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New Orleans UU churches alive—and struggling

Three New Orleans churches and a Gulfport, Miss., congregation struggle to regain members five years after Katrina.
By Donald E. Skinner
8.30.10

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Volunteers work on renovating First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. (Courtesy of First UU Church of New Orleans)

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed it damaged the three Unitarian Universalist congregations in the New Orleans area and one in Mississippi, the leaders of those congregations can agree on one thing.

“We are definitely not where we wanted to be at this point,” said Gay DiGiovanni, a leader of the North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe, La. North Shore lost part of its roof in the storm. The roof was quickly repaired, but the bigger loss was that, as North Shore’s membership dropped after the storm, from 85 to 50—and now back up to 71—it no longer had the income to pay for full-time professional ministry.

Community Church UU, which was near a levee that broke, lost its building to the floodwaters and its membership also dropped, from 96 to 43 and is now back up to 60. First UU Church of New Orleans fared better, saving its sturdy brick building, but it had to gut the first floor and it is still struggling to make the building usable.

An immediate national fund drive by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee raised $3.2 million for Katrina relief, most of which went to non-UU community groups, including communities of color that were devastated and had few resources. The UUA gave about $1 million to the affected congregations, which paid staffing costs and enabled them to continue to operate.

Three years ago the three New Orleans area congregations launched a second national fund drive. It was intended to raise enough to complete their restoration. This month the active phase of that campaign, the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU) Capital Campaign, draws to a close after raising only $1.2 million of a goal of $2.7 million.

The campaign began a few months before the U.S. economy took a nosedive in 2007. Claudia Barker, one of the campaign’s leaders, said in an August 11 letter to New Orleans UU leaders that the campaign was no longer attracting significant gifts and it was time to end it.

“Clearly, the first phase of our campaign to raise money to make these three churches whole again is winding down as we approach the fifth anniversary of the storm,” Barker explained in an interview. “The next phase will include the individual churches finding ways to fund key priorities.”

The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger of First UU Church and the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, of Community Church, are making themselves available for speaking engagements around the country, to tell the story of where Unitarian Universalism is in New Orleans at this point.

“Increasingly when I go out of town, including to General Assembly, I find UUs very surprised to learn our congregations haven’t been completely rebuilt,” said Morel-Ensminger. “I have to keep telling our story.”

The story she tells is that after the waters went down, First UU was left with a heavily damaged building that legions of volunteers have worked on over the past five years. Restoration of the church complex remains largely unfinished, however. Its most pressing need is $300,000 to redo the church’s wiring and install a fire alarm, sprinkler system, and fire doors to meet city code, plus repair a roof leak and waterproof the outside masonry that was damaged by the saltwater flood. The congregation’s first goal is to finish construction of a commercial kitchen for which it has a contract to provide meals to homebound people with HIV/AIDS. The kitchen must be made functional by January 1 or the church must pay back $178,000 to the local NO/AIDS Task Force, which invested in the construction.

“I have to think that what we’re trying to do here is doable,” said Morel-Ensminger. “This congregation that has been so brave and committed––this congregation that ordained me years ago and dedicated my son. I believe we will find the resources and that we will not be abandoned by the faithful.” Unless funds come from outside sources, First UU will have to seek a second mortgage.

At North Shore, DiGiovanni said the congregation had been doing well with its mortgage of more than $200,000 before Katrina, but the loss of members forced it to choose between the mortgage and having full-time ministry. The mortgage won. The challenge now is to pay down the mortgage, allowing the congregation to work its way back to full-time ministry.

“We’re disappointed that we can’t afford ministry,” said DiGiovanni. “Still, we’re doing okay. The good part is that we’ve gotten connected with the wider UU community and with the other churches here in the area. We used to be very isolated and insulated. Not anymore. And I’d have to say we’re stronger as a congregation because we have to look after ourselves.” One positive outcome of the storm is the development of shared ministry among the three congregations. Both Morel-Ensminger and VanderWeele preach regularly at North Shore and provide limited pastoral services.

“Still, to go into another year without full-time ministry is not what we wanted to do,” said DiGiovanni. “We feel like we’ve taken three steps backward and one-and-a-half forward.” DiGiovanni and her husband Joe were married just four weeks after Katrina. Both of them lost nearly everything in the flood.

Community Church may have the greatest challenge of the three congregations. It is holding services in a house—its fifth location in two years. Just last week however, it reached agreement with a contractor and will start construction of a new building on the site of the old one in September. Groundbreaking is scheduled for August 29 on the Katrina anniversary. The new building will cost the 60-member congregation around $800,000.

“We’re taking a chance on our future,” said VanderWeele. “Melanie and I feel that New Orleans is an important southern base for Unitarian Universalism. All three of our churches are much more involved here than we were before the storm. We’re supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights in a city where not everyone is. We’re on the front lines against conservative religion and racism. I recently represented Unitarian Universalism at a day laborers protest, to get information about a worker who died in jail. We are a voice at the statehouse. There are times when I am the only religious voice speaking on behalf of Planned Parenthood.”

Of the GNOUU capital campaign effort VanderWeele said, “We had hoped we’d receive more help than we did.” He hesitated, then added, “Unitarian Universalism would be in great shape here in New Orleans, where our members represent our faith every day, if every UU congregation would take just one offering for us. Just one."

Barker, the outgoing campaign chair says, “It would be wonderful if some generous UU donors would come forward and help our three congregations meet these most urgent needs. GNOUU will maintain its bank account and donors may give to the general campaign or designate their gifts to the church of their choice.”

The Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, former UUA president and cochair of GNOUU’s fundraising effort, said congregations across the country need to step up. “Fundraising is not over,” he said. “The rest of our congregations have to realize we didn’t finish the job in New Orleans. We haven’t helped these three congregations get on a solid footing for the next phase of their lives. The failure to help First Church get properly rewired and finish its kitchen so it can start earning revenue I find especially disappointing.”

He added, “I think New Orleans is taken for granted by much of the rest of the country. It is regarded as an outpost. There is colonialism and, frankly, racism, at work here. I don’t think we’ve quite cut through that, even in UU circles.”

All of the congregations emphasize that they are deeply grateful for the many UU congregations that have developed lasting partnerships with each of them during the past five years, providing funds, volunteers, and emotional support.

Morel-Ensminger said that in addition to money, volunteers continue to be needed in New Orleans. “We would love to have more people, especially this fall. There are lots of things to do at the church. We also have four families who are still living in gutted homes, and there are other houses that need work.” Find out more about the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program here.

It’s a challenge, Morel-Ensminger said, to grow a congregation amid the disarray of work in progress. Yet it’s happening. “First Church is attracting more young adults than any church I’ve served,” she said. “Some of our older people didn’t come back because they didn’t have the energy. But we have dozens of young adults. They came here to help the city recover, and they heard about us because we’re more visible now in the community, so they join us in worship and service.”

She added, “This church is what keeps me going. It’s been here 177 years and we are determined to hold its light up. This church is not going down. Not on our watch.”

The Gulf Coast UU Fellowship in Gulfport, Miss., had to move out of its rented storefront this past year because it couldn’t afford it. It’s in a donated space now that doesn’t meet its needs as well, said longtime member Michael Kayes.

Before Katrina 25 to 30 attended the fellowship regularly. That’s down to 19, said Kayes. He noted that the congregation is coping not only with a less desirable space, but with the overall economic recession, and the area’s recovery from the Gulf oil spill. One bright spot, he noted, is that the Rev. Dr. Marie deYoung is serving as consulting minister and will preach monthly this fall.

“We’re hanging in there,” said Kayes. He noted that any outside support the congregation might receive would likely go toward professional ministry and finding a better meeting place. Most of the members are past 60 in age, he noted, although some younger families have begun attending. “We’re hoping for the best,” he said.

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