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.