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United Methodist leaders find faith in midst of devastation

Nov. 2, 2005

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)— On the way to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Canal Street there is a new landmark in this historic city—a towering mountain of trash.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin recently said the city has accumulated 7 million cubic feet of trash in the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

Scattered among the trash heap are bits and pieces of many of the 79 United Methodist churches in the New Orleans district that were damaged by the storm. The Rev. Freddy C. Henderson, district superintendent, said no church was left untouched and many were destroyed.

A group of United Methodist leaders from the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race toured New Orleans Oct. 29, as part of a pastoral visit to the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference. The group was also looking for ways to assist in the healing and rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region.

“Nothing could have prepared me for today,” said the Rev. Chester Jones, top executive of the Commission on Religion and Race. “To see church after church just damaged-- almost beyond repair-- and then to see the houses and homes . . . We have a lot of work to do . . . there is going to be a lot of grief coming out of here,” he said.

The first stop on the tour was at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The church has been stripped down to the studs on the first floor and power-washed clean. It is now possible to walk through without being overcome by the smell of mold and mildew. Even though much work has been done, there are still questions about whether or not to continue the repairs.

“Of the 126 families that were members here, only 15 are back,” said the Rev. Don Cottrill, conference provost. “This is a time to let things settle before we rush back in.”

The question of whether and when families will return to the New Orleans area is one of many to be considered before rebuilding decisions can be made. Insurance adjustors are still working on inspecting homes, businesses and churches.

“All the agencies (of the church) have a stake in rebuilding,” said the Rev. Larry Pickens, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

Other United Methodist churches visited were Bethany, Trinity and Cornerstone.

Julian Jackson was passing by the Cornerstone church when he noticed water pouring from the side of the building and a crowd gathered outside. Jackson, president of the United Methodist Men’s group at the church, is now living in Monroe, La. He was in the neighborhood helping a friend clean out her home.

“We had a beautiful ministry here,” he said. “It was a diverse church. We were in the middle of a capital campaign.”

The toll from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is going to be significant for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference, said Bishop William Hutchinson on Sept. 26. More than 90 pastors are without congregations, and the conference will need to pay their salaries plus a few other basic needs. Destroyed churches cannot take up collections, he noted.

“In the worst-case scenario, over the next four months, the conference will need to pay out $1.1 million,” he said. “That is a huge undertaking which the conference does not have in reserve funds.” If pastors are not able to get churches rebuilt and their salaries have to be paid in 2006, the cost will rise to $3.3 million, he said.

Having more than 90 churches unable to pay salaries for their pastors also means those congregations will be unable to pay apportionments to the conference, he said. For the rest of 2005, that will mean a $700,000 shortfall, plus an additional $1.7 million if churches still cannot pay anything in 2006.

Jones said he really wanted to come to New Orleans to see for himself the level of destruction. “Some of these places won’t come back,” he said. One of his concerns is helping people cope with no longer being able to attend their home church.

“People have a lot of memories of their church,” he said. “How do we deal with bringing some kind of closure for those persons who have long histories at these churches? ”

“I am always amazed at the human spirit and the ability that people have to bounce back from crisis and tragedy,” Pickens said. “I think with even all the shells of houses, the mold and the smell and all of the devastation that has taken place here there is a sense of faith.”

When people are challenged financially, emotionally and physically, the church becomes even more important, he said.

“I think it is important for folks to know the church is still vital in this place and that the United Methodist Church is making a difference.”

*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

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2005 Hurricane Response: United Methodist Committee on Relief

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The Rev. Larry Pickens: "There is a sense of faith."

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