EDITOR’S NOTE: Dennis Watson is pastor of Celebration Church in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS (BP) — On the weekend before Hurricane Katrina, we had 2,051 people in worship at Celebration Church. God was blessing our ministry, and we were growing significantly.
Then Hurricane Katrina came to New Orleans.
Both of our campuses were inundated by the waters of Hurricane Katrina. Our largest campus on Airline Drive was hit with a seven-foot wave of water. It was under water for two and a half weeks. We lost everything at that campus.
Our smaller campus on Transcontinental Drive that we had just procured also was flooded. Fortunately it was flooded by the rainwater of Katrina — the fresh water, not the salt — in the sewage canal that flooded our Airline campus.
We were able to get in quickly and gut out the latter facility with the aid of volunteers from around the nation and resume services one month after Katrina.
The day that Katrina hit, I was in Lafayette, La. I had said I would never evacuate for a hurricane, but my daughter and son-in-law came to me with my two little grandsons and said, “We’re not leaving if you don’t leave.” I couldn’t imagine those two little boys having to swim out. One was just a tiny baby, and I couldn’t risk them.
So we all evacuated. I saw the satellite images of the storm, saw the pictures of the broken levees where water was pouring into the city. I watched in horror as the city was devastated. I also saw a picture of our Airline campus under water.
That night I went to bed more depressed, more discouraged than I’ve ever been. I remembered the shock of seeing a city devastated and depopulated before our very eyes and the helplessness I had felt watching as it happened. I’ve had a lot of tragedy in my life. My father died at an early age, my brother-in-law was killed. … I know what it means to grieve, but that night I felt lower than I had ever felt because it seemed like everything I prayed for, dreamed for, hoped for, worked for was gone in one day.
The next morning, my cell phone wasn’t working because the cell phone towers were down. I had no way to see if others were safe, and they couldn’t see if I was safe. I did not know what had happened to my staff or the people of Celebration. But at 6:33 that morning, my cell phone miraculously rang. It was a pastor from South Africa whom I had been scheduled to visit in a few days. … Hundreds of people were trying to reach me, but this pastor from all the way around the world in Johannesburg was the only one who was able to get in touch with me that morning.
It was more than incredible. It was miraculous.
These were his words to me: “Dennis, my son, I know that you are devastated, but rise up, man of God, for what you perceive to be your day of devastation is actually the destiny that God has called you to. I’ve been on my knees and my face these eight or nine hours praying for you, your family, your church and your city, and the Lord has revealed to me that while this is indeed a great tragedy, out of this tragedy will come the greatest opportunity your nation has ever had to see a major city experience spiritual transformation. Rise up, man of God!”
No other calls got through to me that morning. For me, that call was the voice of the Lord speaking to me, and it helped me out of my depression.
That is when I knew that God had spoken to me and that I had to return to New Orleans and help people find help, hope and healing through Christ. That is when I knew that no matter how hard it was to see the devastated and depopulated city, God was doing something much greater than Celebration Church. He was giving us the opportunity to see a city transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We did not know how many people would show up at that first service after Katrina.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, we were a multiracial and multicultural church with 35 different nations represented in our congregation. We were about 30 percent African-American. Almost all of our African-Americans and internationals lost their homes, as well as our St. Bernard Parish people. We permanently lost nearly 65 percent of our pre-Katrina attendees because they had lost their homes and everything. We started back with 25 percent of our pre-Katrina attendance, 550 people. In fact, on that first Sunday as we worshipped together at this new location that God had provided for us two weeks before Katrina, we had no carpet, we had no pews, we had no inner walls.
All we had was the Spirit of God and one another. When I stood to preach that day, our people stood and cheered for five minutes.
Understand, they were not cheering for me, they were cheering for the Lord. Many of them had lost everything, and they were cheering the Lord.
Up to that moment, I had wondered if we would survive as a church. Well, at that moment I knew we would survive because our people’s faith in God was bigger than their fear of the circumstances.