On the Gulf Coast: Recovery and Renewal
JACKSON, Miss. - The media attention is beginning
to wane and eventually people will forget about those still
struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. The scenes
along the Gulf Coast are still horrific—houses and businesses
leveled; huge piles of debris; FEMA trailers; physically
and emotionally exhausted people. An estimated
30,000 people are in Mississippi hotels without places to
live. Others along the coast are still living in tents.
But when people ask how things are post-Katrina, I
don't talk about these things. I stress how miraculously
God is at work. I know that may astound people, but the
spirit of God is so present, and the church is being the
church as I've never seen in 20 years of ministry.
As director of ministerial services for the annual conference,
I've been involved in caring for clergy on the
coast. As a south Mississippi native, I was concerned for
all persons, including my own family. My husband, Chris,
and I went to the coast four days after the storm, which
was as soon as we could find enough gasoline and get
through. We spent the next four days trying to find pastors
and families, checking on church buildings, and connecting
with our own family members.
During this first visit, the immediate need was emergency
housing. We sent out a plea for trailers or RVs
from neighboring conferences. Within two weeks we had
housing for 24 pastors and families, most of whom are
still living in these temporary quarters.
We paired clergy and spouses from unaffected areas of
the state with those on the coast for spiritual, emotional
and physical support. We arranged retreats with the help
of Lake Junaluska, Duke Divinity School, and others who
wanted to help pastors and families find Sabbath.
By the end of 2005, I had been back to the Gulf Coast
six times to deliver supplies, visit pastors, and meet
teams in churches working with the Spiritual and
Emotional Care Teams of the Mississippi Conference.
That last trip in December was almost like my first. I
wept as I saw FEMA trailers where stately old homes
once stood. Banana trailers still covered the port of Gulfport. Debris still covered
the beach as I drove
east on Highway 90. The
stench from the first few
trips was gone, but I was
overwhelmed with the devastation.
Lives are being restored.
Faith and hope are being
restored. You can see it in
the faces of those who are
getting roofs back in place
and walls rebuilt. One of the most amazing things is how
the lives of volunteers are being changed. I stayed with
teams at Vancleave United Methodist Church. Vancleave
is a small town about 15 miles northeast of Biloxi. By the
end of November, United Methodist volunteers from 17
states had donated a total of 70,642 hours.
During an evening service, volunteers from Ohio,
Georgia, and Tennessee witnessed seeing Christ that day.
“We've become like family,” said a volunteer who seemed
reluctant to leave the next day. “I'll be back,” said another.
These scenes are being replayed many times over.
Churches are being revitalized through the mission of
helping others, offering Christ through hands that “muck
out” houses and give hugs in the process.
Although many churches have been destroyed, there is
an opportunity for a new vision. How can we be faithful
to God? How might that look now? New cross-cultural
congregations are being considered in new places.
Churches are opening their doors for everyone and
anyone. Our logo, “Open hearts, open minds, open
doors,” is becoming a reality more and more.
Sheila Cumbest D' 90 and her husband, Chris D'90,
have two children, Elizabeth and Jesse. Chris is serving
as the Mississippi Conference's Coordinator of Church
Recovery for the Gulf Coast.