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At her childhood church, tears flow over hurricane’s toll

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–With tears flowing down her cheeks, Judy Hagler gasped as she saw for the first time the jumble of pews and sludge left in the Gentilly Baptist Church in New Orleans, the church in which she grew up.

She had driven from her home in Independence, La., to check on her once-beautiful community. Long moments of silence and more tears accompanied her stories of the past.

In 1951, 9-year-old Judy became the first person baptized in the current sanctuary by her pastor, William Fussell.

When Fussell resigned the church to return to Alabama, Judy and her best friend voted against the motion to accept the pastor’s resignation. “They came over and explained to us, ‘He is leaving anyway. We would like to make this unanimous.’ But we didn’t want him to go,” she recounted with a smile.

The grandfather of Judy’s late husband was one of the people responsible for the church being planted in the Gentilly community as a mission of Valence Street Baptist Church.

As a child growing up in the church, she learned lessons about God’s love and care from the devoted people who taught in this community church. Children’s voices, full of giggles and prayers, echoed through its hallways. “The church was very huge then, we had about 600 members,” Judy said. “It looks a lot smaller than it did when I was a child.”

Now the church is eerily silent. No part of the church facility is left untouched by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Six to eight feet of water rose through halls where weeks before worshipers walked.

As Judy looked at the mangled pews and the water lines staining the walls, she spoke with a cracking, tear-choked voice, “It’s sad. I just hope the church people that are here now will be back and they’ll want to rebuild it. [The church] was starting to deteriorate badly, before they took it over…. I think they had some really great plans for it.”

With a well-timed overstatement of the obvious, she laughed, “They will have to have new pews.”

“This is where my faith grew and was really established,” she reflected. “This is where I learned to trust [in God] and know everything will work for the best. But sometimes it’s very sad to see, especially for the ones who are still here.”

One of the lessons about faith Judy clings to through the overwhelming damage is, “We have no idea what purpose [the storm has] in the small scheme of things. But in the larger scheme, it is working toward [God’s] plan of salvation.”
Keith Manuel is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New Orleans.

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  • Keith Manuel