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New Orleans UUs mark third anniversary of Katrina

Community Church demolishes building as New Orleans UUs find new ways to work together; Hurricane Gustav disrupts Katrina commemorations.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Community Church UU in New Orleans

Community Church UU in New Orleans was demolished in late August after it was learned that the old foundation could not sustain a new building. The congregation, meeting in rented space, hopes to build a new church. (James VanderWeele)

Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast entered the fourth year of their recovery from Hurricane Katrina this past weekend, with plans for a “New Orleans Seder,” a funeral for a church building, and renewed plans to build a future together.

But another hurricane is disrupting the commemorative activities. Members of UU congregations had planned to gather Saturday night, August 30, at First Unitarian Church for a “New Orleans Seder,” a meal symbolizing all that has happened to them. That dinner was postponed after the city was ordered evacuated on August 31 in the face of Hurricane Gustav, which is expected to make landfall along the Gulf Coast on Monday, September 1.

Jyaphia Christos-Rodgers, a past president of First UU, said the Seder will be rescheduled. Unlike a Passover Seder, this event, held for the first time a year ago, featured elements that were especially appropriate for New Orleans. “We’re having grits to represent perseverance, rice and sea weed symbolizing the water and the marshes around us, a pickle because life can be sour, cane syrup for sweetness, and chocolate at the end because, well, because we believe in dessert.”

The congregation of Community Church UU suffered a setback on August 23 when its building, which had been flooded nearly to its eaves three years ago, was demolished. The Rev. Jim VanderWeele said the congregation had been making plans for more than a year to resurrect the building or at least build on its foundation, but learned this summer it would have to demolish the structure because the foundation was not high enough to meet new federal flood requirements.

“It’s a mixed thing for us,” VanderWeele said just before the building was reduced to rubble. “Now it will cost a little more to rebuild. At the same time there is wisdom in having the building elevated.” He anticipates that construction will start a year from now. The congregation is currently meeting in a renovated house next to the church property.

Community Church members, joined by other New Orleans UUs, will hold a New Orleans jazz funeral on September 6 to mourn the loss of their building.

In the past year the three local congregations, First UU, Community Church, and North Shore UU Society in Lacombe, have formed a group called the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists to provide support to each other and to raise funds for restoration of their buildings and for operational support. Thus far, GNOUU has raised more than $770,000, much of it from the three local congregations. It hopes to raise a total of $2.7 million with gifts from other UU congregations that want to help with the congregations’ continued recovery.

Another new organization, the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, was created this summer in New Orleans as a nonprofit secular arm of GNOUU. The center has taken over responsibility for coordinating visits of volunteer UU work groups to New Orleans through formation of the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center. Volunteer coordination was formerly a role of the UU Service Committee, and before that it was coordinated out of the UU Church of Baton Rouge, but that function has now been handed off to the new volunteer center.

Contributions can be made to GNOUU to help local congregations recover and to keep the volunteer center in operation (see Resource list in sidebar). Recent contributions have included $3,000 from the youth group at First Parish in Needham, Mass., half going to the Volunteer Center and half to First UU.

The Rev. John Buehrens, minister of the Needham congregation, noted in a letter to the Center for Ethical Living, “I hope that such small grants can be used to demonstrate to larger potential donors the importance that visiting UUs, including youth, find in the continued operation of the Volunteer Center and the full reconstruction of the religious homes of the three UU congregations in the New Orleans area.”

Another contribution, of $75,000, is coming from the Pacific Unitarian Church of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., over the next three years.

For two and a half years First UU members and volunteers have been restoring the first floor of the church, including the sanctuary and a kitchen, both heavily damaged by flooding. Worship services moved back into the church last spring and plans for a new kitchen are underway. Many UU volunteers who come to New Orleans are housed on the second floor of the church.

Community Church members will be working toward their proposed new building in the coming year.

The third New Orleans area congregation, North Shore UU Society, had the least physical damage from Katrina and the flooding, losing only a part of its roof, which was quickly replaced. But all three congregations lost one-third to half of their members after Katrina. The remaining members have been hard-pressed to keep up with ongoing expenses.

At the North Shore UU Society, President Terry Van Brunt said his congregation is pleased to be in partnership with the other New Orleans congregations through GNOUU. The congregations have scheduled several joint services throughout the year and will share a retreat in October.

North Shore has also entered into agreement with VanderWeele and First UU’s minister, the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, to provide services at least twice a month. North Shore’s minister, the Rev. Liz Brown, has stepped down. “Everybody felt she provided a lot of motivation, energy, and excitement at a time when we needed it,” said Van Brunt.

A Mississippi congregation, Gulf Coast UU Church in Gulfport, is also struggling to recover from Katrina. It had hoped to build on land it owned, but after Katrina proved that plot to be too wet, the congregation purchased another property. Until it can build, the congregation continues to meet in leased quarters.

“We’d like to build, but our membership went down dramatically,” said President Michael Kayes. “We’re in very expensive rental space, $1,150 a month plus utilities. We’re feeling mixed about our prospects.” The congregation has 23 members, down from 30 before Katrina.

The Gulfport church is building a labyrinth on its new property as part of its Katrina commemoration. It held a memorial service Sunday, August 31, with the Rev. Dr. Marie DeYoung, who is the congregation’s consulting minister beginning in September.

The Gulf Coast congregation is not part of the GNOUU fundraising effort, but it will receive $7,500 from GNOUU, said Kayes, enough to pay about half of its rent for a year. “That will be a big help,” he said. “We’re here and we’re trying to make a difference.”

There is still a great need for volunteers, said Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, executive director of the volunteer center. “We have lots of open spaces on our calendar. In the beginning, volunteers primarily gutted houses. Now, the work is more focused on rebuilding,” she said. Volunteers install flooring, put up drywall, promote energy conservation door to door, and do basic plumbing, wiring, and painting.

She said volunteers who don’t have those skills are encouraged to take a class at their local Home Depot or other home supply store before coming. The Volunteer Center will also pair them with experienced craftspeople who will guide them.

Another tip: Bigger groups are better. “It takes as much effort for us to host a group of five as it does one of 25,” said Breaux. “But we gratefully accept all volunteers.” This summer volunteers reconstructed a house for a local artist, worked on plumbing in a neighborhood church, helped distribute furniture to low-income residents, and created gardens.

While many New Orleaneans do feel stronger now, with the acute pain of the flooding lessening over time, they are still missing essential things, such as a strong school system, Christos-Rodgers said.

And there is always a worry about the next hurricane, she noted. Earlier in August, as she was preparing to leave her office at the end of the day, there was a possible threat to New Orleans from Hurricane Faye—unwarranted as it turned out, but real enough to take precautions. “I did what people commonly do here now when a storm threatens. I took home all of my office equipment in case Faye turned toward us,” she said. “I copied all the files I would need in my job for the next week just in case I couldn’t get back into the office. I went over my hurricane preparation checklist. Three years ago we didn’t have that kind of vigilance. Now it’s common.”

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