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Post-Katrina ministry happens outside church's walls

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
2/27/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  While it is important for congregations to prepare when disasters damage their buildings, two staff members from Trinity Church in New Orleans said during a workshop at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes that their congregation has also learned it had to minister to the community around them.

It was a lesson, said the Rev. Dabney Smith, "in being reminded by the aftermath emphatically that the church really isn't the building."

At the same time Trinity is trying to become a vital congregation again "in a city that has essentially collapsed" and where there aren't any rules for that revitalization.

"We don't know what the future holds," he said. "We don't know how to plan."

They work day by day, and the needs change day by day.

The Trinity staff evacuated New Orleans the weekend that Hurricane Katrina hit in late August and then had to learn what to do when a congregation disappears overnight, Smith said. They knew they had to start trying to locate parishioners.

"It was difficult because we didn't know where we were," he said of the staff. He wound up in San Antonio and it was days before he could reach his bishop, Charles Jenkins, or reassemble some part of his staff and vestry in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, north of New Orleans. He held his first vestry meeting after the storms in part by conference call.

When Trinity people began to re-connect, "we held each other in prayer and in our grief and tried to figure out what to do next," said Maria Elliott, Trinity's director of giving.

They knew there were immediate physical needs in the community and they had a new challenge in facing an issue the congregation had been trying to deal with before Katrina: institutional racism. "Then it was right in front of us," she said.

One step the vestry took early on, in the midst of its pain and loss, was "to claim hope," Smith said, by hiring a staff member to work on social-justice issues. Those issues include making sure all voices are heard so that New Orleans can reinvent itself in an equitable way, Smith said.

The staffer, a New Orleans resident, spent the last three years working with churches in Nigeria to make that country's government more accountable. Smith said the staffer sees parallels in her work in New Orleans.

"We need to be about the work of justice because if we do it here it will heal the nation," he said. "New Orleans is and will act as a mirror to our culture."

The parish began to address the physical needs of its community by working with local people, Louisiana State University and Episcopal Relief and Development to re-open a medical clinic for low-income people.

Elliott said they have been trying to broker services, finding out who needs what kind of help and figuring out how to get it to them.

Trinity partnered with the national Mobile Loaves and Fishes ministry. It now has a van to minister to people who are back in New Orleans trying to clean out their houses. They give away food, drinks, clothes, personal hygiene items "and hope and encouragement," Smith said.

The van's crew ministers to them "by just giving them lunch and a person to talk to," Elliott said.

Most of the people the van serves are the "ordinary homeless," as Smith called them. "It seems strange to say 'the ordinary homeless' because now in New Orleans we have a new breed of homeless: the wealthy homeless," he said.