Written by Connie Larkman
There's no more Central UCC. St. Matthew UCC is gone, too.
But Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ is going strong.
"We are unified, and we'll continue to be," said the Rev. Chris Mereschuk, who has served one year as settled senior pastor of the combined congregation that is Central St. Matthew UCC in the post-Katrina era of New Orleans. "We're trying to bring the best from both legacy churches into the future. It's a new day."
Officially unified in October 2009, the churches began to come together in St. Matthew's building after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in 2005, totaling the Central church facility. As the two have become one with each other, their congregations have come to feel more a part of one UCC church.
"We have had increasingly strong ties to the denomination," said Mereschuk. "We have a broader appreciation of our covenantal relationship and a good amount of awareness of what it means to be a UCC church. We are continually working to strengthen those ties."
As separate churches, St. Matthew and Central were located just 2 miles apart. St. Matthew, a predominately-white church in the Carrollton section of town, on higher ground, sustained wind and rain damage from Katrina –– but nothing like the devastation at Central. Situated in the Bienville neighborhood, Central –– whose congregation was composed primarily of African-American members –– was a total loss.
A $1.5 million effort is underway to rebuild on the Central site, creating rental space for nonprofits and social services, said Mereschuk. Under the new setup, the two Central St. Matthew spaces will be known as the "Carrollton campus" and the "Bienville campus." The latter is expected to benefit from a city multi-year plan to transform that area into a biomedical district featuring a new public hospital and a Veterans Administration hospital.
"Right now we lack the people power to do a lot of community ministries ourselves," he said. "But we can provide the space. With New Orleans, you name the social service and there's a need for it."
Dale Bonds, a 30-year member of Central and co-moderator of next year's General Synod 29 in Long Beach, Calif., was president at Central when the unification process began.
"This year has been one of organization building and growth for both Chris and CSM," said Bonds. "He was instrumental in getting our people to come together, and he has assisted us in launching a huge capital campaign, which will in part be used to rebuild our Central campus. Because of Chris, we continue to support volunteers who come to help rebuild our city."
Key among volunteer efforts is the Summer Communities of Service in which the UCC, in collaboration with the Alliance of Baptists, offers young adults ages 19-30 a life-changing summer internship opportunity.
"Chris is moving us to be more hands-on in our ministry, hence our participation with Summer Communities of Service," said Bonds.
Participants are placed with host UCC or Alliance of Baptists congregations, volunteering four days a week with a local ministry of a UCC or Alliance mission partner, or with a community agency committed to social justice.
This summer, three interns will work in New Orleans with two organizations: Belle Reve, which helps HIV-positive individuals who are at high risk of becoming homeless; and the Uptown Shepherd's Center, an activities center for seniors ages 60-plus. Both are led by members of Central St. Matthew, said Mereschuk.
"We support those agencies with prayer and some mission dollars," said Mereschuk. "The UCC’s [One Great Hour of Sharing] Hope Shall Bloom campaign has been a significant contributor, and we want the UCC to have a strong presence in that neighborhood as someone who cares for the city."