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New Orleans UU congregations still welcome help

Area churches organize to coordinate fundraising, volunteers.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
6.8.09

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Members of UUA Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, Mass.

Members of UU Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, Mass., helped Ms. Ifama Arsan (center) with the renovation of her home in New Orleans in 2008. (Quo Vadis Breaux)

Almost four years after Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on the Gulf Coast, members of three Unitarian Universalist churches in the New Orleans area are trying to spread the message: “It’s not over yet.”

The three most severely damaged churches are seeking help from UUs across the country and from each other. Last year, First Unitarian Universalist Church and Community Church Unitarian Universalist, both in New Orleans, joined forces with the North Shore UU Society in Lacombe, La., to form Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists to raise awareness and $2.7 million to rebuild the churches. As of late May, GNOUU had raised $867,000.

At the same time, the churches created the Center for Ethical Living and Social Renewal, a nonprofit organization that will focus on the needs of the greater New Orleans community. The Center partners with local social justice organizations, such as the New Orleans AIDS Task Force, and coordinates social justice lectures at each of the three churches.

The Center also hosts the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program, created from the outreach efforts of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. The Rebirth Volunteer Program trains and hosts visitors from around the country who can lend a hand in rebuilding the churches and the city.


GNOUU’s three-year campaign is aimed at raising money to restore the wind and water damage to the three churches. First Church had its entire first floor destroyed by flood waters. It’s in need of $1.5 million to restore the sanctuary and religious education rooms. The kitchen was also destroyed. The rebuilding project calls for a new, state-of-the-art commercial cooking facility that the church will share with the New Orleans AIDS Task Force. The church will provide the rehabilitated space, and the AIDS Task Force will install more than $160,000 worth of equipment. The AIDS Task Force will use the space in the day to prepare food for its meals-on-wheels program, and the church will use it on evenings and weekends.

Community Church is meeting in a home next door to its old sanctuary while it finalizes plans for an entirely new building. Members had hoped to rehabilitate the old structure, and the community spent $20,000 on architectural plans. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared that the old building did not meet new elevation requirements. The old building was razed and the church is in need of $875,000 to build anew.

At all the churches, membership fell precipitously post-Katrina because of people relocating and because many who stayed were preoccupied with salvaging their own homes and lives. At the North Shore Church, the remaining members were not able to pay for both the mortgage that helped repair their damaged roof and for a minister’s salary. The GNOUU fund hopes to provide $275,000 to North Shore to help them meet their mortgage obligation. In the meantime, the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church, and the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First UU are each providing one-eighth time ministerial services to North Shore.


In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund raised more than $3.5 million. Two-thirds of that money went to community groups, and approximately $1 million was given to First UU, Community Church, and North Shore, as well as the Gulf Coast UU Fellowship in Gulfport, Miss. The bulk of those funds was used to pay salaries and keep congregations afloat. The GNOUU funds will specifically address restoring the physical structures.

“The main focus of the campaign is to restore the church buildings so we can spread the message about liberal religion in an area that desperately needs it,” said Claudia Barker, a member of First UU and chair of the GNOUU Rebuilding and Revitalization campaign.

The campaign has three ministerial co-chairs, who have reached out to congregations across the country. They are the Rev. John Buehrens, former UUA President and current minister of First Parish in Needham, Mass.; the Rev. Kim Crawford-Harvie, minister of Arlington Street Church in Boston; and the Rev. Michael McGee of the UU Church of Arlington, Va.

The three churches that have made the largest commitments to date are: the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., which has committed $75,000; the UU Church of Arlington, Va., which will donate $13,000; and most recently, the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, which has pledged $29,000.

“We are very excited by the recent gift from the Dallas church and hope that they and other large churches will continue to walk with us until these three churches are made whole,” said Barker. “We are humbled and gratified by the generosity of our UU brothers and sisters.”


As the churches physically rebuild, they are also committed to helping meet the social justice needs of the city around them. The Center for Ethical Living provides a forum for the three churches to explore these issues together, along with the larger community. It hosts lectures and discussions, and houses the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program, which hosts and trains out-of-town volunteers at First UU.

The center can house up to 50 people at a time, said Quo Vadis Breaux, executive director of the volunteer program, which in addition to housing and meals, provides training and facilitated dialogs for volunteers. The volunteer program was originally run through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Program. Last year, it was turned over to the local churches.

The need for volunteers is still great, Breaux said. While work immediately following the storm focused on gutting, volunteers now work primarily on rebuilding homes, insulating, hanging drywall, installing flooring, and painting. Others mow lawns, install energy efficient light bulbs, and refurbish playgrounds.

She has received many bookings for this summer, including a crew from the University of California, Berkeley, which will stay for three weeks. In addition, she’s hoping the center will regularly attract people seeking to combine sightseeing with volunteer work. “I see the Center for Ethical Living doing forums and workshops and conferences in addition to the volunteer work and providing several ‘voluntourism’ opportunities for weeks like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest,” she said.


VanderWeele said that it shouldn't take a hurricane to bring UU congregations together. But after the storm, the area churches found they needed each other to restore themselves physically and spiritually. "We have much greater involvement in our community than we had before the storm," he said.

GNOUU and the Center for Ethical Living have offered one means for the New Orleans congregations to come together. Another is through shared worship. This year, the churches are planning four shared services, for Earth Day, a poetry service, a summer art service, and an end-of-the-year Jazz Funeral. Earth Day services began in 2006. This year the service, held in Audubon Park, drew more than 150 people.

VanderWeele is the only minister at the three churches who has been in his position since before Katrina struck. “I’m committed to seeing this recovery through,” he said. “We lived through hell on earth here.”

His Community Church is finalizing architectural plans for the new building, which VanderWeele hopes will open in the fall of 2010. “With the new building, we could really be growing in this area,” he said.


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