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Remembering Katrina

Along the Gulf Coast, Recovery Continues

By Bishop William W. Hutchinson D’66

Hutchinson

Soon Mardi Gras will be here and the most joyous of Louisiana festivals will engulf The Big Easy once again. Musicians can be heard and seen in the French Quarter and Tarot Card readers sit in front of venerable St. Louis Cathedral, just as they have done for decades. Even Café Du Monde has a fairly respectable scattering of customers, soaking up thick coffee in powdered sugar covered beignets. Life in the Queen City almost looks normal.

Then when you venture out of the classic areas for which New Orleans is known, devastation meets you at every corner. Residential areas are still filled with homes that have yet to be “mucked out.” In early September 2007, I was with a work crew that mucked out a home that had not been touched since Katrina.

Can you imagine what a house flooded for weeks — with eight feet of dark, murky, oily water — smells and feels like two years later? I can tell you it isn’t a pleasant experience! And yet the city is still filled with such houses that once were homes.

Entire neighborhoods remain vacant. And many of those neighborhoods surround what once were vibrant and viable United Methodist churches. One such church is Bethany United Methodist in the Pontchartrain Park area. Floodwaters covered the building to the roofline, totally destroying it. But today this church is the center of life in a dark, weed-infested, childless maze of damaged streets and FEMA trailers. Thanks to the efforts of partnering churches, Bethany UMC sits in refurbished beauty and pristine landscaping and offers energizing worship to former neighbors and to returning residents. Its presence serves as a beacon in the darkness, a light that darkness has not been able to overcome.

Across the city, churches are merging to worship and serve the needs of those ravaged by the storm. Others are joining hands to form a free medical clinic to serve those with no place to go for health care. The hospitals have not returned to full strength and doctors have, of necessity, left their practices behind and moved to other areas.

Construction workers — many of Central American or Mexican origins — make up much of the “new” population, and the need for Hispanic ministries is growing. We have had the good fortune to have missionaries assigned by the General Board of Global Ministries come to minister to our Spanish-speaking newcomers, who add new richness to the tapestry of life in an already cosmopolitan setting.

Without a doubt, we are where we are today because the church has been fully engaged in recovery ministries and has held up our arms when we were too tired to lift them up. We still have miles and years to go, but we know we don’t have to do it alone.

Where there has been injury, the church has brought healing. Where there has been destruction, the church has rebuilt. Where there has been hopelessness, the church has provided hope.

New Orleans isn’t the only place where church-sponsored clean up and rebuilding is happening. Our entire coastline was destroyed, and the church has been present in every corner of Louisiana. We say “Thanks be to God for all you have done.”

My episcopacy has been marked by many wonderful experiences, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have primarily marked it. We have cried together all across the Bayou State. We have mourned our losses and have buried our dead. We have “mucked out” together, “gutted” together, raised money together, and celebrated together.

But most of all we have prayed together — prayers of desperation, prayers of sorrow, prayers of hope and prayers of joy. Thank you church for all you have done to bring life to us and for all you will continue to do!  We are eternally grateful.  

William Hutchinson D’66 serves as resident bishop for the Louisiana area of the United Methodist Church.

Balm in Gilead

By Bishop Hope Morgan Ward T’73, D’78

Ward

The FEMA trailers remain, side by side, on and on. They look alike, except at Christmas, when some residents get creative, or at Mardi Gras, as we Gulf Coast folks drape everything with purple, gold and green. Inside the trailers is a different story. Knock on any of these doors and you will hear a unique witness of love and loss, of fear and frustration, of perseverance and hope. No two stories are alike.

It is important to remain awed by the scope of the devastation: 70,000 families in Mississippi lost their homes in the winds and water of Hurricane Katrina and 27,000 of these families continue to live in FEMA trailers.

Through the efforts of United Methodist people, 12,000 families are back in repaired homes in Mississippi.

It is important to continue listening for the stories. “There is balm in the telling, and the hearing, too,” Tayari Jones writes in her novel The Untelling. “This is what I have come to know: Our past is never passed and there is no such thing as moving on. But there is this telling and there is such a thing as passing through.”

As we move forward, stories continue to be terrifying, amazing, tragic, puzzling, enlightening, inspiring.

And tiring. In Gulfport, the young son of Rachel Benefield-Pfaff D’88 asked, “Mom, how much longer will we have to remember Katrina?”

The wise continue to move gently in the offer of help, only doing what is invited. They know that partnership in the work is as valuable as the work itself.

The particular gift of the religious community is the offering of companionship and guidance as we live together deeply, wisely, faithfully through these days.

Why does God allow hurricanes, tornadoes, falling bridges, raging fires? Simple answers are usually wrong and generally unsatisfying. The poetry of Job helps more than the prose:

You lift me up on the wind,
     you make me ride upon it,
     and you toss me about in the
     roar of the storm. – Job 20:22 

God has described a circle on the water
     at the boundary between
     light and darkness. – Job 26:10

It is our calling to continually affirm God’s presence with us, everywhere, always. We are tossed, yet we watch in that boundary place between light and darkness.

Condos and casinos are first back, encouraged by the governor and state legislature. There are fewer lovely old homes with porches and rocking chairs and grand old trees with graceful hanging moss. Municipalities are beginning to push back against the villages of temporary housing. Communities of faith own that place at the boundary between light and darkness.

In the midst of rushed relief effort, there are moments of holy calmness. The simple question, “What happened to you in the storm?” is still a means of healing grace as a story is told. We move onward together, carrying the past with us.

Is there a balm in Gilead? The prophet Jeremiah posed the question, and we sing the answer. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is balm in the telling, and the hearing too.

Hope Morgan Ward D’78 has served the Mississippi Area of the United Methodist Church as resident bishop since 2004.

The Bishops’ Katrina Church Recovery Appeal supports hurricane-damaged United Methodist churches and institutions on the Gulf Coast.