?We will not shrink from this challenge,’ bishop vows
May 10, 2006
A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton
Debris from Hurricane Katrina sits in a pile in front of Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport.
By Tim Tanton*
GULFPORT, Miss. (UMNS) — Sitting outside the shell of a church building,
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward acknowledges the grief that Mississippians feel in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but today she is all about resolve.
“The United Methodist Church is committed to this recovery,” Ward
says. “That commitment is long term.”
Beside her looms the ruin of Mississippi City
United Methodist Church, a gutted building that still holds random attributes
of a vital church ? a
few chairs, a piano, a stuffed toy. Mostly, though, it has a lot of open
Like the church, much of the area along Mississippi’s
Gulf Coast still looks as battered as if the storm struck yesterday instead
of half a year ago.
While recovering slowly themselves, the churches at the same time are helping
homeowners and their communities rebuild.
“We will not shrink from this challenge,” Ward says. But she acknowledges
the enormity of the job ahead. “The task of rebuilding is long, is arduous,
is beyond our comprehension still.”
Ward is encouraging United Methodists to help
the churches in Mississippi and Louisiana rebuild through the Council of
Bishops’ Katrina Church
Recovery Appeal. The appeal, developed at the council’s meeting last
fall, will be emphasized during U.S. annual conference sessions in May and
The bishops launched the appeal to raise money
for rebuilding churches in the Katrina-stricken areas, help pay pastors’ salaries and re-equip congregations
for ministry in their areas. The appeal is different from the United Methodist
Committee on Relief’s fund-raising work, which is supporting humanitarian
relief on the coast.
A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton
A few chairs and tables are nearly all that occupy the sanctuary of Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport.
Mississippi City United Methodist Church exemplifies the pressing need.
“This is one of our most historic churches,” Ward
says. The church was founded in 1890 by a mission pastor who sent an appeal
across the conference
requesting dimes to erect the building.
Ward has preached twice here, including one occasion, right after the storm,
when the church had its communion table set up in the parking lot. Today, about
100 members of the congregation meet for worship in a nearby warehouse that
the church owns.
The conference is working with at least six congregations to figure out if
their churches will be rebuilt. In one extreme case, Clermont Harbor (Miss.)
United Methodist Church was left with nothing but its steps after the hurricane.
The conference is expecting more than $4 million in uninsured and under-insured
losses to churches and related properties.
“It’s essential that we respond to the bishops’ appeal for
the rebuilding of our churches,” Ward says. “Our churches are strategic
centers” for nurturing and worship, she says, noting that 30 conference
churches are hosting work teams along the coast.
United Methodist giving is helping keep pastors
in their communities, she says. “In Mississippi, the pastors who evacuated
returned very soon to their congregations. A number of the pastors never
the storm even as their homes and churches were destroyed. The presence of
pastor leadership in a community is a shepherding gift to the entire community.”
The Rev. Rick Brooks, of Main Street United Methodist
Church in Bay St. Louis, is one such pastor. The financial support helps
congregations in need,
he says. “I use that word ?sustaining,’ and I really believe
that’s true. It’s sometimes amazing the difference a little bit
of help” can make.
Bishop Ward has been a source of encouragement “to know we are not going
to be alone and that the churches will be here for us, and I have felt that
personally in a great way,” Brooks says. “I believe it because
we’ve experienced help already, and it’s made a tremendous difference.”
“It’s essential that our pastors be present in our devastated
communities,” Ward says. “? Unless the connection is helpful
in garnering the resources for pastors’ salaries, pensions and insurance,
for the recovery of parsonages, pastoral presence will be diminished among
“And,” she says, “the mission
of our church as a whole is lessened.”
A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward declares, "We will not shrink from this challenge."
Despite the adversity, Ward says she is seeing
a new spirit in the congregations. At Heritage United Methodist Church in
D’Iberville, members have collected
sleeping bags and tool kits. “They have regained their strong sense of
being a missional congregation.”
Some congregations have drawn closer in connection
with one another, such as a white church and an African-American congregation
that have been worshipping
together since their buildings were destroyed. Over and over, the bishop says,
she hears people say this is their “finest hour.”
“These months have been the most heartbreaking and the most inspiring,
simultaneously,” she says.
The weight of grief in Mississippi is great, Ward says. It’s a grief
reflected in her account of a church member weeping that her town won’t
be rebuilt in her lifetime, or in a simple message spray-painted on the ruins
of a home: “This was our house.”
In some ways, the Gulf Coast area seems starker
and harsher than it did right after the hurricane hit, she says. Now empty
where before there
had been buildings, churches, homes, playgrounds. “There is nothing,
where before there was life and vitality.”
People on the coast are tired of the destruction, but Ward says she knows
the strength of the Christian community. Daily, the conference receives thousands
of volunteers. A week earlier, a team of Bolivians arrived to help, and tsunami
survivors also have traveled to Mississippi for relief work. Volunteer in Mission
teams stay for periods ranging from a week to months. The conference coordinates
their work with a main response center and four regional offices, all funded
“It is important for the whole church to stay connected, to stay vitally
involved,” the bishop says, “because this is our calling as God’s
Staying connected will be important as a new hurricane season begins in June.
“We have learned what wind and water can do,” Ward says. “We
are in a stronger place as a result of this experience, in a better place to
move forward into the hurricane season.”
With help from the appeal, the church will remain
strong on the Gulf Coast, she says. Information on the Katrina Church Recovery
is available at
http://umc.org/churchrecovery. Donations can be made online or designated for
Bishops’ Appeal #818-001 and sent to an annual conference treasurer.
“It is our genius as United Methodist people
to live in connection with one another,
Ward says. “We know that we have not suffered through this alone. We
know that we don’t face the future alone. ? God has given us life
together, and for that we are deeply grateful.”
*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.