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La. parish’s pastors grapple with Katrina challenges ahead

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“I think we should approach bringing this parish back as a ‘church plant,’” Freddie Arnold said, “because this is what we’re doing -– starting a new church in a ‘new’ community.”

Arnold, church planting specialist for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, was addressing several pastors from the metro parish that, alongside New Orleans, also suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Katrina.

“So, we’ll need to think outside the box,” Arnold said during a Nov. 22 gathering to begin discussing the future of Baptist work in the area.

“We need multi-purpose buildings and new vision for the facilities and sites.” The churches that emerge from Katrina, he also said, likely will have multi-ethnic memberships.

“We have five issues here” in the parish’s restoration, Arnold noted, citing “schools, government guidelines, insurance, what kind of community will we end up with, and the churches providing for themselves and others.”

Most of the parish’s churches have not been able to hold services since the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

David Howard, pastor of First Baptist Church in the Arabi community, reported that 93 members of the congregation held a weekend retreat in Monroe, La., to worship and discuss their future. One person also was baptized.

“Many of our folks are not coming back,” Howard said. Church members voted to allow their board of directors to institute a merger with as many congregations from the St. Bernard area as wish to do so. “We need our churches to come together for the Kingdom,” Howard said.

Jeffery Q. Friend, pastor of Hopeview Mission in the Violet community, has been living in Pontiac, Mich. –- and has married his fiancé, Stephanie, who accompanied him to the meeting.

“Most of my congregation has the desire to come back,” Friend said, “but because of inhabitability they cannot.”

The mission pastor said he has spoken to members who have relocated in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Alabama. “Some [of my members] were blessed when they relocated,” he reported. “I have a member whose two sons were on the streets. Now both are in college in Texas and are excelling.

“Any time you get a black youth off the streets and in college, it’s a blessing. I’m willing to lose a few members like that,” Friend said.

Paul Gregoire, pastor of St. Bernard Baptist Church in the Chalmette community for 23 years -– attending the meeting on his 20th wedding anniversary — noted that the congregation’s facilities are located approximately 100 yards from the site of a major oil spill caused by the storm.

“We’ve not attempted to do anything with the buildings due to the oil, waiting to see what the refinery does,” Gregoire said.

Arnold added, “We need to be very careful with the oil residue. There is oil on the slab [of the church]. And we don’t know how much oil has been absorbed into the ground.”

Saturday, Dec. 10, will be the launch date for “The Gathering,” a joint worship time for church members from St. Bernard Parish who evacuated to the Baton Rouge area. John Jeffries, pastor of First Baptist Church in Chalmette, described the meeting as “a time of worship followed by a meeting with parish leaders to get information for people who can’t get back to [Chalmette for] the parish meetings.” The group will meet at Baton Rouge’s Florida Boulevard Baptist Church at 10 a.m. every Saturday and have three St. Bernard-area pastors preaching.

“I’ve never seen such evidence of Christ in all my years of ministry,” Jeffries said. “People are blessing us on every hand,” including the insurance adjusters. “The agents prayed with us every time,” the pastor said. “Sometimes I suggested it, sometimes they took the lead.”

As to the Chalmette church’s future, Jeffries said, “Some of our people will come back. The old people say they’re too old, too tired and too afraid to return. Early on, no one was planning to return, but as time goes on, more and more are changing their minds.”

The pastors at the Nov. 22 session also heard from Danny Decker, disaster relief representative from the Missouri Baptist Convention, which has made a five-year commitment to aid in the recovery.

“I’m impatient, the same way you are, and I understand your impatience,” Decker said of the recovery efforts.

“The parish government has not even set the requirements on what people have to do to rebuild. The insurance companies have not sent checks. Many people are going to find it too costly and too difficult to come back,” Decker said, before quipping, “Some of those who evacuated to our state woke up yesterday to 16 degrees outside. They may be coming back after all!”

“Katrina fatigue” also is a concern, Decker said.

Most people “only know the typical hurricane where you go in two days after the storm and start to work. But down here, it’s different,” Decker said. “The floodwater was polluted and sat in these churches and homes for weeks. Everything died. We will have to rebuild from the ground up.

“We’re hearing less and less about the needs,” Decker continued. “The news media are moving on to other stories and not telling people about you folks down here.” Many people “think the needs have been taken care of,” he said. “… They are not going to believe this until they come and see it for themselves.”

Mike Canady, director of missions and ministries for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told the pastors, “We must keep the need in front of our people….

“Choose any state. If they’re not used to hurricanes, they think they can just get up and come down and do cleanup and rebuild and go home. Then they move on to the next challenge.

“But we’re just starting to work down here,” Canady said. “We have to fight Katrina fatigue, not only among our own people, but throughout the country.”
Compiled by Art Toalston from reporting by Keith Manuel & Joe McKeever.

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