NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Grass covers the lot where Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church building stood for nearly 50 years. Like thousands of structures in New Orleans, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Even though the church building did not survive the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, members of Elysian Fields continue to impact the church’s community. Theirs is a story of recovery and partnership.
For about a year now, Bill Day, associate director for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, has been studying the 1,500 places of worship in the five parishes that make up the greater New Orleans area -– Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes.
“I would like to know what the impact of Katrina is and was on places of worship in this area to find out which ones will die, which ones will survive but be weaker and which churches, despite Katrina, will actually grow,” Day said.
While many are fighting for survival, others, like Elysian Fields, have found traction in the otherwise muddy road to recovery in New Orleans. The purpose of Day’s study is to identify what factors have impacted local congregations’ ability to recover.
The first phase of Day’s research was finished by the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans Seminary students canvassed the area to contact churches that Day could not reach by phone. Day divided churches into two groups: Places of worship classified as “functioning” were worshipping at their pre-Katrina site and those worshipping elsewhere or not at all were deemed “not functioning.” At the time, roughly 61 percent of New Orleans places of worship were functioning.
Day updated those numbers April 30 and the number of functioning places of worship had climbed to just over 70 percent.
“I’m planning to have a six-month update for the next couple of years,” Day said. “It’s helping me, a church growth person, to answer the question, ‘What are the import things to deal with after Katrina?'”
At the second anniversary of Katrina, Day is beginning to give more attention to identifying the deciding factors and methods of recovery.
“I’m interested to see the different ways that denominational entities have chosen to deal with Katrina,” Day said. “What have Southern Baptists, Methodists and the Catholic Archdiocese done to assist their churches?
“My suspicion is that having a denominational affiliation is an advantage,” he said.
Ken Taylor, Elysian Fields’ pastor, would agree.
“Through the whole thing, partnerships have been unbelievably valuable to Kingdom work,” Taylor said. “The way God has blessed, I have no complaints.”
About four months after Katrina, Elysian Fields began meeting again in a member family’s gutted home. Then in June 2006, Elysian Fields and Gentilly Baptist churches began meeting together at Gentilly Baptist Church’s campus. Gentilly Baptist also received major damage from the hurricane but its building was repairable. Taylor said it didn’t take long for the two congregations to sense they might be together for quite some time.
“I’d say that within our first two months, when we were still meeting outside, we fell in love with the place,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t but a few months before I and others began to sense that this is where God wants us.”
For more than a year, the two churches have been worshipping, mobilizing, serving and healing together. They have a partnership with the Arkansas Baptist Builders through August 2008, through which thousands of volunteers have come to New Orleans to aid in the recovery effort.
“They told us last week that we’ve housed 4,500 volunteers since the storm, and 1,500 since March,” Taylor said.
“Volunteers have mowed [residents’] yards around our church like crazy,” he said. “Our church has gotten cards from all kinds of people thanking us for the surprise of coming home to find their yard had been mowed.”
Baptist churches around the country –- and even individual Bible study classes -– also have aided Elysian Fields and Gentilly Baptist churches by covering ministry, rebuilding and insurance costs.
Taylor mentioned one particular church that threw a block party for the church’s neighborhood last November.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Taylor said. “I’ll always remember people just coming and sitting for hours. It was a turning point for our church and our neighborhood. They’re coming down again in October for another block party.”
In fact, Taylor said Elysian Fields and Gentilly Baptist churches have been so busy coordinating volunteer groups and staging neighborhood recovery projects that they have made little progress toward formally merging. Although the churches already are functionally one, Taylor said they plan to finalize the merger sometime this fall.
Not every place of worship in New Orleans has experienced the same kind of burden-bearing care Elysian Fields and Gentilly churches have enjoyed. The recovery pace for places of worship in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes –- the three parishes that received the most catastrophic flooding –- has been much slower.
In Orleans Parish, 43 percent of the 786 pre-Katrina places of worship are still not functioning. Churches in Plaquemines Parish are only 59 percent back, and in St. Bernard Parish, half of the places of worship are still shuttered. Many Southern Baptist churches are among those still out of commission.
“We had about 140 churches before the storm,” said Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. “Right now we have 94.”
There is much recovery work left to be done, and churches around the country have a great opportunity to help churches in New Orleans get back on their feet.
Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more information on helping churches in New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina, visit the North American Mission Board’s Operation NOAH Rebuild website at www.namb.net/noah or the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans’ website, www.bagnola.org.