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Minister visits flooded church, reports total loss

Future of flooded New Orleans congregation uncertain; Unitarian Universalist congregations adopt affected churches and families.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.19.05

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The Rev. Jim VanderWeele visits his flooded New Orleans church

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The Rev. Jim VanderWeele visited his flooded New Orleans church for the first time Thursday afternoon. Nothing was salvageable. (Photo by Aaron Payson)

The Rev. Jim VanderWeele had prepared himself for what he’d find in his church, but the reality was still overwhelming. On Thursday afternoon, two and a half weeks after Hurricane Katrina filled Community Church Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans with 10 feet of water, VanderWeele finally got in to look at it.

“It was not a pretty picture,” he said. “There is nothing in the church we can save. I walked inside and it was just total devastation. I was prepared for this, but it was pretty awful.”

It was the same situation in his nearby apartment. “All my sermons are lost, my robe, my statements of fellowship, my books, everything. There’s nothing in either place that can be preserved. They’re going to have to just bulldoze everything.”

VanderWeele drove nearly to the church, accompanied by the Rev. Aaron Payson of Worcester, Mass., a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry. “He’s been holding my hand,” said VanderWeele.

He said there was still a foot of water in the one-story church building. There were downed power lines and trees throughout the neighborhood. He believed there were still bodies in some of the houses.

The good news is that he’s been able to make contact with approximately 90 percent of his congregation since the hurricane.

VanderWeele was beginning his fourth year as minister of Community Church when the hurricane struck August 29. Of the three UU congregations in New Orleans, Community Church is believed to be the most heavily damaged.

The church, which completed a major renovation last year with new siding, paint, plumbing, and wiring as the result of a $55,000 capital campaign, sits in one of the lower-elevation neighborhoods of New Orleans and is near the 17th Street Canal levee that broke as a result of the hurricane.

VanderWeele is living with a family from the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. He spends his days calling and e-mailing members of his widely dispersed 83-member congregation and working in general relief efforts. He believes no one from his congregation died in the hurricane or its aftermath, although many lost homes and businesses.

“The difficult part for most people has been the coming to grips with the loss of a place and of belongings,” he said.

He’s uncertain about the eventual fate of Community Church. He understands that some members will choose to not return to New Orleans. “Many people lost their jobs,” he said. “I expect pledges to drop dramatically. Right now our future is just a diary with blank pages. The only thing I can put on those pages is the good wishes and support and encouragement that many people have sent our way. Hope for the future is really all we have.”

The congregation was just really hitting its stride, he said. “There was a tremendous outpouring of energy into the capital campaign, into religious education, and we were working on a five-year strategic plan. It was a warm and caring community of people.”

A Wisconsin congregation has stepped forward as a partner church. The Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Appleton, Wisc., will begin by coordinating all of the offers of support that are coming in for Community Church. “We can’t really respond to those yet, so Fox Valley will do it for us,” said VanderWeele.

The Rev. Roger Bertschausen, the Fellowship’s minister, said it will match Community Church’s needs with the offers of help. Any offers should be sent to ccuu@new.rr.com. “So many people had been asking what we could do and this seemed perfect for us,” he said. “We are honored to be able to help.”


Congregational partnerships

Meanwhile, Unitarian Universalist congregations around the nation are stepping up to help congregations and people whose lives have been disrupted by the hurricane. Among them:

The Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Mass., has agreed to pay the $2,000 monthly mortgage for the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society in Lacombe, La., for a year. “This will take effort on the part of a lot of people in our congregation to make this support happen, but it feels very right to me,” said the Rev. Phyllis O’Connell of Wellesley Hills. North Shore has a temporary roof replacing one that blew off in the hurricane, but the building is generally usable. (See “Volunteers help fix storm-damaged North Shore church,” 9.6.05.)

Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano, Texas, is sponsoring three families “for however long we are called to help,” said the Rev. Priscilla Richter, interim minister. The church has furnished apartments for two of the families. A member repaired one family’s car and is looking for a vehicle for another family. Members are also cooking at a shelter in Plano and volunteering at other shelters. Richter said fifty members and friends, from the membership of 150, are part of a task group that has pledged to respond in a flexible way to needs as they present themselves.

The First Unitarian Society in Newton, Mass., collected $10,000 and gave three fourths of it to the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund and the remainder to relief of flooding in Transylvania. (See “Flash floods damage Unitarian villages in Transylvania,” 9.19.05.) The congregation is also working with a Baptist church to rent and load a 24-foot truck with supplies and drive it to a church in Hattiesburg, Miss., which is serving nearly 2,000 displaced people. It is also arranging a blood drive, says the Rev. James Ford.

The town of Manchester, Conn., is investigating the possibility of adopting a hurricane-ravaged town in Mississippi. A three-member organizing group, including the Rev. Joshua Pawelek, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, proposed the idea as a way of providing help over the next three to five years, rather than simply sending immediate aid.

City officials must first approve the plan and a town in Mississippi would need to agree to accept the help. “We didn’t want to just settle for a quick fix,” Pawelek said. “This storm will have a long-lasting impact. We wanted to anchor ourselves into a healing and rebuilding effort that will last. We could lend them resources, money, personnel, and equipment.” He said the congregation has not decided how it might get involved, “but I’m sure many people will choose to.” If the plan is approved, Manchester will look for a town of 8,000 to 10,000 residents. The plan is independent of Red Cross efforts.

The First Unitarian Church of Dallas has raised more than $35,000 for the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund and has more than 50 volunteers working in local relief efforts, said the Rev. Daniel Kanter. The church is partnering with a Quality Inn owner who opened his hotel to more than 300 New Orleaneans, including feeding them. Evacuees are now being placed into apartments with the assistance of FEMA. Members of the church are sponsoring many of the families and are providing “move-in” boxes of essentials. The church is also collecting household goods for them and a local community center.

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Shreveport, La., is also inundated with New Orleaneans and is being supported by the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Nantucket, Mass.

The city of Baton Rouge has doubled in size since the hurricane. The Rev. Steve Crump, minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, said that his congregation also has doubled in size, at least temporarily, as it welcomes displaced New Orleaneans. (See “Baton Rouge, Houston swell with displaced people,” 9.7.05.)

“Suddenly, we are a large church,” Crump said. “Helicopters fly over the church every five or ten minutes. The population of Baton Rouge has been overwhelmed. Every hotel room in town is booked; almost all of our members are housing people. Meals are being prepared in our kitchen. Last week, we had a potluck for the members of the UU diaspora. We are, in a sense, under siege.”

A volunteer from Berkeley, Calif., has come to help as a “crisis relief administrator” for a month. East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Bellevue, Wash., is taking on the task of finding the church an additional computer.


How to help

All offers of help for the three UU congregations in the New Orleans area should be directed not to them but to the congregations that have stepped forward to coordinate those offers:

  • Offers of help for Community Church Unitarian Universalist should go to ccuu@new.rr.com, an address being monitored by the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc.

  • Offers for the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Society should go to Elaine Mittell at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Mass., mittell-poutasse@worldnet.att.net.

  • There is no announced partner for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans as of Thursday, but one is expected to be designated soon.

Those with general offers of help should continue to go to the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference Hurricane Katrina webpage.

Meanwhile, thousands of donations from individuals and congregations have been received by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in response to an appeal for hurricane relief funds. On Friday, UUA President William G. Sinkford announced that fundraising efforts coordinated by the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had already raised $1 million to assist the people and communities affected by the hurricane. (See “Gulf Coast Relief Fund tops $1 million,” 9.16.05.)

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