As Katrina roared toward New Orleans, Charles and Angela Marsalis sought refuge at their church
NEW ORLEANS — "Girl, you better get out of town!” …
“I am aware of several churches that experienced splits and more because of differences of ministry and direction,” said Fred Franke, a former church elder who organized a Katrina relief effort called Operation Nehemiah, which eventually separated from the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ in New Orleans.
As they rebuilt their hurricane-damaged homes, elders of the Elysian Fields Church of Christ in New Orleans ended up in a public dispute with the minister hired when their preacher did not return after the storm. The conflict over that minister’s termination made the front page of The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper.
Earlier this year, the Elysian Fields church hired another new minister: James Nunnery.
Nunnery said some people called him crazy for taking the job. But the New Orleans native, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said he felt called by God.
“The church has been a very resilient people, considering the circumstances of the storm and the situation with the previous minister,” said Nunnery, who formerly served as assistant minister of the West End Church of Christ in Terrell, Texas, across from Southwestern Christian College.
“They have really pulled together in trying to bring more of a positive light to what has been happening. They have shown significant effort in wanting to grow spiritually.”
‘KICKOFF SUNDAY’ DISRUPTED
Before trees snapped and floodwaters rose, the Tammany Oaks church envisioned a festive grand opening for its new, $1.3 million worship center.
The 225-member congregation mailed fliers inviting 5,000 Mandeville neighbors to the special service. However, no visitors — and only about 14 members — showed up.
“Kickoff Sunday” came just 24 hours before Katrina waged war on the Gulf Coast, and most heeded warnings to flee.
But after the disaster, the congregation found itself with a different, extraordinary way to reach out.
As church members nationwide donated millions of dollars, filled tractor-trailer rigs with thousands of boxes of food and transformed fellowship halls into temporary homes for hundreds of evacuees, the Tammany Oaks congregation became a central point for church relief efforts.
Unlike most New Orleans area churches, the Tammany Oaks building escaped the storm mostly unscathed, making it a perfect place to receive truckloads of donations and distribute food, water, medicine, soap, shampoo, mops, buckets and other cleaning supplies, church leaders said then.
Tammany Oaks member Janet Hines had done mission work in Honduras and started a ministry called Mi Esperanza (“My Hope”), offering loans and skills training to women in the Tegucigalpa area.
Hines jumped at the opportunity to help closer to home. She was put in charge of Tammany Oaks’ disaster relief program.
“Before we knew what was happening, we had turned our building into a warehouse, receiving tractor-trailer loads of donations that were to be distributed to those who needed help so desperately,” Hines said.
“We were housing volunteers and filling the church to overflowing with those who had the heart to help and with the goods that those who couldn’t come were sending. Our projects every day were to distribute the goods. Every day we would send volunteers out to get the donations to the needy. Every night they would return, and we would hear their stories, and God’s presence among us was clear.”
DIVISION CREEPS IN
On Sundays, members walked through a maze of mattresses, washers and dryers, canned goods and other donated items that kept coming for the volunteers to distribute, Hines said.
In a real way, she said, the relief effort allowed the church to serve as “the hands and feet of Jesus to those who were so devastated with their losses — both physical and emotional.”
Hines remembers that period as “a beautiful time” when she saw and experienced God’s mercies and blessings on a daily basis.
But over time, weariness — and discouragement — set in, she said.
“Satan is not to be underestimated,” Hines said. “He knew our weaknesses, and we are all weak. He used circumstances and situations to divide us.”
In January 2006, Hines left the Tammany Oaks operation to work with Hilltop Rescue and Relief, a ministry of the Hilltop Community Church of Christ in El Segundo, Calif.
For more than a year, Hines devoted her talents to “Camp Chalmette,” a Hilltop Rescue ministry that housed up to 400 volunteers at a time in a Chalmette, La., elementary school and helped hurricane victims rebuild their homes and their lives.
Several Tammany Oaks members met with church leaders to discuss concerns about direction, Hines said.
Eight families, including Hines’, began meeting in homes and later bought a piece of property. They started the North Pointe Church of Christ in Covington, La. The new church averages Sunday attendance of 50 to 60.
“The challenges we faced were unrelenting, and we were exhausted — mentally, physically and spiritually,” Hines said of the hurricane’s aftermath. “Our marriages suffered with some ending in divorce and severe trials.
“Not surprisingly, many of us who were determined to provide care to those in great need gave up altogether on the church and its leaders and walked away, never to return. Even though we survived the storm that nature engulfed us in, many of us did not survive the emotional storm that set in after.”
The White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., tried to help, sending a team to offer spiritual support. Despite leaving the Tammany Oaks church, Hines said she still has great relationships with many of its members.
“We just needed to be able to worship and be healed from our brokenness and study the Scriptures together,” she said of those who left. “It was like Paul and Barnabas — we went separate ways, and the Lord’s work has been multiplied.”
DISASTER RELIEF VS. MINISTRY?
Not everyone would agree, of course, with Hines’ recollection of what transpired. As in most difficult situations, it’s impossible to discern the full picture through only one lens.
Certainly, on one level, the clash at Tammany Oaks pitted long-term disaster relief efforts against more traditional church ministries and priorities.
But in Helton’s view, that assessment falls short of the whole story. “That’s the surface issue, but the fact is, and always is, that some of these families have been at odds with each other for some time,” he said. “But what happened, it’s as if you put stress on the system, and all the cracks begin to show. All the cracks that normally folks would have lived with, they couldn’t live with anymore.”
Before the storm, the church built a worship center that could seat 500 people. With pre-Katrina attendance approaching 250, that seemed to provide plenty of room for growth, Helton said.
But with attendance down to about 80 most weeks — and as low as 40 one recent Sunday — the space seems to engulf the remaining crowd.
Helton operates a website called “The Church Doctor” that seeks to help churches fulfill their missions. At Tammany Oaks, he knew he was coming into a difficult situation. But Helton, a former minister of the Carrollton Avenue church, said he did not realize the extent of the challenges.
“Some of our people are suffering from post-traumatic stress,” he said. “They had tremendous losses, and they go through life just trying to make it right now, you know? Get the house together. Hope that another hurricane doesn’t take it out again. And I’ve found a lot of folks in this part of the world to be in what I would call a subdued depression.”
‘I LOVE THOSE PEOPLE … DEEPLY’
At Carrollton Avenue, Franke served as one of three elders at the time of Katrina. After Katrina, he immediately began organizing relief teams from across the nation and housing them at the church building.
“We are a long way from being even close to normal, and we still need a lot of help,” Franke told The Christian Chronicle a year after the storm. But the other two elders, Charles Edgerson and Robert Carpenter, determined that relief work could not go on forever.
At a special church service in April 2007, the congregation gave Franke a plaque recognizing Operation Nehemiah’s efforts — and unofficially signaling the end of both his and the ministry’s association with Carrollton Avenue. Franke stepped down as an elder and started attending a different New Orleans church.
Still, Franke said of the Carrollton Avenue church, “I love those people over there deeply.”
In five years, Operation Nehemiah has hosted 22,000 volunteers from more than 500 church mission groups, Franke said. The nonprofit organization, which welcomes groups from Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and a variety of Christian denominations, charges participants about $195 per person, which Franke said covers a week’s worth of lodging, meals and expenses.
“Even as far as New Orleans has come, we’ve still got a long way to go,” Franke said. “In May, the local news announced that there were still 58,000 blighted homes without any work going on in these homes. There’s still so much work to be done.”
Back at Carrollton Avenue, Edgerson said the hurricane “brought out a lot of good things and some bad things, too.”
“You know, we had a problem with Fred Franke and Operation Nehemiah … so eventually, we broke off from that,” Edgerson said. “And Fred is on his own, doing his thing. And we’re still doing what God called us to do, I believe, and that’s just to reach out to the community and around us and do his will.”
With Kirk Garrison and Charles Marsalis serving as co-ministers, the Carrollton Avenue church restarted its summer Kids Camp program to reach out to inner-city youth and planted a new congregation in Hollygrove, a high-crime area about 10 minutes away.
Carrollton Avenue’s attendance averaged about 130 before Katrina. It’s about 80 now. An additional 30 to 40 people worship at the Hollygrove church.
The Carrollton Avenue church has hired Xander Waites, an M.Div. graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas, to serve as an urban missionary. He’ll live for free in the house next door to the church, but won’t receive a salary.
“We’re kind of trying to change the model a little bit to where we’re moving kind of more to tent-making, where he gets a job out in the community,” Garrison said of Waites’ hiring. “The only compensation we could afford was the house.”
Before Katrina, the Elysian Fields church drew 250 to 300 worshipers on any given Sunday.
That number had dropped to 75 by the time Nunnery arrived in February. Since then, attendance has risen to 175.
“Steady progress!” Nunnery said. “With the help of God, it’s growing. And we just keep on feeding them spiritually, keeping them busy, giving them things to do. And they fellowship and they love, and that’s one of the things I felt that had probably left us: a genuine, heartfelt love for each other. That’s what we want to restore, that Christian love and fellowship.”
At Tammany Oaks, Helton prays for God’s direction — and hand.
Help to meet physical needs flooded into the church after Katrina. Now, the church could use the same kind of support to rebuild spiritually, he said.
“Our leaders are worn out,” Helton said, mentioning a desire to see a stronger congregation partner with Tammany Oaks.
“I’ve been here a year now, and the youth ministry is finally starting to grow a little bit. Our children’s ministry is starting to figure out where it’s supposed to be. Our adult ministry, we’re still floundering there a little bit.”
Asked what help the church needs, he replied, “What would be really nice … is if someone would lend us an elder to come over and be a pastoral leader in this congregation and share with our elders some of the load.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.