repair trucks streaming south.

“We had to pull over for the convoys,” he said. During one stop, he talked to a woman who was trying to get her grandchildren to a place of safety.

“She looked to be about 80,” he said. “She and the two children, maybe fourth- or fifth-graders, had been in a shelter in Pearl River, La. She said the conditions there were so bad that she knew she had to get them away from the coast. She found a car and just started driving. You could see the resilience and strength in her face. She was one tough lady.”

Hilbun added that the people he saw in Slidell, Biloxi and Ocean Springs were helping each other.

“There was a real spirit of helpfulness,” he said. “Yes, there were looks of panic and shock, but they were helping each other. We saw two guys in Slidell trying to get an old, old man to the hospital. They had him on a mattress on the top of their soft-top Jeep. They were holding both sides of the mattress while they drove through three feet of water. Everyone was getting out of their way.”

*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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

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