For Presbyterians whose lives were turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina, the next few months will bring — who knows what?
Homes are gone, sanctuaries soaked, records destroyed, jobs lost, connections broken. Churches where people gathered Sunday after Sunday to praise God are dark. Decisions are being made, family by family, person by person, whether to come back and rebuild or start over somewhere else.
And it’s not clear whether some churches will ever recover — especially those that were small and vulnerable to begin with.
John Spaulding, a retired minister, has served in recent years as supply pastor for two Louisiana congregations — Carolyn Park in Arabi and Gheens church, a French-speaking Cajun congregation of about 50 in Lafourche parish.
Speaking from a hotel room near Dallas, where he’s been staying since he evacuated right ahead of Katrina, Spaulding said Carolyn Park is in St. Bernard parish, “which was really devastated. I have not been able to make contact with those people at all.”
Many in the church were elderly, Spaulding said. The congregation had declined from 200 to about 40, and “we’ve been trying to turn the corner on that and we have, very slowly. We were moving in that direction . . . We had such great plans before the hurricane.”
But what lies ahead now, he doesn’t know. There’s no weekly collection and the budget was shaky before the storm. Spaulding wants to be a spiritual support for his people, but he can’t find them.
“You try to repress your imagination and your feelings, but you can’t,” he said. “You say, ‘I’ve got to overcome this and be strong.’ But they are like family and they treat me as a family member. There is this closeness, this bonding.”
If he could see their faces gathered before him, Spaulding would read to his people from Psalm 90. It’s the same passage he chose in 1974, when he helped build and dedicate a low-cost housing facility for the elderly, and thought hard what it would mean for someone to give up their home of many years to move somewhere smaller and unfamiliar — maybe a move they didn’t want to make.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations,” Spaulding would begin. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
He knows people who have lost everything — the bed they slept in, the clothes they wore, the communities that nurtured them, their neighbors and loved ones, photographs, keepsakes, heirlooms, treasures that cannot be replaced. They may see a precarious future without savings or insurance or employment or good health.
“As long as we’re in God, no matter if we lose our homes, our possessions . . . God is merciful,” Spaulding wants to tell them. “We have a home in God always. I think that’s what I would say to them: Be thankful that our home is in God.”
As the waters recede, as hard as it is, some hope is taking root amidst the muck and the mold, as the nation sends supplies and work crews and money and prayer.
Some congregations in Louisiana and Mississippi have begun to hold worship services — sometimes praying and singing outside with whomever they can round up.
Congregations are hunting down their members through e-mail and cell phones and word-of-mouth. In cities across the country, people shocked by the suffering they saw on television, some angered by the creakiness of the government’s response, are showing up with money and food and clothes and offers of jobs and spare rooms and apartments.
At Highland Church in Louisville, more than 400 volunteers turned out over four days to renovate a building the church had bought and turn it into an emergency shelter. The church bought the structure — a former home for elderly women — not knowing exactly what to do with it, but because “it was available and we’re landlocked,” said pastor Fairfax Fair.
But when Katrina hit and the session voted to offer the building as an emergency shelter, people stormed the building to help renovate 42 rooms in a single weekend — an impromptu work crew including retirees, kindergarteners, single people, entire families, a rabbi and a high school girls soccer team.
“Hi, we’ve come to work,” one man said walking in. “Where do we go?”
Many were not Presbyterian. The first morning, the crowd stripping paint in one room included a Presbyterian elder, a family of Unitarians, a Jew and a woman with an arms-length relationship to organized religion.
“Basically, agony knows no denomination,” said Gene King, a Catholic, scrubbing out a paint tray in a utility sink.
A man donated 75 new dressers, 75 bed frames, 75 mattresses. A cleaning firm laundered all the donated linens for free — in one closet the sheets were stacked floor to ceiling. “You see the toilet paper, the toothpaste, the shampoo — we’ve got a whole closet full,” said Anita Richards, an Episcopalian.
“It restores your faith in human nature,” said Stephanie Maloney, a volunteer from Highland Church. “The government has me furious, absolutely furious at the way they’ve behaved. But I’m heartened by individuals.”
Fair said people were helping even though it was unclear whether Louisville would get any large groups of evacuees — or how long any might stay in the building the church owns.
“We’re 700 miles away (from New Orleans), we can’t reach out and do something immediately,” she said. “The fact that this is something people can do has made it a really joyful experience for a lot of people. You know there’s something special when people find joy scrubbing floors” on their hands and knees.
That open-arms approach to helping seemed to be the norm in lots of places.
In Houston, Clear Lake Church has been teaming with churches from other denominations to serve meals to evacuees and with an interfaith ministry to provide food and clothing. Some congregations had more volunteers than they could use and “there’s a ton of people who wouldn’t associate themselves with any faith who are coming to the volunteer sites,” said Tim Galligan, Clear Lake’s director of outreach and evangelism. “It’s pretty much everyone.”
But along with that comfort comes real pain at what has been lost — not just physical things, but the personal connections with friends and neighbors that go back years.
And even as people take the first staggering steps forward to whatever lies ahead, they are grieving about what they’ve left behind. Sharon Oler’s husband, Tom, is pastor of Parkway Church in Metairie, La. That church apparently sustained limited physical damage, but others in the area likely were destroyed or seriously damaged, Oler said.
She was speaking from her father-in-law’s home in Austin; her husband had been staying in Baton Rouge, about 10 hours away. Sharon Oler was trying to track down whomever she could from her dispersed congregation of about 300. She already knew that four people had died, including the long-time clerk of session — and the church could not be present to stand with those families in their time of need.
One of those who died had been fighting cancer. “He and I were both diagnosed at about the same time and we had exactly the same doctors,” Oler said. “We just had a thing going between us,” a long stretch of prayer and mutual support. “I’m just heartbroken that we lost him.”
That friend died the Friday before Katrina and was to be cremated; his family evacuated on Saturday; in the flooding, his body for a time was lost.
One church member’s father died along a road in Katrina’s aftermath.
The former clerk of session, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in July, ended up in a hospital in Houston. When word came that he was failing, Tom Oler rushed from Baton Rouge and Sharon Oler from Austin, trying to get there before he died. They arrived a few minutes too late. She knows they did the best they could, but not being there for people they love is, for her, one of the hardest things.
Although Parkway Church, a congregation of about 300, likely will survive, some congregations “just don’t have the resources and people to come back,” Oler said. For those that don’t, “it’s not just the death of all the people, which was horrible, who drowned. It’s the death of your church, your community, everything. Everything is gone now.”
But still, in the heart of the pain she feels God’s presence.
“I see God saying, ‘OK, get off your duffs and live your faith — here’s an opportunity,'” Oler said. “Get busy and do something. If you can’t do anything else, at least pray. I think this is something that can make our church stronger. Most Presbyterians, even those who are being divisive in the church, are going to pull together over this issue.”
She wrote in an e-mail: “God was present in giving us an opportunity to mend walls within our church and work for a common goal of healing and helping. I also think God is present in helping us to see that there are more important things to worry about than our own personal belongings,” even our keepsakes. “They are nothing compared to a life. We may lose everything, even things near and dear, but our memories are in our hearts and minds.”