Gulf Coast Recovery: Adaptability’s the Name of the Game
Gulf Coast Recovery: Adaptability’s the Name of the Game

“We all have to be adaptable,” Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger said. “Post-Katrina that’s the name of the game.” Adaptability. Agility. Affordability. All play significant roles in the story of the continuing recovery of Gulf Coast Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations as they mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

While some folks might believe that things have pretty much gone back to ‘normal’ with the passage of so much time since the disasters, a conversation with the two ministers who now serve three churches reveals a different story. The churches have survived since the storm, but they do not yet thrive. That goal exists in dreams, but is part of a still uncertain future for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, Community Church Unitarian Universalist of New Orleans, and the North Shore Unitarian Universalists (of Lacombe, LA).

At Community Church Unitarian Universalist (CCUU), located near the levees in a once-comfortable suburban area, Rev. James VanderWeele says, “We thought, after the storm, that it would take 8 to 10 years for our neighborhood to come back.” The congregation’s church building had been badly damaged by the storm, and after attempting to find a solution that would allow the congregation to reclaim its building, it became clear that the building could not meet new building codes. It had to be razed. The church found that the house next door had a large room suitable for holding worship, and additional meeting space as well. They acquired the house and moved in. VanderWeele says, “Buying the house was an interim step, and we’re stuck there. We would like to move on as soon as possible.” CCUU, as part of a greater New Orleans UU coalition, is raising funds to build its new building. The 67-member congregation (up from a post-storm low of 53) has many dreams, but so far, many remain unfulfilled.

Downtown in the center of the city, where First Unitarian Universalist Church (FUUC) is located, Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger recognizes that the situation for her congregation is better in some ways, and yet full of challenges.

The congregation, which now numbers 97 members, has been back in its church building since May of 2006. However, Morel-Ensminger said, “We do not have full use of the building. 1/3 of it isn’t useable at all; other spaces are cobbled together.” While a labyrinth has been installed in part of the church, Morel-Ensminger says, “we still have a temporary occupancy certificate. We need contractors who are licensed by the city of New Orleans to complete work on the ceilings and floors” as well as in other spaces. The kitchen, the handicapped accessible bathroom, and many other parts of the facility still need a great deal of attention—and money. Morel-Ensminger recognizes the ironies and the challenges of her congregation’s situation: “While I was at GA (the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly) I was watching the opening ceremonies and wondered about the changing lights. I thought about how great it would be [to have this at our church], and someone said, ‘I would just like to have lights in the sanctuary.’ That’s the challenge: how do we get beyond temporary work-arounds?”

And at the home of the North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe (NSUU), across Lake Pontchartrain, recovery continues in a different way. The congregation, currently with 67 members, has had no permanent settled minister since shortly after the storm, and VanderWeele and Morel-Ensminger have each reduced hours at their congregations by 1/8 to provide North Shore with a ¼-time shared ministry. “We work as consulting ministers, not only preaching, but strengthening lay led ministry, religious education, membership,” Morel-Ensminger said. “Our congregations agreed to lose a little of their full time ministers in order to give this to NSUU. It is yet another example of this relationship that helps to support our ministry in New Orleans.” VanderWeele added, “We are working with ministry teams, committees, so that they understand more about how UU congregations operate. Melanie and I are able to offer some advice based on experience and understanding of how ministry works most effectively, and share this. And North Shore is attracting members…they are growing quite rapidly, so we pray that this will continue for another year.”

VanderWeele and Morel-Ensminger are taking part in another experiment that emphasizes adaptability and agility: they are co-supervising a shared ministerial intern who will begin serving all three New Orleans congregations next month. Charlie Dieterich, a student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA, will gain exposure to life in urban, suburban, and rural churches, while helping to keep the Unitarian Universalist faith burning in New Orleans as recovery work continues.

All three congregations are part of the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalist (GNOUU) capital campaign, seeking to raise more than $2 million to help restore the three UU congregations that serve the City of Jazz. As of June 30, 2009, $3,360,074 has been raised through joint Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) / UU Service Committee (UUSC) appeals, including the initial UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, subsequent appeals at GA (2007 & 2008) and via direct mail for the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, the New Orleans Volunteer Rebirth Center, and GNOUU.

The GNOUU combined campaign, which builds on past efforts, developed from the work of a post-Katrina task force which included UUA Congregational Stewardship Services Director Wayne Clark, UUA Advocacy and Witness Director Rev. Meg Riley, UUA Southwest District Trustee Rev. Burton Carley, and others. Larry Wheeler, veteran UU fund raising consultant, has been working to implement the plan with leaders of all three New Orleans congregations. Wheeler said, “This national capital campaign is co-chaired by (former UUA President) Rev. John Buehrens, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, and Rev. Michael McGee. The local chair is Claudia Barker. To date, over $900,000 in gift commitments have been made by individuals, partner churches and other congregations/organizations who want to support the recovery and revitalization effort.”

Under Wheeler’s guidance, the three congregations are preparing for their 2010 Annual budget drives. “Their membership has increased as have their annual financial commitments,” Wheeler said. Community Church has completed plans for a rebuilt sanctuary building and classrooms. First Church continues its efforts to remodel and restore its facility as time and money allow. North Shore hopes for a return to full-time ministry. Even after the storm, even after four years of struggle, frustration, and setbacks, Morel-Ensminger says, “there is a stubborn clinging to New Orleans culture. We hold potlucks even though we have no electricity and no kitchen. We meet. We will not let the aftermath of the storm change who we are.” An important role still exists for UU congregations and individuals to help with this work. See information in the “related content” box to find out how you or your congregation can get involved.

“Come on down,” said Morel-Ensminger. “You would be surprised at how much we still need your help. Folks at every level can make a contribution and folks are changed when they can be eye-witnesses to how things are.” “We are not yet there financially,” said VanderWeele. “But we have high hopes that people will think of us here, and see the need for a good UU presence in this great city, in the midst of the South where they really need us.”

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