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Storm’s aftermath bridges religious, cultural divides

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A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

Kevin O'Hara Hughes (right) greets the students as they arrive at Gulfside Assembly.
May 12, 2006

By Tim Tanton*

WAVELAND, Miss. (UMNS) — Hurricane Katrina left misery in its wake, but it also left the foundation for bridge building in unexpected ways.

One April morning, two buses carrying about 100 Jewish students and 10 to 15 chaperones from Los Angeles pulled up at the ruins of a United Methodist assembly center in Waveland. They were at Gulfside Assembly, a historic retreat center initially built for the African-American members of a once-segregated denomination.

The kids were sophomores and juniors from Milken Community High School. Watching the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold several months earlier, they had begun raising money immediately for a trip. In addition to paying their own way, the students raised $10,000 — half of it to the United Way Survivors’ Center in Natchez, Miss., and $3,000 to the Chabad of New Orleans, a Jewish community center with a synagogue and education and children’s programs.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

"It's real easy to send money to help people, but it's harder to come out and do something," says junior Noah Stern.

Kevin O’Hara Hughes, the construction facilitator for the United Methodist Church’s Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference, greeted the students as they stepped off the buses at the assembly center site. They had arranged to meet with him; they wanted to work.

“I’m really glad y’all are here,” he told them.

Before putting them to work cleaning up the site, he called them around his pickup truck, where he explained the significance of Gulfside Assembly. “It was one of the few places during the ’60s where blacks could be on the gulf without being molested or lynched,” he said.

Only a beach and a narrow road separate the site from the Gulf of Mexico, and the premium location on the water proved disastrous for the retreat center on Aug. 29, when the fury of Hurricane Katrina left nothing standing.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

Milken Community High School students remove debris and salvage items from the grounds of Gulfside Assembly.

But Katrina also knocked down other walls, such as those between faith groups. A few days before the youths arrived at Gulfside, United Methodists in the Louisiana Annual Conference learned they would be receiving a $35,000 grant from the American Jewish Committee to help rebuild historic First United Methodist Church in New Orleans.

“This gift is an expression of our belief in the need for solidarity and cooperation between faith communities and peoples — a need that is especially poignant in the face of the tragedy that Hurricane Katrina wrought in the region,” the federation’s David A. Harris wrote. “At times like these, we must come together as Americans and friends who are dedicated to building and rebuilding, to strengthening our communities and our country, and to reaffirming the bonds that unite us as members of one human family.”

For the students from Milken, some of whom had not been to the South before, the trip to the Gulf Coast was one of discovery, as they performed such community service activities as reading to schoolchildren, working with Habitat for Humanity, repairing driveways. From Waveland, the group was going to New Orleans.

The destruction saw no color, race or religion, said chaperone Rebecca Steinberg. “Neither do our kids.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

Seeing the devastation on the Gulf Coast "puts everything in perspective," says sophomore Hayley Miller.

The night before arriving at Gulfside, they participated in a healing concert at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Natchez.

The experience at the AMEZ church was the first time most of the students had been in a church, said Adria Hendler, 16, a junior. “The music and everything was inviting.”

Hayley Miller, 15, a sophomore, said one of the women at the church was crying and hugging the visitors. The students also received affirming comments from grateful people at places like Wal-Mart.

“It’s real easy to send money to help people, but it’s harder to come out and do something,” noted Noah Stern, 16, a junior.

The students described what they had seen so far on the trip as “intense” and “shocking.” One said it was hard to believe that so much damage from the hurricane remained after so many months.

For Miller, seeing the devastation on the coast made other things that happened in their lives seem small. “It puts everything in perspective.”

The trip was a first for the school, said Steinberg, director of admissions. It was called a “yad l’chaver” trip. Translation? “Lending a hand to your friend.”

*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.

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

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