New Orleans congregations observe hurricane's anniversary with worship, dinner, and theater.
It has been a year since Hurricane Katrina whipped ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi. A year since the levees broke and the dark brown fetid water inundated houses, churches, and lives, changing things forever.
The anniversary of that disaster is being marked in many ways this month and in September by two of the three Unitarian Universalist congregations in the New Orleans area.
Members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, which was flooded in last year's storm, will gather for a dinner on August 29. “This is a big deal for us,” said the Rev. Marta Valentín. “This will be the first event in our building.” The dinner will be held in a concrete-walled fellowship hall, which sustained less flood damage than other parts of the church. There will be a brief Seder-type ceremony followed by a potluck meal. “We still have no electricity there,” Valentín said, “but the idea is to be together on this important day in our building.” The first floor of the church has been gutted and is awaiting reconstruction.
Gini Courter, moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, will join the congregation for a worship service August 27. “We’re talking about a dual focus service where we will bear witness to what has happened,” said Valentín, “and then we will shift into the many blessings that have come out of this horrible experience so people will be left with a sense of hope for the future.”
The congregation plans to have a homecoming service Sunday, September 10, in its building and then go back to worshiping at a Presbyterian church across the street until its own building is usable for services, something that is still months away, said Valentín. No timetable has been set as to when the building will be fully restored. The congregation, which had 115 members a year ago, has 87 now.
At North Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Lacombe, La., which lost much of its roof to Katrina, the disaster is still fresh. “It’s very hard to think of observing the anniversary of a trauma that is still an ongoing pervasive and depressing reality in most people’s lives,” said Terry Van Brunt, president of the congregation. “Most of us are desperate for moments when it’s not part of our reality.”
Van Brunt said a production of “Voices of Louisiana,” a local cultural program, is being coordinated by small group ministry circles at North Shore and will be presented at North Shore, among other places. “Voices” is an educational and humorous look at Louisiana history. “Humor, especially Louisiana humor, is healing,” said Van Brunt. “Especially in this great time of sadness that Katrina has brought, not to mention FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, insurance companies, and local and national governments.”
North Shore recovered more quickly than other New Orleans area congregations and was back in its building within weeks after Katrina. In the past year it has had other challenges, as it supported members who lost homes and went through a transition in ministry. The Rev. David Ord resigned and this summer the congregation has an interim minister, the Rev. Bill Murchison. North Shore had 83 members before Katrina and now has about 70.
The third UU congregation in New Orleans is Community Church UU, which has made no specific plans to mark the Katrina anniversary. The church’s frame building near Lake Pontchartrain was totally flooded and underwater for more than two weeks. For many months it was believed to be damaged beyond repair, but the Rev. Jim VanderWeele said this week that the congregation is beginning to think about salvaging the building. “We’ve talked to an architect and we’re making some progress toward that,” he said. In addition, the congregation has made a bid on an adjacent property. “The price is down to a reasonable level and we hope we can expand our property in the near future.”
The Community Church and First Church congregations have been worshiping together for months in rented space in another church building, but as of September 10, Community Church will begin worshiping at an Episcopal chapel about five miles from its flood-damaged building. VanderWeele said the congregation feels ready to move on. “People needed time to make their personal adjustments and that’s happened. Now they’re ready to become more involved in the life of the church.” Community Church had 83 members a year ago and 60 now, says VanderWeele.
The Rev. Marilee Baccich was hired last winter as minister to the community at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. Along with Chere Coen, she coordinates UU volunteers who have been coming from across North America to New Orleans. Baccich said the flow of volunteers to New Orleans is “amazing.”
“We’ve had many groups this summer,” Baccich said, “and many more are booked through this fall and Christmas. We can use as many groups as want to come.”
The situation for volunteers became easier a few weeks ago when the second floor of First UU Church in New Orleans was converted into a dormitory for volunteers. Baccich said other volunteers will be sent to Mississippi, where UUs and other groups on the Gulf Coast continue to rebuild.
The Rev. Virginia Trabulsi, recently hired as UU volunteer coordinator in Mississippi, will be working with Baccich and Coen to help those who want to work in Mississippi.
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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.