February 15, 2006
Volunteers in New Orleans are providing hope to the families they help.
"Faith Works" is a term often heard in different settings of the United Church of Christ. Indeed, faith does work on the Gulf Coast! One expression of this faith is experienced in the volunteer work groups that have been arriving in New Orleans since December. Work groups are scheduled every week into next fall and beyond.
These groups provide physical labor. They have already concentrated on Beecher UCC, helping to gut the building. Stories of the personal touch that work groups bring has helped bring a glimmer of hope in some places. A member of Beecher tells us the story of her mother who had evacuated and has not yet returned. Her mother was concerned about the wedding ring she left sitting on top of the dresser in their house when they left. Knowing that the possibility was slim of finding this ring in a house that had been inundated by water to the ceiling, members of a work group nevertheless spent the day searching while cleaning up other debris in the house. They found it! It wasn't that particular wedding ring, but another heirloom ring that was able to be returned to this woman. She has lost everything, but at least now can hold a piece of her past in her hand.
"What they do provides hope and energy for our church family," said the Rev. Gary Arndt, pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ. "They give us the courage to continue to move forward."
All of the eight UCC churches in the area received different types of damage. "Some had water damage, some had wind and water damage," said the Rev. Alan Coe, minister for disaster recovery in the UCC South Central Conference. "Half the churches had roof damage, one had significant water damage and one had six feet of standing water in it for two weeks."
And so volunteers are pitching in to help rip out drywall and clean up the churches as well as the homes of the affected parishioners. Good Shepherd United Church of Christ is still making repairs to its building, but now has two portable buildings outside housing volunteers in town to assist in the recovery. Arndt said the housing was made available in October and the volunteers have been a godsend to the church and community. "Volunteers ripped out our drywall and put new boards in, and then painted it," he said. They also put in a shower for future volunteers and gutted flooded homes in nearby neighborhoods.
Good Shepherd had roof and water damage from Katrina. The congregation has been meeting in the fellowship hall since the hurricane; the sanctuary lost all its contents due to the water. "We lost all of our pews, our office equipment, kitchen supplies, computers - you list it, we lost it," said Coe. While the congregation awaits word from the insurance company on repairs and repairs costs, volunteers help with damaged homes.
Coe said three area churches are housing volunteers during the recovery. "Volunteers have been cleaning out houses - the majority of which have not been touched since the hurricane," he explained, adding that they connect the volunteers with families before just showing up. "We try to make sure the homeowners are in town to ask them where valuables might be - like bills and such. We want to try to find that stuff."
He agreed with Arndt about the hope the volunteers bring to a community still grieving its losses. Many families see their homes and don't even know where to start in the mess, Coe said, and the volunteers give them an initial step by helping sort and find belongings while tearing out walls and ceilings. "To have a group of 20 people show up and say 'we want to help,' it's a huge thing." For the churches devastated by Katrina, Coe said that the aim is to get UCC conferences from around the country to adopt a particular church. Arndt's church has been adopted by the Massachusetts Conference - a move that has helped more than just Good Shepherd UCC. "The conference officials found out that nearby school kids had nothing for Christmas, so they organized Christmas parties for them and sent in presents," said Arndt.
That kind of generosity is flowing in from churches around the country. A church from Iowa sent supplies to get Good Shepherd's preschool back on its feet. Another sent a computer for the church's secretary. Arndt also praised the UCC's "Hope Shall Bloom" fund for helping get the local congregations moving again by supporting staff members and recovery supplies.
The trying times have also brought the New Orleans churches closer together. Two congregations' buildings suffered complete devastation and are now paired up with others. Good Shepherd is sharing its space with Beecher Memorial, a church that saw six to eight feet of water in the Ninth Ward. St. Matthew's United Church of Christ is now sharing space Central Congregational United Church of Christ.
But while the generosity flows and good happens, the emotions are still raw. The congregations and community are stressed, said Coe. "People are pretty anxious throughout the city. After the holidays, the anxiety increased. People have a difficult time doing anything."
Arndt agreed. "People are really on edge, the little things get to them," he explained. "One national disaster responder told us that we're probably in the anger phase of the grief process - or that maybe we hadn't even begun that process yet. To me it's like losing a family member. The first year after loss is a novelty. The second year you realize that it's for the rest of your life. It's like that now. We're frustrated. I think the greatest sadness in our hearts is that it's never going to be the same - that's really what people are dealing with."
Arndt and Coe worry about how many families will not return, with Arndt estimating that Good Shepherd has lost at least 20% of its membership to other cities. Both say they are working their hardest to bring hope to the remaining families. Arndt said he speaks regularly about God offering everyone strength and possibilities. Coe said he continues recruiting volunteers. Anything they can offer the families, they'll do.
"We're just trying to get everyone back to a sense of being normal again," said Arndt.
How you can help
1. Pray for the people who have been affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and all disasters.
2. To help those affected by the Gulf Coast Hurricanes you may send gifts payable to your congregation marked for "Hope Shall Bloom-UCC Hurricane Recovery Fund" with the request they are sent through your Conference office on to Wider Church Ministries.
3. Send gifts payable to Wider Church Ministries and marked in the memo portion "Hope Shall Bloom-UCC Hurricane Recovery" Fund to Wider Church Ministries; 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115.
4. Make a secure on-line donation at: www.ucc.org