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Pastors face unexpected challenges after storm

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Vehicles tossed off the road by Hurricane Katrina are lashed by Hurricane Rita in Ocean Springs, Miss.
Oct. 25, 2005


By Woody Woodrick*

BILOXI, Miss. (UMNS) - A team of volunteers arrived at the woman's house to remove a tree that had fallen on the structure during Hurricane Katrina.

The team members, all strangers to the homeowner, discovered the house had structural damage and wasn't safe. They recommended the senior-aged woman move. Where could she turn for advice?

She called the Rev. Ed Moses, her pastor. Moses said he went over and asked the volunteers to leave him alone with the woman. After talking for a time, she accepted that she would have to move temporarily.

Those are the kinds of needs pastors on the Gulf Coast are trying to meet as their churches and communities work to recover from the killer storm. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, and many people are still displaced or facing huge renovation projects, job loss and other setbacks.

"They have a pretty good mental outlook," Moses said of his parishioners at Gulfport Mount Pleasant and Biloxi St. Paul United Methodist churches, "but each individual feels they need something specific right now. They know change has come, and everything is going to be all right, but day to day they need help."

One of the problems facing pastors is providing ministry to a flock that is literally spread across the nation. Many Gulf Coast residents evacuated before the storm hit. Others made it through the storm, but their homes were so damaged they had to leave.

In addition to trying to meet spiritual needs, pastors find themselves meeting physical needs they never expected, for items such as housing, food and clothing.

At First United Methodist Church in Pass Christian, only one or two families remain in the city, according to the Rev. Terry Hilliard, pastor. Most of her members evacuated.

"I'm still trying to find members, and some still are not accounted for," she said. "I assume they're all OK."

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

A tire swing sways in the wind from Hurricane Rita on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
Pass Christian was one of the hardest-hit areas. With most of her 45 members relocated, Hilliard said she expects about one-third will not return to the Gulf Coast. She has turned her ministry efforts toward the community at large. She visits with church families still in the area, but also meets with city officials regularly and assists with distributing food and supplies.

Her own parsonage was inundated with about 7 feet of water, but fortunately, Hilliard has another housing option. Her husband, the Rev. Larry Hilliard, is pastor at Nugent United Methodist Church in north Gulfport, which also has a parsonage.

The Pass Christian church came through the storm relatively well. "Because my church building is the only one downtown standing and usable, I've been trying to get it cleaned up so the city or whomever can use it," she added.

Hilliard also has tried to coordinate with city officials to assign work teams to the area. Pass Christian still has checkpoints at the city limits. To enter, one must be a resident - with ID showing a Pass Christian address - or be escorted by a resident.

In addition, Hilliard holds worship services. Nine people attended the Sept. 25 services.
"I'm working on the congregation's needs," she said. "It's a short list. You just have to start somewhere and go from there."

The Rev. Elijah Mitchell has faced similar problems. He was pastor at St. Rock United Methodist Church in Pass Christian and at the Seashore Mission church in Biloxi. Both were destroyed. At Seashore Mission, 12 people sought shelter from the storm. Six survived. Two are missing.

Mitchell said the members at Seashore first were relocated to Biloxi High School, but most are now in Corinth, and some are in Tennessee, Alabama and other places.
Before the storm, Seashore held a daily worship service, and Mitchell said he continued that practice at the shelter at Biloxi High. "We stayed together as a family group," he said. "We were so committed to worship, the others at the shelter joined in."

When the group decided to relocate, Mitchell held a memorial service. About 30 people then boarded a bus to Corinth, where Willow Grove Baptist Church provides shelter and help finding homes and jobs.

Mitchell said most of what he's been doing is listening. "Right now I'm silent and listen to how they feel," he explained. "There is a lot of anger and frustration, but the one thing people ask about is what are we going to do about the church?"

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Hurricane Rita hammers a beachfront home already destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Ocean Springs, Miss.
He is trying to find housing for his churches members, especially those who attend St. Rock. Most of the members have indicated, at least at this point, that they don't intend to return.

"If you haven't lost anything, you don't know how they feel," Mitchell said. "When you see everything they own is gone, it is difficult to tell them to come back when they still don't have a place to stay."

Moses said his members at Gulfport Mount Pleasant have something resembling normal lives. However, the area around Biloxi St. Paul was hard hit. The church is in downtown Biloxi, not far from the beach.

Moses has tried to emphasize to his members that God makes all things new. "Katrina caused a disaster. In this we have an opportunity for new things, for new life," he said.

UMCOR is providing two giving numbers through the Advance for Christ and His Church for hurricane relief. Checks should be made out to UMCOR and designated for "UMCOR Advance #982523 Hurricane Katrina" or "UMCOR Advance #901323 Hurricane Rita." Both numbers or one number and the word "both" can be given for general assistance.

Tax-deductible checks may be placed in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Credit-card gifts can be made by calling (800) 554-8583 or going online to www.methodistrelief.org.

*Woodrick is editor of the Mississippi Advocate , the newspaper of the United Methodist Church's Mississippi Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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