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Hope is greatest gift, says Katrina disaster coordinator

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

The Rev. Chris Cumbest, coordinator of church recovery for the Mississippi Annual Conference, walks past the new sanctuary at Clermont Harbor (Miss.) United Methodist Church.
Aug. 28, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

After a year of destruction, chaos and despair, the greatest gift that can be given to people of the Gulf Coast is hope, says Ed Blakeslee, coordinator of United Methodist Katrina relief efforts in Mississippi.

He cites Proverbs 23:18: “There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.”

“Much has been accomplished in the past year, but so much more remains to be done,” writes Blakeslee in one of his recent weekly messages from the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference.

“I told my wife that I have probably cried more during the past year than at any other time in my adult life,” he said. ”Some were tears of sorrow, and some were tears of joy.”

Despite all the harm caused by Hurricane Katrina — more than 200 people dead, 363 United Methodist churches with pending insurance claims, 23 churches severely damaged and seven destroyed — many who have been in the trenches say it has been an exciting year of seeing “the church being the church.”

“The hurricane offered us as a church an incredible opportunity to reach people we would never have reached before,” says the Rev. Chris Cumbest, coordinator of church recovery for the Mississippi Conference. “Walls and carpet really don’t matter. It’s about people.”

The entire Mississippi coastline, from Pearlington to Pecan, suffered devastating damage from the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

One year later, after thousands of volunteer hours, Cumbest says years of work remain.

Hope and despair

A tour of churches along the coastline is mixed with bright rays of hope and sad scenes of despair.

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Homeowner Jack Feigel (left) shares a laugh with the Rev. Chris Cumbest at Feigel's home in Waveland, Miss.

One of the bright spots is in Pearlington, where a shiny white church with a bright green roof almost sits where it did before the hurricane.

The only thing left of Clermont Harbor United Methodist Church after Katrina was the concrete front steps. Meshach’s Carpenter, a United Methodist group of volunteers from Goldston, Ga., rebuilt the church “from the brick foundation to the steeple” in eight days, Cumbest says.

The first church service was held in the new building June 18.

“I attended worship with them in February, and there were 10 persons present,” says Cumbest. “On June 18 there were around 50 who were not a part of Meshach’s Carpenters who attended, many from the Clermont Harbor community.” Cumbest calls the rebuilt church “an incredible witness to the community and to the coast of how the Light of Christ continues to shine in the darkness.”

A few miles from Clermont Harbor, Barry Smith has a team of United Methodist volunteers building a shed in his backyard. He and his pregnant wife and young son are living in a trailer and he says the Federal Emergency Management Agency has told him he can only have it for seven more months. The shed will hold building material Smith has salvaged from other building sites.

“We lost a lot, but we have gained a lot,” he says, watching the workers sweating in the intense Mississippi heat.

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

The Rev. Theodore R. Williams Jr., pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Pass Christian, Miss., stands in his partially restored sanctuary.

Down the road, college kids from Starksville (Miss.) First United Methodist Church are carrying 8,000 pounds of Sheetrock up a steep stairway for Jack Feigel and Paula Coffey.

“We couldn’t have hand-picked a better group of people,” Feigel says. He and Coffey spent two and a half months on the balcony of a hotel in Diamonhead after the hurricane ripped their home apart.

A shed floated up on their property, and the couple were just about to move into it when they got a FEMA trailer. They earned the money to pour their foundation from salvaging cooper wiring, Feigel says.

With tears in their eyes, they watched as the young people worked. “I just can’t believe it,” Coffey says. “They are heaven sent.”

?We came. We saw. We mucked.’

Pass Christian (Miss.) First United Methodist Church has a huge bulletin board in its hallway filled with handmade signs from the many volunteers who have come to help.

“We came. We saw. We mucked,” says one sign from a group in Huntsville, Ala. “Clergywomen strippers were here,” says another.

The church had two feet of water in it, says the Rev. Terry Hilliard, coordinator for spiritual and emotional care for the conference’s Katrina response team. Debris in front of the church’s double front doors kept more water from flooding the building. After the hurricane, only four households in her congregation had habitable homes, she says.

Right after the hurricane most people were shocked, and then they got really busy cleaning and trying to assess the damage, Hilliard says. Months dragged by while people waited for insurance settlements and for government officials to decide how the houses should be rebuilt; that’s when it got really hard, she says.

“I think people are not as energized as they were when there was a lot of physical work to do,” she says. “People are tired; they are emotionally, physically and mentally worn out.”

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

The Rev. Chris Cumbest walks up the concrete slab of the former Leggett Memorial United Methodist Church at Seashore Assembly in Biloxi, Miss., a United Methodist retreat facility that faced the beach.

But Hilliard says amazing stories have come out of all the despair.

“We worked on a house in Long Beach, and the crew went to replace the roof on a house,” she says. The crew had tried to contact the homeowners but couldn’t reach them. They just picked up the roofing supplies and got busy, she says.

At the end of the day, the crew found out it was really supposed to be replacing the roof next door.

When the homeowners drove up, they were shocked.

“The couple said they had been driving around making the decision to commit suicide. They had just had enough. And then they came home and there was a new roof on their house. It turned them around.”

Hilliard also tells the story of one couple in her church who said, “We could have paid contractors to fix our house, but we needed the volunteers to fix our hearts.”

“This is what it is all about,” she says. “The spiritual, emotional care is about figuring out some of the pieces of the puzzle to help fix people’s hearts.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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

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