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New Orleans congregations begin healing process

Hurricane Katrina scatters, then unites Louisiana Unitarian Universalists; no church damage reported from Hurricane Wilma.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.31.05

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Flooded First UU Church pews

Destroyed pews in the flooded First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. (Photo by Richard L. Chase) (Richard L. Chase)

Hurricane Katrina has brought two New Orleans Unitarian Universalist congregations together, at least for a while. The congregations of First UU Church and Community Church UU have begun worshiping together “to share resources and to support each other and to get to know each other,” said First Church’s minister the Rev. Marta Valentin.

Flooding heavily damaged First Church’s building. Community Church’s building will have to be demolished because it flooded to the eaves. A Presbyterian congregation whose building was undamaged offered the UU congregations space for Sunday afternoon services, and the first was held October 16. Valentin and the Rev. James VanderWeele of Community Church co-led the first two services, which each attracted approximately 60 people. They now alternate. Both ministers say they don’t know if the congregations will merge permanently, but for now worshiping together feels like the right thing to do—and a choir is getting organized.

Before the storm, Community Church had 91 members, and VanderWeele said that probably half had moved away. “The president of our board lives in Nashville, the president-elect is in North Carolina, our treasurer is in Texas, and our secretary is in North Carolina,” he said. “This is not a situation where we just put back together what was. We have to realize the congregations we once had are not the congregations that are now gathering. This is a tremendous challenge for all of us.”

Valentin agreed. “We’re looking at a long hard road,” she said. “I know that we have not hit the hardest point yet.” She said she didn’t know how many of its 115 members First Church would lose. “There are people who say they’re coming back,” she said, “and then they get here and see the reality and they’re not so sure. People are living in houses without natural gas and they’re using camp stoves and getting by with microwaves and Crock-Pots. It’s still a ghost of a town, but people are starting to deal with the unimaginable work of cleaning out homes.”

Valentin also expects that the difficult times will attract new people. “I had a call from a woman who said she wanted to join the church,” she recounted. “I don’t know how she found us. So I expect to hear from more people like her. I know that growth will happen. All around us people are working hard to bring the city back.”

Valentin and her partner, Alison Chase, lost all their possessions in the flooding, as did VanderWeele. On Thursday he moved into a furnished apartment that had been vacated by someone who had lost his job and left town.

Leaders of First Church are assessing what will be required to save their building, which the congregation bought 10 years ago. Its first floor was flooded, but the second floor was not, and the brick and stone building is structurally sound. Valentin said UUs from other congregations have offered to come help restore the building, but for now it’s too contaminated for that. She said First Church members have been cleaning up the outside of the church and salvaging plates and other items from the kitchen.

Cleaning and decontaminating the building would cost about $170,000. Valentin expects that restoring the building will cost in the neighborhood of a half million dollars, including the environmental cleanup.

“We are fully committed to cleaning up the church as soon as possible,” First Church president Deanna Vandiver said.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, which holds a mortgage on First Church’s building, has announced that it is deferring payments for at least six months. The UUA is also paying the salaries of professional staff of affected congregations.

The Rev. Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of congregational fundraising services, has been helping Gulf Coast congregations make damage assessments. Clark is part of a strategic planning task force that also includes local ministers and the Rev. Anne Heller, interim district executive of the Southwestern UU Conference.


The Gulf Coast Relief Fund cosponsored by the UUA and the UU Service Committee has provided $25,000 grants to both New Orleans congregations. The fund has also granted $25,000 to the North Shore UU Society in Lacombe, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, which lost its roof to Hurricane Katrina; and to Spindletop UU Church in Beaumont, Texas, which was damaged by Hurricane Rita, the second hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast this fall. Another $25,000 grant will be shared by three small UU congregations in areas of Mississippi damaged by Katrina.

Donations to the relief fund had surpassed $2.4 million by Friday. A challenge grant from the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., brought the fund’s total to more than $2.8 million. The Shelter Rock congregation’s grant promises up to $500,000 to match all contributions made after October 2.

[Update 11.1.05: On October 31, the UUA announced that contributions to the fund (including the $500,000 matching grant from the Shelter Rock congregation) had reached $3,024,637.]

In the weeks after the hurricane, a seven-person panel was established to decide how to distribute the relief fund money. After meeting several times the panel decided last week, because of the complexity of the work to be done, to restructure into three working groups focused on specific areas.

The three working groups are Mississippi Strategic Planning for Unitarian Universalism; New Orleans Strategic Planning for Unitarian Universalism; and Community Funding, including Work Camps and Community Ministries. Approximately one-third of the collected funds will go toward caring for UU communities and ministries throughout the Gulf region, and two-thirds will be focused on the larger community.

The three groups will report regularly to a coordinating council, which will include Kay Montgomery, UUA executive vice president; Mark McPeak, deputy director, UU Service Committee; Joe Sullivan, president, Southwestern UU Conference; the Rev. Meg Riley, director of UUA Advocacy and Witness and chair of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund; the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, UU minister serving in Mississippi; Rebecca Cureau, Louisiana UU community activist and educator; the Rev. David Hubner, director, UUA Office of Ministry and Professional Leadership; and representatives from the UU Trauma Ministries Response Team and the staff of the UUA’s Stewardship and Development Department. More information about the panels is online at www.uua.org.


In other developments, Hurricane Wilma struck southern Florida on October 24. There were no reports of significant damage to UU church buildings, said the Rev. Mary Higgins, district executive for the Florida District.

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