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New Orleans church reunites by conference call

Growing UUA-UUSC hurricane relief fund raises $857,648; anonymous donor gives $100,000.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The Rev. Marta Valentin

The Rev. Marta Valentin led the worship service for the scattered First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans by conference call on Sunday. (Photo from the 2004 General Assembly courtesy of UUA.org)

There were tears and laughter Sunday morning when members of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans gathered for their first worship service since Hurricane Katrina struck the city. There were no hugs, though, except virtual ones: The service was conducted via a conference call organized by the Rev. Marta Valentin, new minister of a congregation of evacuees.

Valentin was in Fort Worth and the 100 or so folks who called in were spread across the country, from Florida to Oregon to Maine. “It was wonderful,” said Valentin. “We were able to acknowledge our grief and provide a sense of hope for the future of our church and New Orleans. And we heard from a few people for the first time since the hurricane.”

The service began with the ringing of a bell, a tradition at First Church. It progressed through a prelude, several hymns including “Spirit of Life,” a reading, a prayer, and a postlude. “We had everything but the children’s story and the offering,” said Valentin. “This was so healing for people. At the end people didn’t want to get off the line, just like they never want to leave coffee hour. And there was laughter. People laughed about coming to church barefoot or in their nightgowns.” The phone call went on for more than two hours.

Valentin introduced the Spanish word ultreya into the service. It means “moving forward with courage.” There was also a prayer for Unitarians in Transylvania who have suffered severe flooding in recent weeks.

First Church pianist Jane Jensen, who had been out of touch until Saturday, played piano for the Sunday service. That made a big difference, Valentin said--among the numbers she played was “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Jensen was back in Jefferson Parish, adjacent to New Orleans, where her husband is trying to get his contracting business back in operation. She’s the only church member believed to be back in her home.

The conference call arrangement was donated by the National Park Foundation through Julia Washburn, a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C. In addition to members and friends of the the congregation, some of the hundred or so callers were supporters including a group from the UU Church of Arlington, Va., where Valentin was an interim team minister last year.

Valentin has accounted for 88 members of her congregation and is still trying to reach 90 to 100 others. That number includes two staff members, sexton Ray Goeller and custodian Wally Forster. There’s no word yet on the condition of the First Church building. It is believed to be flooded, but no one is being allowed in to check on it. “It’s going to be a while yet,” Valentin said.

Valentin and her partner Alison Chase are living in Fort Worth at the home of a Baptist minister friend from seminary, the Rev. Cristina Garcia Alfonso. “It’s an interesting story,” said Valentin. “She came from Cuba with nothing, and she stayed with me during seminary. She thought she could never repay me. She’s just so thrilled she can help.”

Valentin said the congregation may try to do a virtual service once a month. It is seeking donations of phone services for that purpose. She said the congregation is focusing on finding the rest of its members, and she is spending a lot of time on the phone and the Internet with members.

First Church President Deanna Vandiver called in from Oregon where she is staying with a friend. “It was such a gift to have this service and have people call in,” she said. “They didn’t even need to say their names, we knew who each other were. This was one of the rare normalizing moments in my recent life.”

Vandiver weathered the hurricane on the north side of New Orleans and then evacuated to Baton Rouge three days later. She said she thinks her house, a couple of miles from the Superdome, survived. She added, “The UUA and UUs in general have been amazing and very supportive. It’s been powerful to have this faith community. Unitarian Universalism has been revealed to be substantial. It’s real.”

By Tuesday morning, donations to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund established by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee grew to $857,648. Only five days earlier, the UUA and UUSC had declared a goal of raising at least $1 million for hurricane relief for Unitarian Universalist congregations and their ministries and for agencies serving especially vulnerable populations in the disaster area.

Sixty congregations have already raised and delivered $68,000 to the UUA. On Tuesday, the UUA received $100,000 from an anonymous donor. More than 4,800 people have contributed to the fund so far, according to UUA Stewardship and Development campaign specialist Larry Stritof.

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