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Coastal ministries need support through appeal, bishop says

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A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

Church members still gather for worship in the gutted sanctuary of Bethany United Methodist Church in New Orleans.
May 18, 2006

By Tim Tanton*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS) — A cloud of dirt unfurls from the gaping opening in the side of Bethany United Methodist Church, as a construction crew works through the midday heat to rebuild the sanctuary.

Hurricane Katrina left the church in ruins, but the congregation kept its footing on a solid rock that doesn’t move.

“We still are excited about the Lord,” says the Rev. Hadley R. Edwards, pastor. “We’re having a hallelujah good time.”

Though the sanctuary is nothing more than a shell, church members still gather in it on Sundays to worship. On the other days of the week, the sanctuary becomes the ministry of construction workers, painters and others who are rebuilding it.

Bishop William Hutchinson arrives at the church one afternoon as the workers are taking their lunch break.

“I decided to wear hurricane casual,” he quips. He’s wearing a long-sleeve khaki shirt and jeans – no tie in sight.

Inside the sanctuary, with a Bobcat sitting idle nearby, the bishop meets with a video crew to emphasize the need for the Council of Bishops’ Katrina Church Recovery Appeal.

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A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton

The Rev. Hadley R. Edwards and Bishop William Hutchinson look at the water mark left by Hurricane Katrina.

The churches in his Louisiana Annual Conference, as well as those in neighboring Mississippi and Alabama-West Florida, are counting on United Methodists to support the appeal. The bishops’ campaign will cover the cost of rebuilding damaged churches, help pay clergy salaries and re-equip congregations with such necessities as Bibles, hymnals, choir robes, furniture – “anything it takes to put the church life back together,” Hutchinson says.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has raised millions for humanitarian aid and recovery on the Gulf Coast, but that money cannot be applied to helping congregations rebuild.

The video, being produced by United Methodist Communications, will be shown at annual conference gatherings around the United States. Every bishop is being asked to show it. The 63 U.S. conferences are gathering in May and June.

Hutchinson notes that all 98 churches in the New Orleans District sustained damage from Hurricane Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, and the ensuing levee breaks. Twenty church buildings are probably questionable, he says.

He knows of 14 churches that, if the conference were to use them, would need to be totally rebuilt for an estimated cost of about $21 million. “So you can see that the dollars are large,” he says.

Caring for neighbors

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A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

The congregation of Bethany United Methodist Church remains vital despite being without a building since last August.

Bethany United Methodist Church absorbed all the damage that it probably could have without being destroyed outright by the storm. Three members died “in the stirring of the storm,” Edwards says. They had been elderly and not in good health, and the stress of evacuating and relocating took its toll.

The congregation has remained vital, despite going for seven months without a building. Edwards hosted a Bible study in his home during Advent and stayed in touch with members by e-mail and phone.

The church has been one of the strongest African-American congregations in the state for the past 10 years, Edwards says. Anita H. Crump, administrative council chairperson, says the church gave more than $100,000 to missions in 2004, and it has been involved in 40 to 50 ministries, such as child care, raising awareness of AIDS and sickle-cell anemia, mission work in Africa and reaching out to college students.

“ The churches on the Gulf Coast do need considerable help,” Crump says. The United Methodist Church needs to flourish there, and members need to return, she says.

“There are too many things we’ve started that we can’t leave unfinished,” Edwards adds.

The bishops’ appeal represents “a wonderful connectional spirit,” the pastor says. “It is a part of neighbor caring for neighbor.”

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A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton

Anita Crump, a leader at Bethany United Methodist Church, stands with Bishop William Hutchinson in the sanctuary.

And it is urgent.

“It is extremely important for United Methodists to give,” Hutchinson says. “This recovery from this particular hurricane is going to be years in length. There is no way for the conferences affected to replace and to reconstruct and to rebuild all the things that have been lost on their own. So it is extremely important that we have the help of the general church.”

United Methodist congregations have been generous so far, he notes. “Without them, we could not have sustained our pastors, we could not have kept our churches open as well as we’ve been able to. But it is far, far from over.”

Hutchinson says the relief phase following the storm took longer than expected. Now the church is shifting from dealing with the immediate needs of the community — food, shelter — to the long-term needs of gutting out houses and doing case management.

Four relief stations are working full tilt to keep up with the case management load, he says. “The counseling load has been very, very heavy.”

Coming back for good

Bethany’s members are scattered in 23 states, according to Edwards. The church had 853 members before the storm. A March 19 “comeback” service drew 254 members, and the church has been averaging 100 to 150 in worship attendance since then. Only six to eight members have confirmed to Edwards that they aren’t returning to the area; they are living with their children elsewhere.

Crump’s home, near Lake Ponchartrain, was destroyed by eight and a half feet of water from a levee breach. After evacuating and living with a niece outside the state, Crump bought a home in the New Orleans suburb community of Gretna and has recently returned to the area.

“All of my roots are here in Louisiana,” she explains. “I was born and reared in New Orleans.”

Edwards complains that the lack of housing and schools is preventing more people from returning to the city. “The housing situation here is a deterrent to the movement of the church,” he says. He doesn’t want America to think New Orleans is fixed, he adds. “New Orleans is not fixed.”

Bethany has received assistance from churches in Louisiana, California, Texas, Arizona, Florida and other states. “The Lord is blessing us each day with persons and churches who are coming forth and donating and wanting to do whatever they can do to help us get back up on our feet,” Edwards says. Those churches have provided for such needs as palm branches on Palm Sunday and folding chairs for the sanctuary.

The church has been able to keep up with its apportionments and bills, and it has raised enough money to cover the pastor’s salary. However, the bishop notes that pastor salary support is a critical need elsewhere in the conference. “We’re still going to need about an additional million dollars just to do salary support for this one year,” Hutchinson says.

Bethany members planned to build a new church in time for their 50th anniversary in 2007, but Katrina changed those plans. In order to get the replacement cost of the church through insurance coverage, the congregation is rebuilding on its current site. The new planned church, 4.26 acres Bethany By the Lake, will have to wait.

The renovation of the existing building is expected to be complete in July, at a cost of about $496,000. The church is currently $80,000 short, Edwards says, and another $100,000 will be needed for pews, an altar, an organ and other furnishings.

The congregation is meeting without air conditioning, using funeral parlor fans to stay cool in worship. “We fan our way through a wonderful, two-hour worship every Sunday,” the pastor says.

The local phone system is out of commission and the pastor doesn’t know when it will be restored. The neighborhood has no commerce – the grocery stores, drug stores and so on are closed. “We drive through this desolate valley to get to this bright spot where there’s praise going on. Bethany is blooming with life.”

Depending on grace

The Louisiana Conference’s mission zone recovery plan will need at least three to five years before its effects can be assessed, Hutchinson says. The plan divides the New Orleans District’s churches into seven mission zones, with the idea that the pastors and congregations can support one another in recovery and ministry.

As for New Orleans, the bishop says, “I would say overall it’s going to take 15 to 20 years to get this city back to what it was before this storm hit.”

The bishop says his greatest learning from the hurricane’s aftermath is that no person is an island, but that all are interdependent, “and that through it all, we are dependent on God and God’s grace.”

Information on the Katrina Church Recovery Appeal is available at http://umc.org/churchrecovery. Donations can be made online or designated for Bishops’ Appeal #818-001 and sent to an annual conference treasurer.

*Tanton is managing editor of United Methodist News Service.

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

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