Black staff provide ministry of presence in New Orleans
By Linda Green*
Aug. 9, 2006 | NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)
Nearly three dozen African-American United Methodist staff members
journeyed throughout the city to offer healing, hope and wholeness to
residents and damaged churches.
Their July 23-25 work trip was a response to an appeal for a ministry
of presence and assistance made by the Rev. Connie Thomas, the
volunteer coordinator for storm recovery for the Louisiana Annual
(regional) Conference, to Black Methodists for Church Renewal and the
National Black Staff Forum last March.
Some 90 churches in the denomination, including 30 black churches,
were damaged along the 340 miles of Louisiana devastated by Hurricane
Katrina. The Louisiana Conference is making a decision on which churches
will be rebuilt for congregations and which will be used for other
"I made the appeal because we needed more participation from the
African-American community," Thomas said. "At the time of the appeal,
only 5 percent of the 12,000 volunteers who had come to the area were
Since March, the presence of African-American teams has increased,
making a tremendous impact on the people of New Orleans and other areas,
according to Thomas. "Volunteerism is not a traditional ministry for
blacks," she noted. "We have always engaged … in nurturing but not the
"When the staff members of the United Methodist Church arrived, it
brought hope to the people," Thomas said. "A ministry of presence is
important because it plants seeds in the mind of the people that
everybody is involved in this ministry."
Answering a call
Although a year has passed since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the
images and horrors remain fresh in the mind of Antonietta Wilson, a
staff member of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. She
jumped at the chance to provide a hands-on response.
"Coming here was (a) calling for me," she said. "I should take the
opportunity to do what I can, share my blessings, even if it is to be in
solidarity and talk to them and do whatever I can."
The Rev. Eugene Hebert, associate pastor of Bethany United Methodist
Church in New Orleans, told the black staff members he felt "as if I was
receiving water" when he saw them.
"Seeing so many African Americans lets me know that we do care about
Katrina and we do have each other’s back. There is something about the
gathered community that gives joy and gives peace," he said.
Irene Jones, 81, came to New Orleans with her daughter, Jeneane
Jones, the director of communications for the California-Nevada Annual
Conference. Her reasons for attending were twofold. She enjoyed being
able to spend time with her daughter as she participated in relief
efforts. "This meant that I had a chance to do something, to be a part
of something," she said.
She will encourage others at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church
in Oakland, Calif., to visit New Orleans and do their part, she said.
An employee at a local hotel told the black staff members that she
felt proud when she learned that an African-American team from the
United Methodist Church was in the city to lend a hand. An inactive
United Methodist, she said their presence made her want to rejoin a
Elaine Jenkins, a staff member in the office of development for
Africa University, knows what the people in New Orleans and particularly
those in the Lower Ninth Ward have gone through. A native of
Charleston, S.C., she experienced Hurricane Hugo, which hit her state in
"It devastated the area where I lived, and I remember the volunteers
that came through and what that meant to us then," she said.
Doing relief work
While on the Gulf Coast, the staffers split into teams for relief
work at three sites: Brooks United Methodist Church, a New Orleans
church that had not been opened since Katrina struck; a church recovery
station, also in New Orleans; and historic Gulfside Assembly in
Outfitted from head to toe in white industrial suits, hardhats and
other gear to protect themselves against injury and disease, teams
gutted out Brooks Church in the Lower Ninth Ward. They removed the pews,
tore out the carpet and cleared the altar and pulpit. They also removed
a refrigerator that had not been opened in nearly a year.
The Rev. Deborah Williams, one of the pastors assigned to the parish
where Brooks is located, said the church — which was organized in 1948
and once had 157 members —had six feet of water inside after Katrina
struck. In a face mask, she greeted the team at the church and expressed
delight at the help.
Services haven’t been held in the sanctuary since Aug. 28, 2005, the
day before Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Officials have been in
contact with 35 of the members, and only 20 have returned to the area.
"It is a wonderful statement that the denomination’s black staff
members are making," Williams said. "This was a predominantly
African-American city, and most of the victims are African American. We
have not seen great participation of African Americans helping in the
cleanup. Of course, we are happy when anyone comes, but it is important
that African Americans around the country get involved and help this
great American city recover."
The team’s presence was critical, she said. "It shows that we have
not been forgotten. It is hard when you’ve lost your home, people are
scattered across the country, and we go between hope and despair. Seeing
you here gives hope."
While the fate of Brooks Church hasn’t been decided, Williams said
her responsibility now is "to minister to people’s souls and give them
Yvonne Dayries lost everything in Katrina, but felt that God wanted
her to do something to help others. "It took my mind off what I and my
family had lost," she said. Working in one of the Louisiana Conference’s
storm recovery centers helped lessen her pain, she said.
Lawrence Johnson, a staff member with the North Carolina Annual
Conference, took out pews and carpet at Brooks Church. He said it was
agonizing to see the frustration of the people who are still trying to
find direction after almost a year.
"People are under a lot of stress and duress and trying to hang in
there from day to day," he said. "Just our coming gave them hope, and I
hope others will do the same."
African-American leaders hear needs of damaged churches
New Orleans residents race against housing deadline
African-American staff to provide 'Project Relief' on coast
Katrina Church Recovery Appeal
Louisiana Storm Recovery Center
Louisiana Annual Conference
Black Methodists for Church Renewal
General Board of Global Ministries
National Council of Churches-Rebuilding Efforts