Back Bay Mission celebrates Katrina comeback

Back Bay Mission celebrates Katrina comeback

October 12, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke
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Back Bay Mission, severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina four years ago, celebrated the rededication of its restored and expanded facilities Oct. 3-5 in Biloxi, Miss. UCC members from a dozen states comprised a considerable majority of the nearly 200 supporters in attendance.

"This is the fulfillment of four years of concentrated work around questions of facility – how to temporarily house ourselves to administer [the ministry], and also looking ahead to a permanent facility," says Rev. Shari Prestemon, executive director of Back Bay Mission, which has served the area for 90 years.

"The UCC's involvement in this cannot be overstated. It's so clear to me that without the relationship we have with the UCC – individuals, congregations, conferences, health and human services – that we simply could not have traveled that journey from total loss to full life," says Prestemon

States represented at the event included Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Two focal points of the spirit-lifting event were the unveiling of the Micah Center, a 3,786-square-foot, multi-purpose space to serve as a day center for the homeless, a gathering space for community-wide events and additional staff offices; and the 4,778-square-foot Mission House Volunteer Center, which will house recovery and work-camp volunteers, as well as space for related program staff and two semi-private rooms. The Micah Center is currently being used for community events, and in January will add its role as a day center for families.

The space proved its multi-purpose capabilities during the celebration weekend when a Board meeting, Friday reception, the dedication program and Sunday worship were all held there.

The Mission House Volunteer Center, a 4,778-square-foot structure with capacity to house 44 work camp volunteers, is filling fast with 2010 volunteer groups, says Prestemon. "Prior to Katrina, we were able to house up to 24 volunteers, but they would have to sleep, bathe and cook in separate buildings," says Prestemon, referring to buildings lost in Katrina. Now everything is under one roof – and it's drawing raves already.

"I've seen the plans for this new facility from day one," says John Veldman, BBM board president and member of First Congregational UCC in Western Springs, Ill. "But when I walked into those buildings the first time, they were spectacular. I never had a sense that they were going to be as nice as they turned out to be."

Veldman, a 30-year UCC member, says he began board service a year before Katrina struck, "so I got to see what Biloxi and Back Mission looked like before the hurricane."

Led by Rev. Jonathan Morgan, senior pastor of First Church of Christ UCC in Simsbury, Conn., a group of 20 volunteers were among the first to use the Mission House the week of Oct. 5. "The kitchen was fantastic, and the gathering areas, with porches and rocking chairs were conducive for social time – special time – that we spent together," says Morgan. "The new facilities are just shining stars."

The Mission House also includes two offices for related program staff and two semi-private rooms for interns, long-term guests and sabbatical volunteers.

With an air of "family reunion" permeating the event, the Rev. Bruno Schroeder – former associate director of Back Bay Mission who served on the staff for 23 years and was on the planning committee for the celebration/dedication – said he was moved by the presence of so many people from around the country with a connection to Back Bay Mission.

"There were former staff, former volunteers, former Board Members and many people with whom I had worked," says Schroeder. "They were present because they have been touched by this ministry, its staff and the recipients of the Mission's services through the years."

Like Veldman, Schroeder was in awe of the physical aspect of the facility. "It is impressive in size and style. However, it is neither ostentatious nor opulent, but built to enhance the Mission's ministry and meet the needs of the community, especially its disadvantaged persons."

Schroeder said he was twice moved to tears during the Sunday morning worship service, and was delighted to see in attendance three former executive directors present along with Prestemon – Rev. Dick Ellerbrake (1958-62), Rev. Jack Aregood (1964-72) and Rev. David Stephens (1972-99). All are UCC clergy.

The full weekend of commemoration and celebration fills Schroeder with hope. "All of this makes me confident that this ministry will continue to attract able and dedicated leadership."

More information on Back Bay Mission is available at <>. 

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