Action was the operative word along the Mississippi Gulf Coast this week as Episcopalians observed the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by continuing their commitment to rebuilding.
August 28 was a typical south Mississippi day. It was hot and humid -- not the perfect day to be working in the sun. Yet, that is exactly what the Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley, rector of the destroyed Christ Episcopal Church in Bay St. Louis, did.
Along with her fiancé, Butch Jones, Wheatley spent the morning working with other local volunteers on one of ten "Kaboom!" playgrounds damaged by Katrina along the Gulf Coast.
"I told my congregations yesterday, that as we approach the anniversary, how valuable it is, both emotionally and spiritually, to be involved with a project that has an end; that has some closure to it," said Wheatley. "I encouraged each of them to do this within a bigger context; something outside just themselves."
To the west, at Camp Coast Care (CCC), in Long Beach, final preparations were underway to give away the first of the "Camp Coast Care Cabins." These modest, one- and two-bedroom homes are being fabricated on the CCC campus, and will be moved onto homeowner's lots to replace houses destroyed by Katrina. The project is enabling Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi (LESM), Episcopal Relief and Development and CCC to get more families back into homes and out of the travel trailers, which dot the coastal landscape.
Bishop Duncan M. Gray III of Mississippi blessed and dedicated the first of the homes August 29 for Mary and Thomas Robinson of Pass Christian.
"In our faith tradition, we often use water to bless things," said Gray before beginning the familiar liturgy over water. "It is significant that we are using water today to bring new life to your house, since it was water that took the old one away."
The Robinsons lost their family home -- the house in which Mary was born, that survived the 1969 Hurricane Camille -- to Katrina's fury. The elderly couple, who have been living in one of the now infamous "FEMA trailers," was identified through the case-management system at CCC. With deeply evident gratitude, they cut a white ribbon tied across the front porch and the home became their own.
"I know I'll sleep tonight," said Mary Robinson. "I'll dream about the new house. Thank you all so much."
The one-bedroom cabin will be moved onto the Robinson's lot as early as next week, according to the Rev. Nick Roberts, regional director for LESM disaster response on the Gulf Coast. Then, it will be finished on the inside, complete with new appliances, and the Robinsons will finally move in.
"With a crew of 20 [volunteers], we can have it ready in about 2 or 3 days," said Roberts. "We signed the contract yesterday to move the house."
CCC has been involved with relief and recovery since about 4 days after Katrina made landfall. Some 65,000 persons sought food, water, clothing, supplies and/or medical attention in the first few months after the storm. Now at the one-year mark, CCC is turning its attention more toward construction and refurbishing of homes so that coast residents can get their lives back to normal.
"The idea that one year later we're renewing, we're helping folks start fresh, helping them start anew, that's what is important," said Van Bankston, site director for CCC. "The storm is truly in the past."
Bankston's attitude is shared by others among the Episcopal clergy and congregations who gathered to mark the anniversary of the storm.
"We've turned a corner," said Dorothy Byrd, a longtime member of the Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, after an August 29 commemorative service. "We struggled for a year, and we have been looking inward for a year, and now we are ready to move outward."
"Today as we look back, we must also look forward," said the Rev. Edward O'Connor in his homily to the congregation of St. Peter's by the Sea, Gulfport, one of six coastal churches destroyed by Katrina. "For this day offers an unprecedented opportunity to re-cast, to re-envision a community of justice and compassion ... a life where we can, with confidence and in peace, proclaim and shout -- and I'm going to need your help here -- Alleluia! Christ is Risen!"
"The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!"