Storm led churches to ‘dream big dreams,’ pastor says
May 18, 2006
|A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood
Hurricane Katrina "has revolutionized our thinking about ministry," says the Rev. Cory Sparks.
By Tim Tanton*
NEW ORLEANS (UMNS) — Many Gulf Coast pastors, like the Rev. Cory Sparks,
say Hurricane Katrina has forced them to look at ministry in a new way.
“It has revolutionized our thinking about ministry,” Sparks, 35, says.
In the days after the Aug. 29 storm, members of his congregations at
Carrollton and Parker Memorial United Methodist churches served as
rescue workers, provided relief, and distributed water, food and flood
buckets throughout their neighborhoods, he explains.
“It caused us to move out beyond our walls in almost every way,” he says of the storm.
But the two congregations went beyond that, to ask what it means to
participate in God’s healing and “to dream big dreams,” he says. “They
said, ‘What if we think less of a vision just for this church and more
of a vision for this entire city, of rebuilding this city in a way that
is more just, righteous (and) at harmony with nature and neighbor?’”
Church members are meeting with people from around the community to
talk about the rebuilding process, protecting the neighborhoods from
future flooding, improving energy efficiency and addressing climate
change issues. Those mission efforts are being called “Operation New
Creation,” he says, with the tag lines of “preserving the beauty,
confronting the tragedy and transforming the city.”
In those ways, ministry has taken on a new dimension for the two churches.
“We don’t ever want to go back to New Orleans of Aug. 28, 2005,”
Sparks says. “We know that God wants us to be something different, and
as God rebuilds, he rebuilds in a way that is more pleasing in his sight
— that’s more just.”
Carrollton Church has installed eight showers in an abandoned room
for volunteer workers who are helping rebuild homes in New Orleans. The
church has hosted up to 80 people at a time from places such as the
Church of the Saviour in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which started the
shower project, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in York, Pa., and
Oklahoma United Methodist youth, who gutted homes and worked on the
In addition to serving his own congregations, Sparks is helping lead
four other churches as a zone leader under the Louisiana Annual
(regional) Conference’s new mission zones concept. The plan divides the
New Orleans District congregations into seven zones for mutual support
in ministry and recovery.
|A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood
Costs to repair Carrollton United Methodist Church in New Orleans will run in the low six figures, Pastor Cory Sparks says.
Sparks tells dramatic stories of church members’ experiences
following the storm. One family spent five days in a second-floor garage
apartment, cooking out on a deck that the father had just finished
building. They eventually took a section of fencing, lashed four tires
to it and made a boat. After rescuing themselves, they returned with a
real boat and saved elderly neighbors and pets.
Another member, who flew helicopters for the National Guard, worked
with a neighbor to bring in medical supplies and organized groups of
people for evacuation by helicopter.
“The air was thick with helicopters,” Sparks says.
On Aug. 28, with Hurricane Katrina approaching, Sparks, his wife,
Melissa, and their daughter, Beatrix, 2 and a half, fled to his hometown
of Fort Chaffee, Ark., outside Fort Smith.
He was able to return to the area in the second week of September.
His first challenge, he says, was communicating with his congregations –
reaching out to two different groups of people, connecting with two
different boards of trustees.
“We were very blessed” that no one from the congregations died, he says. Ten members’ homes were lost from both of his churches.
Carrollton Church suffered tile damage on its roof, while Parker
Memorial United Methodist Church had its roof peeled back. The pastor
says repairing each church will run in the low six-figures.
“We’re sharing the Gospel through word and deed in New Orleans,”
Sparks says. The churches are participating in God’s rebuilding. “We’re
giving every ounce of our strength to the rebuilding. We need the prayer
and financial support of everybody around the connection.”
Bishop William Hutchinson, who leads the United Methodist Church’s
Louisiana Conference, affirms that need for support. Louisianans need to
know that people outside the conference care. It’s also important for
people inside the conference to be encouraging and supportive of one
another, he says.
“One of the great things that has come out of this is an awakening of
the spirit of community,” the bishop says. “I have seen people working
together in ways that they were not doing before.
“There has been a camaraderie among the people who have come back and
who have sort of lived through all these months now that is very, very
touching to watch and be a part of, because it’s a sense of ‘we have
been through something very difficult together that has bonded us and
made us responsible for one another and to one another,’” he says.
The Council of Bishops has launched a Katrina Church Recovery Appeal
to help coastal churches rebuild their ministries and sanctuaries, pay
their pastors and equip their congregations. More information is
available at http://umc.org/churchrecovery.
Both of Sparks’ churches are at about three-fourths their usual
membership. A number of elderly people have not returned, but Sparks is
reaching out to medical schools to draw in more young people, and he
says Carrollton has been lucky to keep its school-age children.
Sparks says that whenever he thinks about darkness and death, he
thinks about Kristina. But in this Easter season, he sees reasons for
hope — in the mission efforts of so many people, in the work being done
through Operation New Creation. In the face of death and darkness, there
is resurrection, he says.
“This resurrection is the first sign of the new creation,” he says. “A new creation is breaking forth in the world.”
*Tanton is managing editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.