As he wound his way through debris-strewn streets toward First United Methodist Church in Gulfport, Miss., Associate Pastor Robbie Murden D'05 braced himself for the worst. Just one day earlier, Hurricane Katrina had bulldozed its way through the Gulf Coast, smashing buildings with 140-mile-per-hour winds and submerging entire towns under its storm surge.
His fears seemed confirmed as he turned onto the street where the stately brick church with its landmark stained-glass dome had stood for the last 90 years. Broken, soaked pews, seat cushions, and bits of church office furniture littered the road. All around were signs that water and wind had combined to tear apart First United Methodist Church along with much of Gulfport's business district.
But Murden, who was appointed to the church just three months earlier, was amazed by what he saw when he finally reached his destination. The building, stained glass and all, looked almost the same as it had before the storm.
“It was a complete sanctuary from the storm,” said Murden, noting that the debris outside came from less fortunate churches nearby. “I just knew that our stained glass dome was going to be destroyed, but there it was. It was amazing to see.”
In weeks to follow, the church would continue to serve as a sanctuary of another kind for members of the congregation who had suffered the severe traumas that accompanied the storm. It became a place of healing, renewal and support for exhausted, broken and bewildered parishioners.
Murden estimates that 70 families of church members lost their homes and almost all of their possessions. Many others lost much of what they owned, found themselves out of work because of business shutdowns, had no place for their children to go because of school closings, and faced the general shock and disorientation that accompanies a natural disaster. Fortunately, Murden said, the church counted no deaths among its congregation.
“You could just see devastation everywhere,” Murden said. “There isn't a family in the church that wasn't severely affected. Some people lost everything except the clothes they were wearing.”
In this context began the delicate process of ministering to a deeply injured congregation. Throughout September and October, church services were performed in casual clothes since some ministers and many church members had lost their formal clothes. Murden and others tried to strike a balance, addressing the storm damage without allowing it to become the only issue in the church.
“You can't just put it out of your head and ignore it, but you don't want to dwell on it so much that you're living in the past,” he said.
Murden has tried to help parishioners see God's love in all this. “Just as houses now have to be stripped down to the foundation, we have to look at what we have at our center.
“We've gone back to that foundation. God is still here and he still loves us and he carried us through the storm.”
That love is evident in the swift response from numerous churches, Murden said. Groups from North Carolina, including the three churches in which Murden served field placements as a Duke Divinity School student, provided labor and supplies to help clean and rebuild. A team from Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Raleigh, where Murden worked in his last year at Duke, helped fix the damaged roof on the church parsonage, where Murden lives with his wife and two young children.
Other churches donated bottled water to be distributed through First United Methodist, scrubbed mud-covered floors, and helped replace damaged sheetrock. Larger groups, ranging from Baptist Men to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, have been crucial in helping families throughout Gulfport begin to recover.
“We've seen a tremendous response from the church universal,” Murden said. “It's all about showing God's love to other people.”
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