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Congregations hit hardest by Katrina finding their way in changed communities

In Bayou La Batre, a tiny fishing village 20 miles south of Mobile, Ala., a gospel meeting and door-knocking campaign in this hurricane-hammered town resulted in 21 baptisms. Church leaders also signed a contract on May 13 to purchase a building where they can meet permanently.
“The campaign has put new life in us,” said German, whom city officials recognized April 27 with two awards for outstanding community leadership. “So many have helped us, and it has put a whole new spirit in us.” The new baptisms expanded the church roll to 39.
Members, assisted by members of the Cox Boulevard church in Sheffield, Ala., staged the four-day gospel meeting in a rented community center.
Two weeks later — with the financial help of Cox Blvd. and other Christians — leaders of the Bayou La Batre church signed a $125,000 contract on May 13 to purchase the Evangelical Methodist Church building that will become their new home.
“They wanted to sell it to the new little Church of Christ,” said Carol Ogle, ministries’ coordinator of a disaster relief program at the White’s Ferry Road church in West Monroe, La. Church members had helped 37 of the 49 families who went to the Methodist church there.
Bayou La Batre still needs $43,000 to complete payment for the building. But they are planning to take possession this summer.
“We are just ecstatic,” said German, describing the optimism and faith of local church members. “I have not a doubt in my mind that we will get this building.”
In Pearlington, Miss., local Christians met for the first time in their new log church building on May 16. Fifty-five people from Pearlington and nearby Picayune, Miss., were present for the celebration service in this tiny, remote village set deep in the woods.
Paul Gentry, owner of Old-Timer Log Homes in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., delivered the message, telling the group that God had given them a unique opportunity to reach out to their community, which they didn’t have two years ago, according to Johnny Hays, an elder of the Picayune, Miss., church who attended.
“We built this building because we didn’t want to burden a new congregation with building payments and hang an albatross around their neck,” said Hays, a retired Air Force officer who turned his military logistics experience to organizing hurricane relief work in the area.
Seven families in Pearlington, where the Picayune church and other groups have focused recovery efforts for the past two years, have been baptized since Katrina.
Pearlington was one of the poorest towns in this nation’s poorest state long before Katrina hit. But the town of 2,000, only 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, suffered extensive damage from the storm.
Looking beyond the town’s ongoing physical needs, Hays believes the time has come to point people to the spiritual.
“Next year we are going to put a lot of focus on that,” said Hays. He hopes to get a full-time preacher In Pearlington soon.
A recent meeting with several congregations in central Tennessee who want to help plant a strong church in Pearlington was “very encouraging and gives us new energy,” said Hays.
In Bay St. Louis, Miss., Charles Buckley likes to talk about post-Katrina evangelistic opportunities in this storm-battered upper Gulf Coast city.
“The storm is the best thing that has ever happened to the Church of Christ in Bay St. Louis,” said minister Buckley.
Before the storm, church attendance was in the mid 80’s. Afterward, the church lost 59 members. Only 14 have returned.
“We thought at first we weren’t going to have enough to meet,” said Buckley. Today, the building has been repaired, Bible studies are flourishing, elders were appointed for the first time, and the attendance is once again running in the 80’s and 90’s. Visitors are present every Sunday.
“It’s very easy to talk with people,” said Buckley, who credits the large amount of food, furniture and appliances donated and distributed by volunteers with opening the doors for evangelism.
Since Hurricane Katrina, they have conducted 130 Bible studies, baptized 28 people and married seven couples who were living together. The church hosted a gospel meeting this spring. Buckley, who is currently holding 33 Bible studies, estimates that 80 percent of those he has baptized are still attending.
But Buckley admits that the increase is causing some growing pains. The church, a mixture of whites, Cubans, blacks, and Hispanics, has several new families and young children who have never been to church.
“Some of the kids don’t know how to behave in worship, and the older people have to learn how to be patient with all this.”
But Buckley says he is grateful for the challenges. Before the storm, the church had been praying that God would open the doors for them to teach.
“He took the door down — in fact, he took whole house down, and all we have to do is go in.”
At the Central Church in Pascagoula, Miss., where Katrina pounded this city of 26,000, minister John Dobbs said millions of dollars in relief work have enhanced the church’s reputation and name in the community.
“We were invisible in this city before Katrina,” said Dobbs. Now, nearly everywhere he goes people still ask him if “his church” is still helping people.
“Lots of people have adopted us, but we aren’t pushing them to be baptized right now. We want to love them, get them in classes and let them learn all they can first,” said Dobbs, who fears people might be baptized for the wrong reason if pressure is put on them. As Christians make friends with visitors, he believes some will be led to Christ.
In the meantime, Dobbs has begun teaching a 12-step addiction program. About 15 now attend, and he hopes to add a second addiction class and a divorce recovery class soon. He believes many residents have turned to drugs in an attempt to deal with feelings of hopelessness and frustration.
Millions of dollars from church relief agencies poured into the Gulf Coast after the storm, and thousands of people were helped through the Pascagoula’s congregation’s disaster relief. In the beginning, Dobbs said he believed that the services, supplies and recovery efforts would cause people to want to know more about the church and Christianity.
“But I was wrong,” he said. “They seemed mostly to want to get their world right side up, and this didn’t translate into spiritual interest for the most part.”
Fred Franke, an elder at the Carrolton church in New Orleans, believes there are great opportunities to minister to hurting residents, teach the gospel, and help plant new churches in this beleaguered city.
“We want to plant house churches and churches in apartments and storefront churches and churches near local universities,” said Franke, coordinator of Operation Nehemiah, a post-Katrina recovery ministry that coordinates volunteer work in greater New Orleans.
“Some of them may be traditional; some of them may have a little different DNA,” he said.
Franke is currently trying to raise the funds for six additional full-time ministers in New Orleans.
“We are ready to do a lot, but we need a lot of help,” said Franke. Of their original 250 members before the storm, about 50 Carrolton members remain. Many of them are still so traumatized by the destruction, human violence and desperate circumstances they lived through that they are not yet ready to minister to their neighbors, said Franke.
That’s why Franke wants to use the 400 volunteers who are coming to New Orleans this summer to minister to city residents in a personal way.
“ I want them to listen to these people, to send them pictures and gift Bibles after they leave. I want them to write them words of encouragement, to send them cards and care packages on the holidays. Because one day they will say, ‘Why are you doing all this?’”
Meanwhile, church leaders from eight churches in three states recently met together to establish a coordinated strategy for planting several new churches in the New Orleans area.
Currently, three families are going through training in preparation for church plants in New Orleans, according to Tod Vogt, former minister of the Tammany Oaks church in Mandeville, La. He now works for Missions Alive, a Carrollton, Texas-based church planting ministry.
Vogt says they hope to go back to some of those churches who contributed liberally to New Orleans’ physical recovery and ask them if they are willing to contribute to the spiritual recovery of New Orleans.
“We often move so slowly that we miss a window of opportunity, and we hope that churches will respond quickly and definitely to this opportunity, said Vogt.

Filed under: National

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