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Retreat gives Louisiana pastors strength for challenges ahead
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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

The Rev. Connie Thompson surveys storm damage at Napoleon Avenue United Methodist Church in New Orleans.

Dec. 21, 2005

By John Gordon*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS) — The Rev. Connie Thomas was not prepared for what she saw when she walked into her two New Orleans churches that were flooded during Hurricane Katrina.

“Oh, Lord, no, look at the pews,” Thomas exclaimed as she entered Peck United Methodist Church.

The wooden pews, which had been bolted to the floor, were scattered and overturned inside the sanctuary. A piano, once used to play hymns, leaned over after being soaked by floodwaters. Mold was creeping up the walls.

“A part of me had been feeling like, I don’t want to see it,” said Thomas. “But at the same time, I realize that there’s work that has to be done, and it’s time to roll our sleeves up and start doing what we can to make it a church again.”

Thomas has been unable to hold services at Peck or her second church, Napoleon Avenue United Methodist Church, because of the extensive damage.

She had a chance to discuss the challenges ahead with other pastors affected by Katrina.  She was among 60 United Methodist pastors from Louisiana and Mississippi attending a Nov. 30-Dec. 2 retreat, “Staying Connected and Being Renewed,” at the denomination’s Louisiana Conference Center near Alexandria.

There is much uncertainty as the rebuilding process begins, but the Rev. Jerry Hilbun, pastor of First United Methodist Church in the hard-hit city of Slidell, said residents are encouraged by even the smallest signs of progress.

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Pastors from Louisiana and Mississippi meet for a retreat to discuss the effect of Gulf Coast hurricanes this year.

“There is a group of people in the church who are determined to rebuild and fix the buildings that we have, and they are a source of inspiration,” said Hilbun, whose home and church were heavily damaged.

“I heard a Hindu proverb that we’ve been using in our church, and folks seem to have latched on to this,” he said. “And the proverb teaches that if you have to eat an elephant, you can only do it one bite at a time.”

As Hilbun tries to bring life back to normal for his own family, he has been called on to comfort others. In the weeks and months following the hurricane, there are signs that depression is growing among families struggling to cope with loss.

“A seminar teacher told us that we could expect a much higher suicide, rate maybe 80 percent, and an increased rate of family separations and divorces, as high as 50 percent more than in a normal time,” says Hilbun. Coping with depression is proving to be a long process.

Hilbun said his church is important to its community, hosting youth events, Mother’s Day Out and a program for dyslexic youth, drawing students from up to 100 miles away. The larger body of the church has also been crucial to the community’s recovery, “People from all over the country, in fact all over the world, have come to help. It may be the church’s finest hour that we are coming together to overcome this disaster.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

The Rev. Ellen Alston now lives in Shreveport, La., after her church and home were destroyed.

Another pastor attending the conference, the Rev. Ellen Alston, said the hurricane flooded her home and church, Covenant United Methodist Church in Chalmette.

“There’s a lot of pain,” she said.

“And I think sometimes, that’s even deepening as people realize that as time goes on, how permanent the losses are, and that’s even more than house and belongings,” she said. “I think it’s the loss of access to those relationships being right there that you built your life around.”

Alston has tried to keep in touch with members of her congregation, though some have still not returned to the area. “Hope is definitely challenged,” she said, by the destruction and the relocation of many families.

“I think there’s a sense of growing into now, what is this real situation that we’re facing, what are all the ramifications,” she said. “And how do we live those questions with hope and trust, which may not be immediately apparent, how it’s all going to work out and unfold.”

Still, many Gulf Coast residents are showing a determination to rebuild their churches — and their lives.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

John W. Johnson tells the Rev. Connie Thomas that "the best is yet to come."

Ford Willoughby met Pastor Thomas to survey the damage at Napoleon United Methodist. Willoughby has been a member of the church since 1955.

“The church was struggling, but we have never given up our desire for this church to remain open,” Willoughby said. “And we don’t intend to do so now.”

Napoleon offered a Christian academy and other youth and community programs before Katrina hit.

Thomas has relocated to Baton Rouge while her home in New Orleans is being repaired.  She is heading up the assignment of volunteer work teams coming to Louisiana to help hurricane victims rebuild.

“The city has a long road to recovery,” she said.  “A lot of work to be done.”

But Peck United Methodist Church member John W. Johnson is undaunted.  He and others see the rebuilding as a chance to tailor church-sponsored programs to the specific needs of their neighborhoods and communities.

“That’s right,” Johnson declared.  “The best is yet to come.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or


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