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?We will not shrink from this challenge,’ bishop vows

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A UMNS photo by Tim Tanton

Debris from Hurricane Katrina sits in a pile in front of Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport.
May 10, 2006

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 space.

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 June.

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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
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 evacuated and experienced 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 sustain 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 us.

“And,” she says, “the mission of our church as a whole is lessened.”

?Finest hour’

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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 expanses exist where before there had been buildings, churches, homes, playgrounds. “There is nothing, where before there was life and vitality.”

Vital connection

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 by UMCOR.

“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 people.”

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 Appeal is available at 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

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