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New Orleans pastor finds home, church, in ruins

 


New Orleans pastor finds home, church, in ruins

Sept. 29, 2005

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)—When the Rev. Darryl Tate left his church and home to escape Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 27, he took enough clothes for a three-day trip.

What he packed that day is all he has left. On Sept. 27 — 30 days later — he was finally able to return home for a look at what was left.

“It looks like a bomb was dropped here,” he says, surveying his Lakeview neighborhood.

“We kept a better yard than this,” he says under his breath. He walks through thick black mud to try and open the front door of the parsonage, which serves St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.

“It was a pretty little house, wasn’t it?” he asks his friend, the Rev. Chris Blanchard, as the two stand outside the ruins. “I’m glad Carolyn isn’t here to see this.”

Blanchard, pastor of St. Charles United Methodist Church, is one of the “lucky ones.” His church is still standing and is being used as a relief staging point. On this hot September day, volunteer work crews from his church are busy cutting tree limbs and cleaning up in another part of New Orleans.

Today, Blanchard is there to offer pastoral support to his friend. Carolyn, Tate’s wife, had one request for her husband when he went back home. “She wants her gumbo pot.”

Blanchard advises Tate to stay outside as he goes into the kitchen to look for the pot. He comes out with the pot, a couple of chalices and the top to their wedding cake. Nothing else can be salvaged.

Tate looks around his backyard. A picnic table that isn’t his stands upside-down. An old wooden handmade swing he got 22 years ago hangs lopsided on part of the carport. His white car, with a “United Methodist Pastor” plate on the front, is painted with mud. The water line on his house looks like it would extend beyond the roof if it had someplace to go.

“There’s our barbecue pit,” he says. “When you are a pastor, you don’t make much money. The things you have you are proud of because you sacrificed to be able to buy them for your family.”

Tate, like many other people in New Orleans, is living in a part of town that is not supposed to flood, so he has no flood insurance. Renter’s insurance covers his personal belongings.

Driving from the church to his parsonage, he passes two houses spray-painted with a code indicating a dead body was recovered. The military hasn’t made it down Tate’s street yet to check for bodies.

St. Luke’s Church

To get to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Tate has to pass a checkpoint set up by the police. He explains he is going to see his church, and the friendly officer says, “Go slow. If you run into any trouble, call us.”

Pulling up to the church, the only color one sees is brown. Everything is dead. Brown grass, brown plants, brown trees cover the church grounds.

“There goes $10,000 worth of landscaping,” Tate says, looking around.

A banner still hangs in front of the church entrance. Tate reads it aloud as he heads for the front doors: “Welcome: A Place for You.”

As soon as the door opens, the smell jumps out and hits like a physical blow. Tate moves up the stairs to the choir loft to survey his sanctuary. Purple pew cushions block the front entrance; the piano and organ are upside-down. Sunlight streams through the beautiful stained-glass windows and sends lovely red and blue lights through the destroyed church.

Mold has devoured everything on the flood-soaked first floor. There is nothing left to save here. The water from the broken levee had no regard for anything, not even the cheerful poster painted by loving hands outside the nursery that says, “The School Bell Rings at St. Luke’s.” 

“Fellowship Hall is full of mold,” Tate notes. Upstairs, things look better. Inside his office, Tate finds his Bible, his clerical robes and some precious photos and his hard-won clergy credentials.

“I really didn’t think I would have anything to take,” he says, as he gathers as much as he can. On one wall is a clock that stopped at 9:32 a.m. on Sept. 27. “That is exactly the time we left,” he says.

Displaced pastors

Tate is one of the more than 90 displaced pastors from Orleans Parish. Bishop William Hutchinson has assigned him to be director of the Louisiana Conference Storm Recovery Center.

Sitting in the office a day before Hurricane Rita is scheduled to hit the beleaguered state, Tate tells his story.

“I had come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t going to leave,” he says. “I told my wife I thought we could just weather the storm in our house.” But as reports kept getting bleaker he changed his mind.

At a prayer service he held at his church Aug. 27, he questioned all the people there about where they were going. Most had already packed their cars and were ready to leave. Evelyn Brandon, a recent widow, wasn’t going to leave.

Tate and his wife begged her to change her mind and offered her the hotel reservations they had for a room in Houston. She finally decided to leave. Tate is not sure everyone else did.

Brandon is safe and now back in her home. She and Tate have a tearful reunion after he sees the church and his home.

“I thought I would never see you again,” she says, hugging him. They discuss plans to have a church service at Munholland United Methodist Church at 5 p.m. on Oct. 9.

“People need to get back into church,” she says.

“This will be a service for the people of St. Luke’s,” Tate assures her. “I need to get back to preaching.”

While dealing with the upheaval caused by the storm, Tate gets some good news. On Aug. 31, two days after Katrina hit New Orleans, he had been scheduled for a medical procedure to remove a malignant tumor. On a later visit to doctors in Baton Rouge, he learns the tumor has disappeared.

“We Methodists are praying people,” he says. “That’s the power of prayer.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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