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Hurricane survivors celebrate Advent with joy

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A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

The Rev. Hadley Edwards leads the discussion during the Advent Bible study hosted in his Gretna, La., home.
Dec. 16, 2005

By Betty Backstrom*

GRETNA, La. (UMNS) — Every week during Advent, the Rev. Hadley Edwards hosts a Tuesday evening Bible study in his home for the members of Bethany United Methodist Church, just as he has in previous years.

The biggest difference this Christmas is that there is no church sanctuary or education building to go to on Sunday morning. Bethany United Methodist Church in New Orleans, located less than two miles from Lake Ponchartrain and four miles from the 17th Street canal, was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, with close to 11 feet of water flooding the church complex.

Tony Childers, a Bethany member and administrative assistant for the New Orleans District of the denomination’s Louisiana Annual Conference, sits in his pastor’s living room and reads aloud from the Advent guidebook.

“Not even affliction has the ability to dampen our joy,” he reads. “Because the Lord has done great things for us, we rest assured of God’s love.”

Every head in this circle of study nods in agreement, and several members quietly say, “Amen.”

As this small group of church members gathers in front of the crackling fireplace in their pastor’s home, just outside New Orleans, Edwards mentions that this evening’s meeting is the first time he has seen “Sister” Percieann Rodney since the storm.

“I was like a little kid, just jumping up and down when she was coming out of the car this evening. She was one of the sheep I hadn’t seen,” said the elated pastor. Rodney had evacuated to Houston when Hurricane Katrina hit. Her home suffered wind damage, and she is living with her mother in uptown New Orleans until repairs are made.

Edwards makes the point that especially now, folks need to be around positive people. “It is wonderful to see all these smiling faces here tonight, to be able to share the joy of the season. Thank God we are coming together.”

Audrey Lawson, who sits close by the fire this evening, shares her philosophy on prayer with the study group. “I thank God every morning for waking me up to live another day, especially after everything we’ve been through. I talk to him just like I’m talking to you.”

The 79-year-old member of Bethany evacuated to Lake Charles with her niece when Hurricane Katrina hit. Lawson was one of thousands who escaped weeks later from Hurricane Rita, which struck the southwest coast of Louisiana. She lives temporarily in Harvey, La., with her niece, and plans to rebuild her house in New Orleans East, which received six feet of floodwater.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

Barbara Gibson (center) reads aloud from the Advent study book.
Barbara Gibson, also at the Advent study, expressed gratitude for the prayers of friends and family. “People called me from all over the country. I truly saw and felt the love of others,” said the young woman, who plans to pursue a career in ministry.

Gibson, a resident of New Orleans for 13 years, recently experienced several major challenges, including the death of her mother and her husband’s brain surgery. “Almost every nine months, there was another tragedy. The last blow was Hurricane Katrina. But I truly believe that these experiences have strengthened my faith,” she said.

She told about the joy she felt when the group from Bethany United Methodist Church first got together a few weeks ago. “I can’t even describe how happy I was. We probably spent the first hour hugging and kissing each other. We’ve had lots of communication by phone and e-mail, but it was wonderful to see all these faces,” she said.

“Rev. Edwards has his house beautifully decorated for Christmas. It made us all so cheerful that I immediately went home and decorated my house, too.”

Edwards closes the evening’s study with news about displaced church members. Leonard Merriman III is living in Tomball, Texas. His mother, who is battling colon cancer, is in a nursing home in Texas. The study group plans to send her cards and a care package.
Mary Allen is still hospitalized in California, but is doing better.

Marion Anders is still in Ruston, La., but her sister, Naomi Martin, has made it back to the area and is living in Harvey. Edwards shares their dramatic rescue story, which involved a helicopter rescue of the two women who had decided to ride out the storm in Anders’ house in Ponchartrain Park.

Prayers are said, and Edwards sends the group forward into the chilly December evening, with promises of homemade gumbo and Italian cream cake for their next meeting.

*Backstrom is editor of Louisiana Now!, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual Conference.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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