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New Orleans church returns to old neighborhood

Congregation moves into house next to church building ruined by Katrina flood.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Rev. James Vanderweele

The Rev. James VanderWeele leads the Community Church in New Orleans’s first service in its old neighborhood, in a house next to the flood-damaged church. (Suzy Mague)

This is the first in a series uuworld.org will be running about UU churches in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Mississippi as the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches at the end of August.

It was fitting that on Sunday, July 15, the Rev. Jim VanderWeele preached on “the Miracle of Metamorphosis” to about 50 people packed into a small room in a house in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. The house is next door to the flooded remains of Community Church Unitarian Universalist and it was the first time the congregation had held a Sunday service in its old neighborhood since August 2005.

The small worship space is decorated with both old and new items. A restored tree-shaped fabric art piece that had hung in the church is mounted on one wall. A new chalice, from Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc., one of a number of partner churches that have been supporting Community Church in its recovery, sits beside the podium. A grant from First Parish in Concord, Mass., provides religious education furnishings. Mardi Gras masks decorate the walls. “It’s small, but it’s home, and we’ll just have to keep our elbows close to our sides,” VanderWeele told congregants.

The congregation purchased the house in late 2006, creating a space for Sunday services as well as offices. It’s a temporary home for Community Church until the members can rebuild the church next door. Talks are underway with an architect on that project.

Thirty Community Church families lost homes. Twenty more had significant water damage. For two years VanderWeele, who lost many of his own possessions in the flood, has listened to the stories of his members, ministered to those who needed help, worried about the church building and about whether and how the church would recover.

“The first year was extremely difficult,” VanderWeele said, “with most of that coming from not knowing what was going to happen and whether we could even come back. This past year has felt better. We purchased this house, gutted it, and made a comfortable temporary place for our church and that seems like progress.”

VanderWeele took little time off until after the first six months, he said. “By then I had heard so many tragic stories, I had to have a place to let go of things. I got support from ministers of our partner congregations, I sought outlets for conversation, and I did some reading and study. And I listened to lots of music—jazz to blues to zydeco.”

At General Assembly this year the three New Orleans area congregations presented a workshop, “Our Town,” in which members told their stories of living through the disaster and its aftermath. And how the disaster continues. “This is still a disaster zone,” said VanderWeele. “Every day you wake up and it’s a disaster zone. Most people still haven’t gotten their money to rebuild.”

Recovery is slow, but it’s happening, he said. “We know we won’t ever get back to normal but we think we’re starting to come into the ‘new normal.’” He believes the neighborhood of the church will take five to ten years to come back. Most houses around the church remain gutted and empty, but VanderWeele envisions the day when Lakeview is thriving again. “We want our church to be there when that happens.”

What the congregation will need to make that happen is money. It will take nearly a million dollars to reconstruct the interior of the church, VanderWeele said. That’s a lot for a congregation of 55 members, down from 96 before the storm. Community Church and other UU congregations in the area are hoping to launch a nationwide fund drive to restore their facilities.

As the church community has come back together, VanderWeele and church members have become more engaged with civic and interfaith groups, working to ensure that New Orleans treats all of its residents fairly. He is pleased that the city has hired an Inspector General and put an Ethics Commission in place, things he’s been working for to reduce government inefficiency. “The levee structure has also been strengthened, a school superintendent with tremendous qualifications is taking office in August, and we’re working to improve the criminal justice system,” he said. He has been to Washington, D.C., to lobby for children’s health care funds.

“These are all important steps for legitimate recovery in this city, making people want to live here,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot and seen a lot and we’re doing our best to stay as active as possible in the community. There are a lot of things to feel good about.”

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