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INSIDE STORY: Five years after Katrina, stories of hope emerge

GULFPORT, Miss. — Dark days followed the storm.

“Katrina changed everything,” Les Ferguson Jr. told me. “I mean, it changed everything.”
We were eating at a Chili’s restaurant and talking about the disaster that ravaged the Gulf Coast five years ago.
Two days before the hurricane made landfall, the Gulfport church where Ferguson preaches signed a contract to construct a new building. The Orange Grove Church of Christ sold its former property to a car dealership next door with the understanding that members could meet in the old facility while the new one was built.
But after Katrina, construction prices skyrocketed. Even obtaining a building permit became much more difficult.
“Just the cost of materials was inflationary, really, really high,” Ferguson said. “So we ultimately lost all the money we sunk into engineering, and we ended up just building a plain metal building, much different than our original plans.”
For a year, church members focused on disaster recovery ministry, using the old building as their base of operations. When the car dealership couldn’t wait any longer, the church left its old building and met in a funeral home for a year and a half.
Only two church families lost everything. However, everyone suffered damages — to property and otherwise.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here that didn’t suffer from some form of post-  traumatic stress,” Ferguson said. “Of course, it’s better now.”
But at the time, he said, “People were just struggling — and not just church members. They’d fly off the handle at the slightest thing, cry at the slightest thing, be fearful of anything that’s different, much more so than normal.”
He was talking not just about other people but also himself. But through the dark days, God worked in hearts and minds.
In a shopping center parking lot not far from the Chili’s where we ate, Ferguson recalled standing in a long line, nursing a migraine and sweating in 103-degree heat.
Rich and poor alike waited in the same line for bags of ice.
Everyone was equally helpless.
“That was a spiritual blessing for a lot of us, because we get so self-centered, so self-reliant,” the minister said.
The difficulties with the new building proved to be a blessing, too.
Suddenly, a big, beautiful building — “an edifice,” as Ferguson put it — became less important.
Instead, the new facility came to be seen as a tool. A place to welcome hurting people and show them Jesus.
The sign outside the new building — fitted with showers and a washer and dryer, just in case of another major hurricane — reflects that approach.
“No perfect people allowed,” the sign reads. “Come as you are.”

The Louisa Street Church of Christ in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward was one of the last churches to reopen after Katrina.
During my recent reporting trip to the Gulf Coast, I was privileged to see the shiny new paint and pews in Louisa Street’s renovated building, which opened a year and a half ago.
Elders Vinston Flakes and Frank Harden, deacons Wayne Treaudo and Mac Stampley and minister Preston Olive showed me the congregation’s new digs.
Before Katrina, Sunday attendance averaged about 220. Now, it’s about 65.
But the church has come a long way since leaders found the devastated building filled with mud and muck.
“I fell on my knees,” Stampley said of his reaction when he first saw the shocking scene. “I thought New
Orleans would never be back, but God made it possible.”
God’s people helped.
“We’d like to just thank everybody who had a part in sending help down this way to help us get back on our feet,” Flakes said. “We sure appreciate that.”

Over tacos at Juan’s Flying Burrito, I enjoyed meeting New Orleans church planters Fred Every and Gerald and Angelia Taylor.
Every grew up in the Crescent City but left to join the military. After escaping the drugs and crime of his neighborhood, he intended to stay away from New Orleans.
But God had other plans, he told me.
In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans residents are asking more spiritual questions, he said.
“I feel called to help fill the spiritual void,” Every said.

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Inside Story Les Ferguson Jr.

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