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New Orleans church slowly regains strength

First UU Church prepares to welcome new minister, finish rebuilding, and start AIDS ministry.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Repairs underway at First UU Church of New Orleans

First UU Church of New Orleans received help from 125 maintenance professionals in town for a convention who spent a day installing dry wall in the RE wing. (Courtesy of First UU Church of New Orleans)

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

First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans sat for three weeks with three to four feet of water covering its first floor after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 and the levees around the city broke. When the waters receded, members and volunteers went to work. Much of the two-story brick building was gutted and is being renovated. Although much remains to be done, the congregation began holding worship services there in May, the first time since the flood. It also rededicated its religious education space then.

“We still have plenty of work to do, but we have a church home again,” said immediate past president Jim Ryan. “It feels good to go home. The floors are bare concrete, there is minimal lighting, but the congregation is back.”

About 60 people attend on a Sunday now, plus some UU volunteer workers. There are 76 members, down from 120 before the flood. “When you don’t have your own building it’s hard to grow the congregation,” Ryan said.

The second floor of the building has been turned into a dormitory for UU volunteers who come to New Orleans. The church is committed to that use for a couple more years, said Ryan. Volunteers who come to New Orleans, however, work mostly on people’s houses rather than on the church.

Work will gradually go on to finish the building. The church board recently decided to commit funds from its building reserve to create a commercial kitchen as soon as possible so that the church can support an AIDS ministry. Completion of other spaces will also be underway so the church can again rent space to outside groups—once an important income source for the church.

Church members know a lot of work lies ahead of them, said Ryan, but they’re happy to be as far along as they are with the building. “The things that make us happy these days are different than they used to be,” he said. “We’re just happy to be back in our partly renovated building.”

First UU was the Rev. Marta Valentín’s first settled ministry. She arrived in New Orleans in early August 2005, with her wife, Alison Chase. Valentín was to give her first sermon on September 11.

Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees filled both the church and Valentín’s house with water just days before that service could take place. Those two events drastically altered her ministry before it began and destroyed 90 percent of her personal belongings. She resorted to giving her first sermon by conference call to her scattered congregation.

For almost two years Valentín helped her congregation recover, even as she dealt with her own loss. She and Chase moved seven times. This spring she resigned from her ministry at First Unitarian and in July she moved with Chase to Maine. “I’ve been doing trauma ministry for all of my time here and I simply need a break,” she said shortly before moving.

Valentín anticipates taking a year off while searching for another congregation. Another reason for the move is that Chase had a baby girl on June 16. The family will live in Maine with Chase’s parents. “Family support is important for us right now,” Valentín said. “There is still very little childcare available in New Orleans and I just could not ask my parishioners, as willing as they might be, to babysit.”

Valentín said she considered staying another year, but didn’t want to put the congregation at risk. “I decided I really couldn’t do any more without the danger of losing myself. The last thing I wanted to do was to try to pull out one more year and not be able to finish it.”

“Rev. Marta held us together,” Ryan said. “She worked tirelessly for two years and now, with the baby, it makes sense for her to move.”

Valentín is proud of what she and the congregation accomplished. The congregation is back in its building; she established ministry teams for administration, stewardship, growth, and community; and she helped create a network of UU “partner congregations” across the country that are helping First UU recover. This fall the congregation will be a test site for the new Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations antiracism program “Building the World We Dream Of.” That comes on the heels of First Unitarian having received the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference’s James T. Brown Antiracism Award for its work on “A Dialogue on Race and Katrina,” an educational program that it developed and presents to all volunteers who come to New Orleans to work.

The congregation has hired the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, a former member of the church, as its consulting minister. Morel-Ensminger has been minister at the UU Church in Cherry Hill, N.J., since 2001. She was born in New Orleans, found Unitarian Universalism as an adult, and was ordained at First Unitarian. She also once served as its administrator. “In a very real sense she’ll be coming home,” said Valentín, “in the same way that I’ll be going home to New England.” She added, “In the past two years the idea of going home has been a predominant theme in New Orleans.”

Since the hurricane the three New Orleans-area UU congregations, First UU, Community Church UU, and North Shore UU Society in Lacombe, La., have been working more closely together. Earlier this year they formed an organization, Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU).

The congregations have made plans to gather occasionally for combined services. They will hold a retreat in October, and are planning social justice projects. GNOUU is also planning a national fundraising drive to ask all UUs to help the three congregations overcome the long-term effects of the disaster.

Says the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, of Community Church UU, which was destroyed by floodwaters: “Our congregations here have all been provided with relief and we are very thankful for it. At the same time, our places of worship are not rebuilt, our congregations are not revitalized, and we are in jeopardy of losing our ministry here. We need the help of our larger UU community.”

The fund drive could help First UU restore the interior of its building, help Community rebuild, and help North Shore pay off the mortgage on its six-year-old building. North Shore lost part of its roof in the hurricane. All three congregations lost at least a third of their membership as a result of the hurricane and the subsequent loss of housing and jobs in New Orleans. All are struggling financially. The campaign could be announced as early as this fall.

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