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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 purposes.

"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 African American."

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 physical thing.

"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 church.

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 1989.

"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 Waveland, Miss.

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 encouragement."

Giving hope

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."

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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