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Louisiana churches hail Katrina response


Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

6:00 P.M. EST August 25, 2010

Bishop William Hutchinson of Louisiana, standing before a cross made of debris salvaged from Hurricane Katrina, thanks United Methodists for their response following the storm during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Bishop William Hutchinson, standing before a cross made of debris salvaged from Hurricane Katrina, thanks United Methodists during the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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On Aug. 29, 2005, my family and I were in Woodward, Okla., participating in the funeral service for my beloved father-in-law. Before and after the service, we watched the television accounts of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive landfall.

But it was the next day that the most devastating news for Louisiana began to fill the newscasts. The levees of New Orleans were weakening and then breaking under the pressure of the storm surge. As the Crescent City and surrounding communities flooded, thousands of people were stranded in a bowl-like, below-sea-level city from which the surging waters would not drain. 

Then the nightmare began that still haunts the souls of Louisianans. The Superdome became a shelter in a matter of hours. Helicopters were engaged in rescuing people from their rooftops. Dead bodies floated in canals, while watery graves enveloped others who could not escape their flooding houses. The National Guard was deployed to keep order and stop the looting that was ravaging the inner city. A scene that no one thought possible on United States soil unfolded before the viewing public and sent our hearts into horrific spasms.

Three additional destructive hurricanes followed—Rita (Sept. 23, 2005), Gustav (Sept. 1, 2008) and Ike (Sept. 13, 2008). And this spring and summer, as an unprecedented oil spill has disrupted and destroyed the ecology, environment and economy of an entire region, we stop to remember Katrina. What have we learned from this grande dame of hurricanes, and her sister and brothers?

The connection is amazing and life giving!

Immediately after Katrina encroached upon our lives, the United Methodist Committee on Relief was in Louisiana, helping us respond to the basic needs of the people. UMCOR workers have never left our side. They have shepherded us through five years of response. They are still with us as United Methodists are still fully engaged in recovery—the last of the major denominations “on the ground.”

The outpouring of money, people, prayers, goods and love has been staggering. Without the church, we could not respond as we have. Federal, state and parish governments have depended on the church to do the work of response and recovery. 

We went where we never would have gone without Katrina, and God is there!

Disciples are fewer, but discipleship is much stronger. We have come to realize the essence of the gospel: It is not about us. The mission of the church is about reaching out to a hurting society and world with the life-saving message and love of Jesus Christ. We lost church buildings and congregations, but we gained the church. 

Several congregations have merged to make sustainable bodies of faith and have forgotten about neighborhoods, race and social class in doing so. More than one church now reflects the face of the population of Louisiana – intergenerational, cross-racial and committed to reaching the lonely and the lost with the good news.

We discovered that wounded lives not only survive; they also become stronger.

The initial aftermath of Katrina brought chaos, blaming, anger, unrealistic expectations and a crippling sense of loss. As days wore into weeks, months and years, however, we came to realize that if we didn’t help ourselves and make something positive out of a devastating situation, we would just sink further into the muck and mire of the destruction.

When we began to “pick up our beds and walk,” we began to be healthy and strong.  Today you will find a stronger United Methodist presence than before Katrina.  That is because the people of the churches are stronger because of this tragedy.

We know our reliance is on God and God alone!

The various forms of government and even the institutional church cannot save us from destruction and decline. It is God who has formed us, brought us through the waters and will lead us into tomorrow.

We no longer have a sense of bitterness, mistrust and mistreatment among us. Instead, one experiences an atmosphere of celebration that we are here. We celebrate that God is our refuge and our strength. We live by the sentiment of an old hymn, “Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand, but I know who holds tomorrow and I know who holds my hand.”

On Aug. 29, the churches of Louisiana will gather to remember the destruction, deaths and discouragement of Katrina. We also will gather to celebrate that “we have come this far by faith!” And it won’t be surprising if after the moments of silence and remembrance have passed, we break out in a second line, a joy-filled dance expression of happiness that permeates Louisiana culture and that bespeaks our indomitable spirits. And the song that spurs the second line will fill our hearts once again. “Oh Lord, we want to be in that number . . . .”  May it be so!

*Hutchinson is bishop of the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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