Recovery, Rebuilding, and Rebirth of New Orleans
Information and quotes for this article are drawn from UU World magazine, InterConnections, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR), Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (
The leader reads the regular text and participant volunteers read the quotes in italics. Be sure to distribute the slips of paper from Leader Resource 1, Unitarian Universalists' Role in New Orleans Recovery.
This is the story of Unitarian Universalists in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Covenant is about relationship, and this story illustrates the web of relationships within and around the Unitarian Universalist community that was galvanized by the physical and emotional brokenness reeked by the hurricane. Sometimes we talk about covenant as something explicit—spoken, or written—but the covenants in practice here are simply mutual expectations of support based on a relationship of faith. Unitarian Universalists came to the aid of one another because they recognized their connection to one another.
Unitarian Universalists lived covenant within the New Orleans area congregations by staying connected.
Suzy Mague, president of Community Church UU in New Orleans, Louisiana: The UU Community has been part of my personal recovery from the very beginning. Feeling like a plant torn up by its roots, not knowing the whereabouts of people I loved or the condition of our home, I logged on to my e-mail on my son's computer—and there was the [Community Church] e-mail group, already up and connecting us with each other. Through the long weeks of exile, we kept in touch and even received sermons from Rev. VanderWeele.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, almost 2,000 lives were lost and homes were destroyed or severely damaged due to winds and flooding. In New Orleans, 80% of the city became flooded, and in some places, the floodwaters remained for weeks. The members of the three New Orleans congregations—North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe, and Community Church UU and First UU Church of New Orleans—scattered around the country to family, friends, shelters, and strangers who welcomed them into their communities. Ultimately, the three congregations lost at least 40 percent of their members, though numbers are increasing again a few years after the hurricane. But their members kept in touch from afar, the ministers reached out to congregants to keep track of them, and they gave sermons online or by conference call.
As residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast scattered, people at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana became full-time caregivers providing aid to evacuees—UUs and non-UUs—and channeling volunteers from outside the area. While serving as caregivers, they found that they needed a way to care for themselves as well, so they formed Small Group Ministry covenant groups. About 60 percent of the congregation participated in 20 of these groups.
Unitarian Universalists in greater New Orleans lived covenant by working together.
Reverend Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church UU in New Orleans, Louisiana: My first sight of [Community Church] post-Katrina was from a boat—we had eight feet of water for three weeks. It's been a long road back, and we still have a long way to go, but the culture of abundance, generosity, and mutual support we are creating in [Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU)] holds promise that together, we can make a difference in this community.
Before Hurricane Katrina, there was little formal relationship between Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Orleans, but the storm brought them together. Immediately following the storm, First UU and Community Church UU worshipped together, in the words of Rev. Marta Valentin who was minister of First UU at the time, "to share resources and to support each other and to get to know each other." First UU and Community Church UU partnered with North Shore UUs in Lacombe to form Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), whose partnership and collaboration has been integral to the recovery efforts.
Unitarian Universalists lived covenant by reaching out from around the country to work with New Orleans Unitarian Universalists.
Reverend Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First UU Church of New Orleans: I'm a New Orleans native who returned to my church and my community after Katrina to be part of the rebuilding. The support and continuing interest of our partner churches have been invaluable throughout this recovery process.
Unitarian Universalists from around the country:
[Invite participants to read aloud, one at a time but in no particular order, the actions you have handed out on slips of paper.]
Developed formal congregational partnerships with Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists.
Raised millions of dollars for Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalist congregations to rebuild, as well as for community organizations aiding in the recovery.
Housed people who were forced to evacuate the Gulf Coast area.
Helped evacuees find housing, jobs, and health care while away from home.
Provided emotional and spiritual support.
Paid for one New Orleans church's mortgage for a period of time.
Sent hundreds of volunteers to New Orleans to help with rebuilding.
Started programs to train volunteers in construction skills.
Provided training for volunteers on the role of race and class in the rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans.
Provided trauma ministry.
Picked up fallen trees.
Answered phones at the Baton Rouge church.
Educated and raised awareness about the situation in New Orleans and how people can help.
Helped evacuees take care of their pets.
Wrote poems and songs.
Helped evacuees resettle in New Orleans.
We are an Association of congregations who covenant to support one another.
Unitarian Universalists lived covenant by contributing to the Greater New Orleans community.
Jyaphia Christos-Rodgers, member of First UU New Orleans and board chair of the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal: We've become much better known in the community because we've been working with so many social justice groups... More people know who we are now. They see us as true allies. Our challenge now is to maintain and build on that.
New Orleans area Unitarian Universalists founded the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR) and the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program, which exist "to contribute to the holistic rebirth of Greater New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Region through programs and services that promote social, racial, and economic justice" (source: CELSJR website). The Center for Ethical Living is a nonprofit organization through which the congregations host forums on public ethics, health education, and other issues. The Rebirth Center works with community partners to connect volunteers to rebuilding opportunities. It also helps them understand and process the context in which they are working.
The recovery, rebuilding, and rebirth of New Orleans post-Katrina has been advanced through the work of many Unitarian Universalists acting on our relationship of faith with one another and living out our covenant.