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'Bright and shining church' rises from Katrina's floodwaters

Community Church in New Orleans celebrates new building, five years after hurricane.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.18.11

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Community Church, Unitarian Universalist, in New Orleans is home again.

Five-and-a-half years after its building was destroyed by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, the congregation has a new building. It rose this winter on the site of the old one. On Sunday, April 10, congregants and guests gave it a rousing New Orleans dedication.

“This has been a long journey,” the Rev. Jim VanderWeele said in an interview several days before the worship service. “So many people worked so hard believing in Community Church, and now we’re back in our own sanctuary. We’re there.”

After Katrina the congregation met in four different rented spaces until 2007, when it bought a house next door to the church site. The congregation had 96 members before Katrina and now has 50. Around 200 people attended the dedication service, including representatives of a number of UU congregations that helped Community Church get back on its feet.

The Rev. John Morehouse, of Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., gave the sermon. His congregation had given Community Church $75,000—the largest single gift it received in its building campaign.

Morehouse congratulated the congregation for dreaming that it would one day rebuild its home. “I remember how brave your minister was in those difficult first few weeks. Just trying to find everyone was hard enough. Imagining the church being rebuilt—imagining New Orleans being rebuilt—seemed even more unlikely. But he did, and all of you did. You dreamed you would gather here again.”

A combined choir from the three New Orleans-area UU churches—Community, First UU Church of New Orleans, and North Shore UU Society at Lacombe—participated in the service.

VanderWeele said the service was emotional for many people. The second verse of the opening hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door,” caught him up, he said. “The words, ‘By faith made strong, the rafters will withstand the battering of the storm,’ really got to me,” he said.

Organizers saved the best for last. Participants in the recessional at the end of the dedication service included youth from a 7th Ward cultural center that the church helps support, dressed in elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costumes. “We just went from one beautiful moment to the next,” VanderWeele said.

Only three items were salvaged from the flooded building—a wooden chalice wall hanging, a fabric art sculpture in the shape of a tree, and a memorial plaque. Each of those three items is displayed in the new church. The dedication service included recognition of the 12 members who had died since the hurricane.

Elyce Picciotti, president of the congregation, said, “It was a very powerful, very satisfying Sunday. There was lots of laughter, lots of tears, and a lot of hope. I saw a lot of future in that room and that’s been hard to find here because people have been working so hard to make it day to day.”

The new church was built on a pad that is three feet higher than the previous building, in accordance with FEMA requirements. The previous building flooded when a nearby levee gave way, flooding much of the city. VanderWeele noted that new flood gates now protect the city, and the levee is now a second line of defense rather than first. “We’re in much better shape in the city than we were before.”

The new building cost around $1 million, he said. The congregation raised $760,000 from its members. The rest came from other congregations and individuals.

In the months after the hurricane a fund drive by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee raised around $1.3 million, of which Community Church received almost a third. VanderWeele noted that this money was used to support the congregation in the two years after the hurricane, paying operating expenses, including staff salaries. None went toward construction costs.

The new building has no mortgage, said VanderWeele. It includes a 120-seat sanctuary, a fellowship hall, a small library, and offices for the administrator and VanderWeele. The church will keep the house next door for religious education classes.

He noted that the new building is different from the old one in a significant way. “When the congregation built the other building in 1973 there was some fear about vandalism, so it had no windows. This one has plenty of windows because now we’re very involved in the neighborhood. Our Standing on the Side of Love banner outside the church proclaims that ‘Love is greater than fear.’ We believe that.”

“And it was good to see so many people from the neighborhood there,” he said. “Our church is full of windows and full of light. It really is a bright and shining church.”

One more construction project remains. The church will get 66 solar panels on the roof this summer. VanderWeele said he’s been told Community Church will be the first church in Louisiana to have solar panels.

VanderWeele named several congregations that have provided extraordinary support for Community Church. He noted that the church has had special partnerships with Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc.; the Universalist Church in West Hartford, Conn.; the Unitarian Church of Montclair, N.J.; Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.; Williamsburg UUs in Williamsburg, Va.; and Community Church UU in New York City.

He said sometimes he can’t believe all that has happened. “This has been a long time coming. And there have been a lot of bumps in the road. And here and there, there have been miracles and surprises, and then one day an unexpected check comes in, and another day a work group shows up. And it all came together. It has at times seemed like an impossible dream.”

VanderWeele emphasized that the building dedication does not mean that there is no more need for support from UUs outside of New Orleans. “There is still plenty to do to restore New Orleans to its pre-Katrina condition.”

He’s including the needs of the other two UU congregations in the area. First UU suffered major water damage to the first floor of its large, historic brick building. It began restoration, but that was halted when the state legislature adopted more stringent building codes. “It raised our costs significantly,” said the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger.

First UU members pledged $165,000 to pay for the two new key requirements, a fire suppression system and rewiring the building. When that work is done the church will still need an additional $250,000 to $300,000 to replace a storm-damaged roof, repair ceilings and floors, and do other work.

North Shore also is struggling. Morel-Ensminger and VanderWeele together provide a quarter-time ministry at North Shore, which she said has a “crippling mortgage” that it took out before Katrina to pay for a new building. With the loss of many members after Katrina, the congregation is hard-pressed to make ends meet.

“We’re still here doing what we can,” said Morel-Ensminger. “We have a long way to go.”

Those who wish to volunteer or send money may contact the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, part of the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Program.


Photo: Members of Community Church, UU, gathered on the steps of the rebuilt New Orleans church (Andrew Larimer). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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