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New Orleans UU churches launch fundraising campaign

Money to be used to restore churches; separate campaign to fund ethical living center.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Three Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans are beginning a national fundraising campaign to raise $2.7 million to further their recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

In a separate campaign they will be raising money to create a Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal through which they will respond to the many social justice needs in the city.

All three congregations—North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe, Community Church UU, and First UU Church of New Orleans—were substantially damaged by the hurricane or the flooding in August 2005. All received help initially from the Unitarian Universalist Association—UU Service Committee Gulf Coast Relief Fund, which was created immediately after the storm.

UUs contributed more than $3.5 million to that fund. About a third of that went to the congregations and the rest to non-UU groups and causes across New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The money helped the congregations begin their recovery. However, millions more are needed to fully restore the three congregations.

Just as devastating as the physical damage, has been the loss of members. All three congregations lost at least 40 percent of their members after Katrina and although those numbers are rising again, all three are struggling to keep up with their budgets.

Claudia Barker, a member of First UU and a leader of the fundraising campaign, said the campaign has been in development for a year. A half million dollars has been pledged thus far. She said the campaign will be contacting congregations across the UUA in the weeks to come, inviting them to help.

“This $2.7 million will make us whole again,” she said. “There is still so much need here. At the moment, New Orleans is the front line of the fight for social justice in this country. It has been the churches that have been responsible for much of the recovery that has happened.”

She said the three UU congregations will be better able to do their part if they are themselves restored.

“This campaign will give us our places of worship back,” said the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church. “In addition to helping us complete the restoration of our buildings, it will also let us address some of our post-storm financial strains. We are feeling the twin responsibilities of not only rebuilding our congregations, but at the same time working to ensure that UU values are a part of the rebuilding of the city.”

Community Church lost its building to floodwaters, but is planning to rebuild. In the meantime it is meeting in a renovated house. First UU had to gut the first floor of its building because of flooding and was only able to return to the building last May, holding services in a bare-bones sanctuary. Members are working on fully restoring the building. North Shore lost part of its roof, but was able to resume use of its building within weeks because the loss was covered by insurance. Its more critical need is help with the debt it took on when it renovated its building before Katrina. Now there are fewer members to help pay down that debt.

The three congregations hope to raise $700,000 of the $2.7 million from their own members. Other congregations will be invited to consider an immediate financial commitment or one spread over two or three years. One congregation, Pacific Unitarian Church, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., has promised to contribute $75,000 over three years.

Barker said the Rev. John Buehrens, former UUA President and now minister of First Parish in Needham, Mass., and the Rev. Kim Crawford-Harvie, minister of Arlington Street Church in Boston, are also assisting with the campaign.

First UU would receive $1.55 million from the campaign, allowing it to complete its sanctuary, a kitchen, religious education floor, and the rest of the building, so that it can again use it fully, including renting it out for additional income. The professional-quality kitchen will support the local NO/AIDS Task Force’s Food for Friends Program.

Community Church would receive $875,000 to rebuild its church building. North Shore would receive $275,000, the amount of the mortgage for its five-year-old building. That would free the congregation to support staff positions and other budget items.

North Shore’s membership of 81 before Katrina declined to 42 and is now 61. First UU’s membership of 120 declined to 70 and is now 85. Community went from around 85 members to 53 and is now at 60.

Terry Van Brunt, president of the North Shore congregation, said the congregation is trying to do its part. The 2008 canvass is up 42 percent from 2007, but it remains difficult to support both a director of religious education and a minister. “If our financial position doesn’t improve by the end of 2009 we will be unable to support professional staff,” he said.

The Center for Ethical Living will be a nonprofit organization that will host forums focusing on public ethics, health education, and other issues. VanderWeele said each congregation will host programs, rather than the center having its own building. Community Church UU recently hosted a workshop on anger management. It hopes to offer space to mental health professionals during the week and it’s looking at programs for childcare and care for the elderly. First UU hosts a long-running monthly breakfast for leaders of social action agencies. North Shore is considering a counseling program. These efforts are the foundation of each congregation’s Center for Ethical Living projects.

First UU continues to house the Gulf Coast Relief Volunteer Center managed by UUSC. Since it opened in the spring of 2006, it has housed nearly a thousand volunteers. It may eventually become a part of the Center for Ethical Living.

“All of this is exciting and exhausting,” said Jyaphia Christos-Rogers, a member of First UU and one of its representatives to GNOUU. “We’ve already been blessed by the gifts of so many people. This campaign will put us in an even better place.”

She said the Center for Ethical Living is a direct result of the increased social justice work the congregations have engaged in since Katrina. “We’ve become much better known in the community because we’ve been working with so many social justice groups,” she said. “More people know who we are now. They see us as true allies. Our challenge now is to maintain and build on that.”

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