Up until now it's been difficult for volunteers to go to New Orleans to help out the three Unitarian Universalist congregations there because there's been no good place to stay. But now church groups that want to come this summer are getting the green light to "come on down."
The second floor of the heavily damaged First UU Church in New Orleans has been outfitted as a sleeping loft, said the Rev. Marilee Baccich, who is serving a special one-year ministry to the community based at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. "It's still a lot like camping out and the showers are across the street, but now we have a place for church groups that have been wanting to come," she said. Electricity was restored to the church on Tuesday for the first time since the hurricane last August.
Volunteers will work on First Church, whose first floor had to be gutted because of extensive flooding. They will also work on repairing houses for members of all three congregations and may also work on non-UU community projects.
Volunteers must arrange trips at least one month in advance with Baccich, who is coordinating UU volunteer efforts from Baton Rouge. Volunteers need to have tetanus shots and should come prepared to evacuate in case of another hurricane. They are asked to stay for at least four days.
"We can host 35 to 50 people at one time," said Baccich. "We prefer groups of 15 to 20, but no less than four people. And if individuals want to come we'll help connect them with a group."
"Our projects include taking down ceilings, setting up a small kitchen, doing landscaping, installing doors, cleaning gutters and downspouts, sealing bricks, helping the church office move in, and gutting houses," added Baccich, whose position is funded by the Unitarian Universalist Association-UU Service Committee Gulf Coast Relief Fund. "There's just about anything you can think of to do."
In addition to their work, volunteers will be given a tour of the city and have an opportunity to enjoy New Orleans tourist spots.
Packets of information about volunteering, including a DVD, are available through the Baton Rouge website. (For more information, see the link to "Volunteer Information" below.)
Baccich said a youth group from First Parish in Needham, Mass., helped put the finishing touches on First Church's second floor recently. Last week a group from Arlington Street Church in Boston and one from First Parish in Arlington, Mass., came down to help, followed by a group from First UU Church and Bay Area UU Church, both in Houston.
"They've been having a great time getting to know each other," said the Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of First Church in New Orleans. "And the amount of work they've been doing is amazing. Some of them were planting trees; others were helping create a community center. They are really living out their faith."
She said her congregation is working with an architect on the rebuilding of the damaged structure. Her congregation and Community Church UU have been holding Sunday afternoon services together at a church two miles away, but First Church is preparing to rent space from a Presbyterian church across the street.
"That will get us back in our own neighborhood, and that’s a good thing," she said. "The other minister is interested in building a relationship with us and this will be a very good move for us." There is no timetable as to when the congregation’s own building might be ready for services.
Valentin believes that none of her parishioners have houses that need to be gutted, but many could use help with various other repairs.
The Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church, said his congregation is continuing to meet with a strategic planner to make decisions about the congregation's future. The Community Church building was essentially destroyed by floodwaters.
Members of North Shore UU Society in Lacombe, north of New Orleans, need help with repairing homes, moving downed trees, repairing fences and sheds, and things like sorting and cleaning, said Patricia Stout, the director of religious education. "Some of it is not high priority," she said, "but it still needs to get done. It can be very helpful to have someone help with seemingly simple tasks at a time when everything seems to take so long." She said the need at North Shore is largely for skilled individuals who can lay floors, do electrical work, etc. Such workers would need to obtain local permits.
- Continuing Coverage: Hurricane Katrina. News about Unitarian Universalist responses to the hurricane, reported by UU World staff.
- Volunteer Information for the Hurricane Relief and Social Justice Project. Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge coordinates teams of volunteers.
- UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief. Information about UU relief work with links to other resources at the UUA. (UUA.org)