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Storm led churches to ‘dream big dreams,’ pastor says

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A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

Hurricane Katrina "has revolutionized our thinking about ministry," says the Rev. Cory Sparks.
May 18, 2006

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 showers.

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.

Storm days

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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.

‘New creation’

“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

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

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