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Mississippi churches pull together in heavily damaged state

by Woody Woodrick

JACKSON, Miss. - As Mississippi begins pulling itself out of the rubble left by Hurricane Katrina, United Methodists have become "the face of grace in action."

"The response of the church has been the face of grace in action," said the Rev. Jeff Pruett of Tunica, the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference coordinator for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "It has been a reflection of the spirit of care and compassion.

"The response with food and water has been overwhelming. We've been able to work with other agencies in communities when they were not able to get those supplies."

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, inflicting heavy damage on communities south of a railroad line about a mile inland that runs parallel to the gulf. As the storm moved inland, it also damaged towns and cities as far as 200 miles to the north.

In Louisiana, the storm surge flooded much of the southeastern part of the state, including New Orleans. As much as 80 percent of the city was flooded. As of Sept. 12, the death toll has passed 400.

In Mississippi, an estimated 211 lives were lost. The towns of Waveland and Pass Christian were virtually wiped out. The United Methodist Church's historic Gulfside Assembly in Waveland suffered catastrophic damage. Gulfside was opened in 1923 as a retreat and recreation center for African Americans who were not permitted to use most resorts in the segregated South, and it later became a retreat center for the entire church.

The Rev. John Moore, director of Connectional Ministries for the Mississippi Conference, credited Bishop Hope Morgan Ward's experience with dealing with storms in North Carolina as the key to galvanizing the conference's recovery and relief efforts.

Moore also praised the district superintendents and churches of the northern end of the state for their eagerness to help. "People want to help in any way they can," he said.

And clergy in the Seashore District pulled their church members together for both relief and worship, he noted. "The clergy, even though they were victims, were able to seize the moment to bring their people together where there were churches still standing," he said. "Where they weren't standing, they still gathered on Sunday and worshipped God and were able to claim the grace of God as the source of our strength to deal with what we've got to deal with."

Six United Methodist churches were destroyed: Leggett Memorial, Biloxi; St. Rock United Methodist Church, Biloxi; Mount Zion, DeLisle; St. Paul, Pass Christian; Safe Harbor, Escatawpa; and Pearlington United Methodist Church.

In addition, the Seashore Mission in Biloxi was destroyed. Moore Community House in Biloxi was heavily damaged, and the building might have to be torn down. The conference is uncertain about the fate of people who are believed to have tried riding out the storm at the Seashore Mission and at Mount Zion.

When Katrina knocked out communications in the South Mississippi, small communities were left stranded. As a result, the conference was just learning the condition of some churches and their members as many as 10 days after the storm, Moore said.

"I think this storm has wakened us to a reality that we said with our heads but now know with our hearts: We are a conference of rural churches," Moore said. "Nothing has driven the point home any more than to realize that the connections that we hoped we had with smaller churches perhaps were not as good as we had hoped.

"We're still days later finding that we've got small rural communities out there that we did not know about."

The enormity of the damage in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties overshadowed damage to communities in other areas. The Poplarville and Picayune areas sustained heavy damage and did not receive aid for several days. Also, Walthall and Pike counties sustained heavy wind damage. The areas around Meridian and Laurel were hard hit by winds that toppled giant oak and pine trees.

Some volunteer teams are working to remove debris. "We have teams in five or six counties working on the recovery effort," Pruett said.

The Rev. Robert McCoy of Baldwyn, the conference United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinator, is scheduling work teams.

Dozens of Mississippi United Methodist churches opened as shelters before and during the storm. Many of the shelters are still operating as federal and state emergency management organizations seek temporary housing for thousands who lost their homes.

"I get emotional thinking about what people have done," Pruett said. "FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Authority) and MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Authority) had plans. This was bigger than those plans had ever imagined. Likewise, God's people responded in ways more than we could imagine."

Some congregations, such as Meridian Central, Madison and Brandon Crossgates United Methodist churches, planned their response by being certified as Red Cross shelters. Others responded to the need by opening as shelters or serving other purposes.

Jackson Christ United Methodist Church opened a distribution center to supply shelters. Within 36 hours, the gymnasium and other areas of the church were full of supplies.

The Mississippi Conference moved quickly to establish a response organization. United Methodist Committee on Relief representatives are in the state helping set up a phone bank and arrange shipments of supplies and materials.

UMCOR also helped secure travel trailers and manufactured homes as temporary residences for pastors in the affected areas.

"In the same way that any pastor has a responsibility of membership care in heart, mind, body and soul, no less do we as a conference now look to what all is needed," Moore said. "We need to address the mental stress, the agony of seeing their people suffer; the perhaps dark night of the soul that such an event can cause in seeking to know the presence of God and experience the presence of God."

While acknowledging the efforts of those immediately after the storm, Pruett pointed out that recovery will take years and volunteers will be needed for months.

"In collecting materials and supplies, we need to be looking long term," he said. "We're looking at tools and materials that will be needed for building such as ladders, hand tools, pressure washers, etc."

Other needs are for flood buckets, containing items needed to begin cleaning a house that has been flooded, and health kits. Information can be found on the UMCOR Web site, Other information on packing and shipping can be found at that site or by calling the Sager Brown Depot at (800) 814-8765.

Churches, groups and individuals are asked to contact the conference office before making deliveries or sending work teams.

Donations to support the United Methodist hurricane response can be made online at and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for "Hurricanes 2005 Global," Advance No. 982523, and left in offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

*Woodrick is editor of the Mississippi Advocate, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church's Mississippi Annual Conference.


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Date posted: Sep 12, 2005