Gulf Coast Unitarian Universalists gather for second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Unitarian Universalists living and volunteering in the Gulf Coast marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week with memorial services, calls to action, and by kicking off a new program called the Resurrection Project, which will deliver furniture and other resources to families in need.
Gini Courter, moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, spoke at a press conference Wednesday in New Orleans with Mary Fontenot, director of All Congregations Together (ACT), a social justice group, to announce the new program. The Resurrection Project will create neighborhood centers that will supply building materials, used furniture, food, and other necessities to residents in the still-devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
For the past two years the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the UUA, and ACT have been partners in relief and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.
The Resurrection Project will also direct volunteers in rebuilding single rooms in 27 homes and doing two rooms in each of two more houses, enabling families to move back into their homes while they restore the rest of the rooms in their houses.
Courter praised the "thousands of heroes" such as Fontenot who are working tirelessly in their devastated neighborhoods to empower their fellow New Orleaneans to return to their homes. She also condemned the failure of governmental agencies to respond adequately to the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
"We cannot ignore the fact that many institutions have failed the people of New Orleans—they failed to respond adequately to the hurricanes two years ago, and they're still failing this city today," said Courter.
The Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church UU, which was flooded when levees broke after the August 29, 2005, hurricane, attended several memorial events Wednesday, while also striving to keep the day "as normal as possible." His congregation recently renovated a house next to its flooded church and began using it for church services, making the church one of the first residents to return to the neighborhood.
VanderWeele attended an interfaith service in his Lakeview neighborhood and another service in Phoenix, La., led by the Rev. Tyrone Edwards. After Katrina, Edwards founded a relief center for his community that has been supported by the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.
Representatives of the UUSC, including President Charlie Clements and humanitarian crises program manager Martha Thompson, also attended Edwards’ worship service, which was held not at his church, the Zion Travelers Baptist Church, but at the nearby St. Joseph's Baptist Church. They were thanked for their roles in helping restore both churches and for their support of Edwards' relief center.
UUs living on the Gulf Coast gathered August 25 for a dinner at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans. The church was flooded after Katrina and has been partially restored. About 120 UUs attended from all three New Orleans-area congregations plus the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast UU Church in Gulfport, Miss. The Greater New Orleans UUs, an organization composed of the three New Orleans-area congregations to increase cooperation and mutual support, organized the dinner. The third congregation is North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe, La.
Jyaphia Christos-Rodgers, a former president of First Church, said the “commemoration dinner” was the first such event held in the church’s sanctuary since the flood. In a Seder-type ceremony that preceded the dinner, participants ate foods that symbolized their lives since Katrina. The foods included cane syrup (sweetness of life), pickles (bitterness), nori rolls of rice and seaweed (for the ocean and marsh), and greens (for the determination of life to flourish).
At the dinner that followed, chalice art sculptures were given to both VanderWeele and to the Baton Rouge congregation. VanderWeele, minister of Community Church since 2002, has been in New Orleans longer than any current UU minister. "Since the storm he has ministered to all of us," said Christos-Rodgers. “"He's been compassionate and selfless and we wanted to lift him up."
The Baton Rouge congregation was honored for its leadership in organizing volunteers to come to New Orleans and for conducting its own continuous relief and advocacy efforts since Katrina, including the Weekend Warriors team, a group of Baton Rouge UUs who have worked in New Orleans at least one weekend a month since Katrina.
About 25 volunteers who had come to New Orleans from the Thomas Jefferson District of the UUA also attended the dinner at First Church.
Annette Marquis, district executive of the Thomas Jefferson District, was among those attending. For her, a special moment came during the service at St. Joseph’s church in Phoenix when the choir spontaneously added a verse, "Black and white together," to "We Shall Overcome."
"This was the moment when I knew that our work was truly making a difference in breaking down barriers between people from different cultures, from different races, and from different social classes," said Marquis. "In that brief moment, we were indeed black and white together."
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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.
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