Fifteen UCC members from eight states traveled to New Orleans and coastal Mississippi Dec. 8-11 to learn firsthand of the progress made and the complex challenges still facing residents more than three years after Hurricane Katrina.
The group – composed of Conference ministers, Disaster Ministries administrators and church members – visited a half dozen work sites supervised by UCC National Disaster Ministries staff. Also on the three-day itinerary of the "Hope Shall Bloom" educational mission trip were visits to Little Farms UCC and Beecher Memorial UCC; a tour of a new multi-purpose facility for the homeless downtown; and a day trip to Biloxi and Pass Christian, Miss.
The group gathered in the sanctuary of Little Farms for an overview/orientation, with the Rev. Alan Coe, minister for Disaster Recovery; the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, interim pastor at Beecher UCC; and Florence Coppola, national executive for Disaster Ministries, providing updates on the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of recovery and rebuilding.
|Dave Coatsworth of the National UCC Offices and Judith Tellez-Gonzalez from Olivet College (Mich.) at a New Orleans work site.|
"There's a lot of anger," said Coppola. "People are feeling like, 'I don't know why I don't have my home back.' It's very difficult." Jackson, former executive minister for UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, called present-day New Orleans "the largest mental-health crisis this nation has ever had in one place at one time. It is like ground zero for every racial, social, economic and environmental issue in America."
The trip featured a tour of the Rebuild Center, a one-stop service center for the area's homeless, whose numbers are now estimated at 12,000. The center offers restroom, shower, laundry, telephone and food-service facilities. Drop-ins can also see a doctor or a lawyer, get a new state ID, receive mail and obtain help finding housing and jobs. Natural wood siding and rich vegetation throughout the complex give it a warm, inviting feeling – and nearly all of its $1 million cost was raised by community and religious organizations. "Homeless people rarely go to a nice place that was built just for them," said center director Don Thompson.
The day trip to coastal Mississippi included stops and site visits in Biloxi, East Biloxi and Pass Christian (kris-tee-ANN). In Biloxi, the group visited Back Bay Mission, hearing stirring stories of clients' hardships and meeting with the Rev. Shari Prestemon, executive director, and the dedicated staff there.
In Pass Christian – a town of 6,500 where 22 people died and 90 percent of homes were destroyed or damaged – the visiting group met with mayor Chipper McDermott, whose faith and appreciation for efforts of the UCC and other organizations nationwide helped brighten an otherwise rainy, dreary day.
"This town is not 6 miles long by 1 mile wide," McDermott said of his rebuilding city and the support it continues to receive. "It's 50 states long and 50 states wide."