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Church rebuilds in Katrina's wake

Small group ministry 'the spiritual glue' that held Louisiana congregation together.
By Donald E. Skinner

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This article is the third in a series that 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.

Things were looking good for the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society of Lacombe, La., in 2001. The congregation had just completed a new sanctuary. With more than 90 members and a new building, the future looked bright. True, there was a hefty mortgage that came with the new building, but with the visitors the building would attract, that could be managed. Then came Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.

The hurricane ripped half the roof off the sanctuary and downed many large trees on the property. Homes or businesses of many members were flooded in the days that followed as the levees around New Orleans failed. In the recovery process the roof was the easy part. Members and volunteers installed a temporary roof. Insurance paid for a permanent one. Crews with chain saws removed the trees. The church didn’t skip a service.

Of the three UU congregations in the New Orleans area, North Shore had the least amount of damage and disruption to its building from Katrina and the subsequent flooding. But in the next year and a half about 30 percent of North Shore’s members left, either because their houses had flooded or their jobs were lost.

In the weeks that followed Katrina five UU congregations across the country signed up as partner churches with North Shore, helping the congregation, and individual members, put their lives back together.

Then six months after Katrina there was another challenge. North Shore’s minister, the Rev. David Ord, resigned. Interim minister the Rev. William Murchison guided the congregation through the next year. Then this spring the congregation called the Rev. Elizabeth Brown. She arrived in July.

The disaster changed the congregation, said immediate past president Terry VanBrunt. “We went through a mourning stage where we had to accept that what used to be never will be again. In some ways we’re still in it.”

The hurricane and the support that North Shore received from other UUs and UU ministers made the congregation more aware of possibilities for change and growth, said VanBrunt.

“We had been kind of insular, but now we’ve reenergized ourselves,” he said. “There’s a wealth of issues to deal with and we are motivated to do it. Having other UUs come and speak to us and work with us helped us see beyond ourselves.”

He added that North Shore’s Small Group Ministry program also helped the congregation through its difficult times. “It was the spiritual glue that kept us together after Katrina and the loss of our minister. It allowed deeper connections, understanding, sharing, and ownership of our spiritual journeys individually and as a community.”

As North Shore continues to recover, there are budget challenges. The congregation has a $240,000 mortgage from construction of its sanctuary. Since the hurricane there are fewer people to pay for it. Plus, the congregation stretched itself financially to call its new minister, understanding the importance of that for future growth.

North Shore is hoping for help from a national fundraising campaign being organized by the three New Orleans-area congregations to help them surmount disaster-related recovery expenses.

North Shore is poised for growth. Membership fell from 84 before Katrina to 52 and is now back up to 64. People moving out of New Orleans are moving into Lacombe, seeing it as a safer area, and some are visiting North Shore, says VanBrunt. “If we can get some help with our financial issues nothing can stop us.”

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