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Restoring Unitarian Universalism in the Jazz City
UU Ministers and Their Congregations Plan for the Future of Our Faith
The UUA's Deb Weiner recently traveled to the Gulf Coast to witness the work of the UUA-UUSC's Gulf Coast Relief Fund.
(New Orleans, May 9, 2006) More than eight months after the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina washed away the possessions and dreams of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, the promise of tomorrow lives in the eyes and the words of the leaders of the UU churches most affected by the storms: First UU Church and Community Church UU in New Orleans; North Shore UU Church in Lacombe, LA; and small UU congregations along the Mississippi coast (including the Gulf Coast UU Fellowship in Gulfport, Our Home UU Church in Ellisville; and the UU Church of Jackson).
The physical losses suffered by the three New Orleans-area congregations are obvious. Less visible, but no less real, are the changes wrought by the stress and disruption to the lives of the congregants. It is hard for those of us who live outside of the hurricane zone to grasp what people endure on a daily basis across the Gulf Coast region. Damage is widespread to this day, and along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans through Mississippi and into Alabama and Florida, the wreckage of lives, livelihoods and shattered dreams lies everywhere.
In Shreveport, nearly four hours away from New Orleans, at the All Souls UU
Church , the Rev. Lyn Oglesby
had just begun her ministry when Katrina struck in August, 2005. She recalls,
"Our church had not had a minister for five years until I was called and arrived
in August. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit, and shortly
thereafter, Hurricane Rita. During my first months here our small congregation
received, logged in, sorted and delivered over 2500 boxes of relief items. I and
most of our counselors and therapists spent countless hours in relief work with
the thousands of hurricane evacuees who were housed in coliseums and gymnasiums
in Shreveport. We received approximately $11,000 from donors all over the
country, with which we bought needed items for evacuees, and provided housing
and transportation to New York for a gay man who was being threatened in the Red
Cross Shelter. We paid for a man from Honduras to get home to his family. We
sent over $500 and a van load of supplies to our sister church in Baton Rouge,
and through the local school systems and our own counselors, we gave several
hundred $50 gift cards to school children, some of whom had no shoes to wear.
For many, this was the only Christmas they had, and we included in our Christmas
gift cards a loving 'thank you' from Unitarian Universalists all over the United
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge was closer to the center of the storm. When Katrina hit, many sought shelter in Baton Rouge, and the population of the city more than doubled in the weeks following the storm. Electricity and phone service were out all over the city, and members of the congregation struggled to provide a "first response" to UUs and others in New Orleans and Mississippi. When the Gulf Coast Relief Fund (GCRF) was created by the UUA and the UUSC several days after the hurricane struck, it was decided that the first on-site meeting of the GCRF Task Force would take place in Baton Rouge because New Orleans was still inaccessible.
One of the first grants made by the GCRF was to fund a community minister to work from the Baton Rouge congregation. This minister would focus on coordinating relief efforts by UUs for New Orleans, designed to help both the UU congregations and the greater New Orleans community. Early in January, the Rev. Marilee Baccich, a New Orleans native who had come to the city immediately after the storm because she "had to be there," joined the staff of the Baton Rouge church to fill the new position of "Minister to the Community." She and half-time Volunteer Coordinator Chere Coen have had their hands full ever since, working with UUs across the country who want to come to Louisiana to do their part to aid the relief efforts. Recently, youth groups from First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winchester, MA, led by the Rev. Wendy Von Zirpolo, and First Parish of Needham, MA, led by the Rev. John Buehrens, traveled to New Orleans to join the relief work First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and the surrounding community. Many other groups of UU youth and adults have already scheduled visits to continue the relief work through the spring and summer.
At North Shore UU church, which lies forty-five miles across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, the hurricane winds blew away most of the church's roof. The large trees that fell all around the church property have been cleared away and the damaged roof repaired. Congregation president Terry Van Brunt knows that "we got off easy compared to other churches," but an estimated thirty percent of the church membership is now gone. Members of the congregation—particularly those who live in Slidell—lost their homes and many are still trying to rebuild or repair their residences; just last week, a beloved member of the congregation died in his FEMA trailer.
The storm's stress took its toll in another way: it contributed to the end of the relationship between the congregation and its minister, David Ord, and now the lay leaders of the congregation struggle to plan for an uncertain future. In this process, North Shore has drawn strength from its partner churches: Second Unitarian Church of Chicago (a managing partner for the congregation); the UU Society of Wellesley Hills, MA (a second managing partner); First Church Unitarian, Littleton, MA; First UU Church of San Diego, CA; and Olympia UU Congregation, Olympia, WA. Van Brunt said, "There was a need for us to be able to feel the hurt, and acknowledge the grief that we were processing. This is probably the first time that our congregation has connected with the larger UU movement. We can never be more appreciative of the support that we have received from our partner congregations and the UUA. And some of our members have gone to visit the members of our partner churches, and there are friendships that have formed that are going to be life-long."
And there is hope, even if there is not certainty: Van Brunt says the congregation is searching for an interim minister and is working on building strength in the congregation's lay leadership structure. The congregation has "gotten a lot of support from the Gulf Coast Relief Fund: they have provided additional funds to help us get an Accredited Interim Minister if we so choose, and to support a part time paid administrator. Prior to Katrina we were approaching the point where we were self-sustaining...where we could think about a five year plan in terms of ministry and salaries. The storm knocked the bottom out of that. There is a lot of anxiety about where we are, but also a lot of good energy. We have pulled together. We have a strong small group ministry program, with about eighty percent participation of our membership in that program, and that has really saved us."
Van Brunt also observes that "We are getting a lot of people who used to come and are now coming again...we do get newcomers as well."
Asked if he was optimistic for the future of the congregation, he replied, "It varies from day to day. There is so much uncertainty about the recovery of the whole area...and post-traumatic stress will be an epidemic the first time a hurricane enters the Gulf this summer. There are real psychological problems throughout the community...people who have never experienced mental illness are suffering from depression now. So that is a concern. But most days, I am hopeful about our future."
Back within the New Orleans city limits, the damage, stress, and destruction is dramatically worse, even months after the hurricane. The Rev. Jim VanderWeele has served the Community Church of New Orleans for four years. A jazz lover, he is deeply grounded in the culture of the city and the lives of the people of his congregation. VanderWeele was working with his congregation on planning for the future of the church—located in the Lakeview area of the city close to where one of the levees broke—when disaster struck. The church building was inundated with more than six feet of water, and VanderWeele and many of his congregants lost their homes and possessions. VanderWeele explained that the church building may need to be razed because the flood waters undermined the building's foundation and completely destroyed the electrical and plumbing fixtures.
Today the Community Church building is a sad sight even though church members have planted flowers by the sign out front. A child's stuffed elephant lies amid the debris that litters the area. The building's front doors are wide open, and the inside is partially cleaned, the result of the efforts begun before church leaders realized that this resuscitation effort might be for naught.
Yet VanderWeele points out that the church's long range plan always called for assessment of their current building and programs in 2007-2008, and that the flood waters have only accelerated the timetable for long-term decision-making for the congregation. The congregation has big dreams: "We would like a larger space, religious education rooms of appropriate size, windows in the sanctuary," VanderWeele said. The congregation is joining the other UU congregations in the area in a strategic planning process that will chart a presence for UUism in the Jazz City for years to come. And Community Church is receiving support from its partner churches around the country: Fox Valley UU Fellowship of Appleton, WI, as managing partner; First Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT; Community UU Church of New York City; the UU Church of Montclair, NJ; and Pacific UU Church of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. "We had a great meeting with our partners and discussed membership, pledging, public relations, and more," said VanderWeele. "Our by-laws could use some work, and yesterday the partners had a conference call to discuss this. It's wonderful to be held in this way."
But restoration will take time—lots of it—and money, as well as dedication to the task. "I have taken a close look at New Orleans," says VanderWeele. "And this situation will require assistance for a long time. With that support, Community Church will be in a position to begin reconstruction and rebuilding in all ways." For the short term, VanderWeele hopes to move his office into First Church's second floor as soon as it is fit to be re-occupied. There, he and the Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of First Church, are sharing the assistance of Church Administrator Alex Mercedes who arrived in New Orleans in November to see what help she could offer to a blighted city. And there will be much more planning, with the Strategic Planning for New Orleans Unitarian Universalism task force and within the leadership of Community UU itself. "I am trying to see as much as I can," say VanderWeele, "but I know there are things I'm not seeing. Part of the challenge is how to minister to the changing face of this city."
Across town, the Rev. Marta Valentin works from a desk in her apartment. This is not only her home office, but her only office. Valentin conducts church business on the phone, in restaurants, in homes, in cars, and on the street. On August 1, newly called to the ministry of First Church, Valentin set up housekeeping with her wife, Alison Chase, and began her ministry on August 15. On August 26, her office barely unpacked and with warnings of a category 5 hurricane looming large, Valentin and Chase packed their home valuables and put them on high shelves, dismantled their new stereo and loaded it, their cat, and their most treasured possessions into their car, and drove all night to Fort Worth to ride out the storm. Katrina hit, and for weeks they could not return. The first worship service was held by conference call on September 11. Finding congregants became a daily struggle. Their home was gone. Without a place to live and no way to get back in the city, Valentin went first to Maine and then, when she was able to re-enter the city, initially homeless for several months, found another place to live and ways to reunite her congregation.
First Unitarian Universalist Church—a stately brick edifice which occupies a small city block in uptown New Orleans—had been flooded with more than three feet of water. The floor had warped, the pianos were destroyed, the mold was everywhere. But help has arrived. Through the work of partner churches—led by First Parish in Cambridge , MA, where Valentin did her ministerial internship—work crews have arrived to help begin the rebuilding process, clear the mold and muck, gut the lower level of the church, clean the damaged wood that once served as pews, and help turn the focus toward the future. Other partner churches include the UU Church of Arlington, VA; All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC; the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT; the UU Congregation of Central Nassau in Garden City, NY; First Jefferson UU Church, Fort Worth, TX; First UU Church of Essex County, Orange, NJ; UUs of Clearwater, FL; and the UU Church in Cherry Hill, NJ. Crews have also helped restore the homes of UUs in the greater New Orleans area.
Valentin has a vision for Unitarian Universalism in New Orleans: "To me this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recreate the world how we would like it to be. I look at First Church and I know that I have an opportunity to build a truly continental UU church…rebuilt by the hands of UUs from all over the country, and represented in the four walls of this building as well. When we sing, we will see the names and messages of people who have donated hymnals. We hope to have a gratitude wall that captures the names and congregations of people who have helped us.
"The people here who felt like we're just this little congregation at the end of the world are getting an opportunity to connect with the whole UU world and the whole country," she says. "I want UUs to know that it's not just about putting up a wall when they come down here...that needs to happen...but it is more about this extraordinary opportunity to share how they have lived out their faith wherever they are, and we say, 'this is how we do it here,' and we find that common ground together."
The work of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund's will continue for years to come, for it will take years to rebuild a vital UU presence in New Orleans and to restore health and vitality to this unique city. You may contribute funds, volunteer your time or that of a group from your congregation, or learn more about the advocacy and recovery efforts being funded by the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund. Read more about our partners and how to contact them.