Volunteers spend weekend fixing one New Orleans-area church; donations to UUA-UUSC relief fund top $343,708.
The North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society, one of three hurricane-damaged Unitarian Universalist churches in the New Orleans area, is back in operation this week after installation of a temporary roof by a far-flung group of UU volunteers.
The church in Lacombe, La., on the north edge of Lake Pontchartrain, lost most of its roof to Hurricane Katrina. Two other congregations—Community Church Unitarian Universalist and First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans—remain inaccessible and are believed to be flooded.
Workers paused from their labors on the church on Sunday for a brief, emotional worship service. They sang “Winds Be Still” and remembered all that had been lost—and saved—since the hurricane.
A few miles to the west, the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge held two services on Sunday that attracted about 400 people. “We’ve always been a midsize church,” said the Rev. Steve Crump, “but today we’re a large one.” He said the service, the congregation’s 20th annual Labor Day Jazz Service, was dedicated to “the people of the storm.”
Meanwhile, UU generosity continued to pour into to the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund as UUA President William G. Sinkford issued a new appeal for donations to relieve the post-Katrina misery. “As people of faith,” he said in the statement Sunday, “we simply must do something.” By early Tuesday morning, the fund had received more than $343,708 in online donations alone.
“I am especially mindful,” Sinkford said, “that those unable to evacuate from the affected areas, the poor, the elderly, and the community of color, have suffered disproportionately from the ferocity of this hurricane and the lack of timely disaster response from government agencies. Relief was too-long delayed, and their suffering continues and intensifies. . . .
“Congregations from as far away as Dallas and Houston are rallying to coordinate emergency shelter and supplies, while trauma ministry teams are mobilizing to attend to the spiritual wounds of hurricane survivors. . . . In this difficult time, I am proud that Unitarian Universalists are coming together to help lighten the heavy burdens of our brothers and sisters.”
Relief fund donations will be distributed by the two UUA districts where Katrina’s damage was concentrated. It will go to “local relief efforts and to UU congregations so that their ministries in their communities can be restored,” Sinkford said.
Work on the North Shore church began Thursday when a crew that included the Rev. David Ord, the congregation’s minister, and Michael Bourne, a UU from Madison, Wisc., covered the exposed top of the building with plastic sheeting.
Bourne had driven a rental car filled with the sheeting and roofing nails from Wisconsin to Louisiana on Tuesday, anticipating such a need. “We got done just in time to protect it from a rainstorm,” Bourne said. On Saturday a larger crew, including UUs from Houston, went over the roof again, making the temporary covering more durable.
The team also spent the weekend cleaning up tree debris, repairing a water pump, and putting the church back in order.
The crew paused at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning for a worship service inside the newly protected space. “There were about twelve of us,” Bourne said. “We sang hymns and talked about our experience, then went back and finished putting the roof on.”
This was not the first disaster relief work Bourne had done. Years ago he helped protect a Mississippi River town from flooding and he also helped in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. “I do as much volunteer work as I can,” said Bourne, a former landscape contractor. “I value myself by what I can contribute to society.” He headed back home to Madison on Sunday night.
The Rev. Danita Noland, minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston, came to help with three people from her church, including Bill Haskell, a former member of North Shore. Several people from the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, including the Rev. Matthew Tittle, also helped.
“This was a church that was savable,” said Noland, “and with the temporary roof it can be used for shelter if necessary.” She added, “We felt it was important to have a worship service not only for us but for any parishioners who might show up. Two people from the congregation came for the service and others came by in the afternoon. They were just so thankful and relieved to see their church was still there and functioning and that people had come to help.”
Worshipers sang “Welcome, Rejoice, and Come in.” Ord spoke about finding inner strength to go forward in the face of adversity. People lit candles of concern for others in need.
Down the road, members of the Baton Rouge church gathered with some members of other area congregations. “It was a very powerful service,” said Crump. “We had folks who had lost their homes, others who didn’t know where relatives were.”
A single candle was lit. “It represented the many—the ones we’re waiting to hear from, the ones who were rescued, and the ones who do the rescuing,” Crump said. There were scripture readings on feeding the hungry and caring for the poor and needy. Crump, a jazz singer, sang Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”; a jazz duo performed “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”
“There were lots of tears,” Crump said.
A Baton Rouge member is hosting a member of the Community Church Unitarian Universalist of New Orleans who was evacuated Sunday, a week after the storm. Jane Holt Seale, 59, rode out the storm in her house. She said she wanted to leave before the storm, but she has difficulty walking very far and chose to stay.
When the storm struck, “the noise was terrible,” Seale said. “But I was very fortunate. A laurel tree in my backyard fell against my back apartment and I lost some shingles and a couple of windows were broken, but that was it.” Her neighborhood, in the Lower Garden District, did not flood, but when the radio said it might, she hauled everything she could up to the second floor. “Then when it didn’t flood I hauled it back down again.”
Her telephone and electricity stayed on for several days after the storm. When it finally failed she resorted to sleeping during the unair-conditioned day and staying awake at night when it was cooler. “There was nobody else in the neighborhood,” she said. “I jumped at any noise. At night it was pitch black even though I was close to the center of the city, I could see the stars.”
Noland, who is helping the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference with relief efforts, said people who want to help should visit the district website at swuuc.org. Evacuees can send messages to katrinamessages [at] swuuc [dot] org or call 1-800-793-7062 to let their ministers know where they are.
Noland said that because those who left New Orleans are now spread across the entire Southwest and beyond, getting help to them is difficult. “We’re getting lots of offers for help, but people are so scattered and some people are just now coming out of hotels and beginning to recognize they may not get to go back to New Orleans. We’re doing our best to find ways to channel all of the offers of help to where they’ll do the most good.”
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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.