After Hurricane Katrina swamped its lot, Gulfport UU church moves inland, attracts new members.
This is the fourth article in a series that uuworld.org is running about UU congregations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Mississippi, as the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches at the end of August.
For the Gulf Coast UU Church in Gulfport, Miss., Hurricane Katrina brought a setback and a new beginning. “It’s been a tremendous year of change for this congregation,” said Virginia Trabulsi, community minister for the congregation this past year.
The 25-member congregation was raising money for a building when the hurricane struck. Its building site ended up under eight feet of water, eliminating any plans to build there. In the weeks and months that followed half of the congregation’s members moved away and two members later died. Down to a dozen or so members, the congregation made the decision to move from the mental health center where it had been meeting to a one-room storefront.
Then as the weeks and months went on, visitors came. A few stayed and joined, bringing families with children for the first time in many years. Now, almost two years after the storm, the congregation is almost back to its pre-Katrina size and has purchased six acres 15 miles inland. Half of the property is a wetland that the congregation will preserve. Once again it is raising money for a building.
Trabulsi said the congregation is committed to environmental stewardship and is working with a local green builder to determine how to fund and build the first green church in Mississippi. The congregation has not had its own building since 1979 when its building was firebombed because of the congregation’s activism around race and gender issues.
Trabulsi credits the congregation’s revival to the perseverance of longtime members and to the energy brought by members who have joined since the storm and who are taking on leadership roles. “That shift to people who are new to the church and to Unitarian Universalism is really driving this church now,” said Trabulsi. “Because we didn’t lose a building in the hurricane we weren’t supported financially in the same way that the New Orleans area congregations were. The members decided that if they want a viable, lasting liberal religious presence on the coast they need to work hard and get it done themselves.”
The congregation decided that the place to start was by developing leaders. It took $10,000 from its building fund and sent three board members and its religious educator to General Assembly in June. “They went to get leadership training at GA and at UU University before GA,” Trabulsi said.
“We decided to invest our money in the up-and-coming leadership of the church,” Vice President Shelly Taylor said. She said board president Michael Kayes has been a member of the congregation since the ’70s, but that she and the other two who went to GA, her husband Anthony Giegler and Angela Rupert, are relatively new to the congregation.
“It was wonderful,” Taylor said. “GA completely renewed my spirit. We made a lot of contacts and it’s going to make a lot of difference for our congregation. The vast majority of people we talked to didn’t realize how badly our area was affected by the hurricane.”
For the past year Trabulsi has coordinated visits by UU volunteers to Mississippi in addition to serving as a community minister to the Gulfport congregation. For six months prior to that she did volunteer relief work in Mississippi. Her relationship with the congregation ended this summer and she returned to her home in Denver in early July.
“For me it was an amazing and rewarding year,” she said. “The volunteers we’ve had down here have been extraordinary. Coming down here has been life changing for them and for the people they’ve helped. They’ve gone back home and met face to face with their local Congress members to talk about funding recovery efforts, and have worked to bring mental health and childcare services to the coast.”
There is currently no Unitarian Universalist Service Committee hurricane relief volunteer program in Mississippi. People who want to volunteer there are invited to make their own contacts with social justice groups working in the area.
Taylor said the congregation hopes to call another part-time community minister so that it can move forward. “We’re not going to sit around and wait for the money to be there for our building. The hurricane opened a wealth of opportunities for us. People on the coast lost many of their support structures in the hurricane. They may not know it, but they need us. And they don’t know we’re here. We have to get loud about our faith.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.