Ministry Outside the Box:
First Street United Methodist, New Orleans
by Barbara Wheeler
The ministry of First Street United Methodist Church in New Orleans is literally and figuratively outside of the box.
Boxes of relief supplies fill the social hall; these full boxes are of no value to the community until they are emptied by church members and other volunteers. In a neighborhood strongly affected by Hurricane Katrina, the church continues to practice community ministry and become part of the lives and struggles of the people.
"Ministry has to be outside of the box," said Rev. Lance Eden,
pastor of First Street United Methodist Church. "We are meeting people
where they are."
Throughout the Uptown/Central City area, roofs are missing or have holes, windows are gone and porches appear to be sliding off the outside wall. Many people are waiting to meet with insurance adjustors to make hurricane-related claims. A few miles away, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) plans to open a trailer park to temporarily house the homeless.
The neighborhood faced economic challenges prior to the storm and the devastation of Katrina on homes, lives and the local economy has added to the strain. The church, its related First Street Community of Shalom program, and a Louisiana Conference local relief center are among the bright spots. Rev. Eden and members of the congregation are out front in the march toward community renewal.
The conference relief center is a great asset. With it come staff and, eventually, caseworkers to assist residents in finding additional support for their recovery. Despite the despair and loss, there is a sense of renewal and life in the activities at the church. Eden said that when the relief center opened the line for supplies was out the church door and down the block. A steady flow of hurricane survivors continue to visit the church for supplies that include food, hygiene products, and bedding. The center is currently open on Tuesdays and usually sees 135-145 people. Additional staff and more volunteers will permit service on additional days.
"There’s a high spiritual charge in the building," Eden said. "The relief work we are doing is spiritual formation in a unique and radical way." Volunteers from across the country are working at the relief center. The Louisiana Storm Center coordinates volunteer groups in the relief effort. First Street UMC has also received support and volunteers from Mission from Minnesota, which is an organization specifically designed to connect Minnesotans to relief work in the Gulf Coast. Mission from Minnesota was crucial in moving supplies from a warehouse in Mississippi to the relief center.
One local volunteer, Doris Brown, was baptized as a child at First Street Church. She later moved to the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, where she was when Hurricane Katrina struck. She found shelter in the Superdome, where she weathered another storm of confusion and fear, broken water pipes, and uncertainty. She was able to keep her family of uncles, aunts, and cousins together, and eventually they were evacuated to Baytown, Texas.
Doris Brown returned to New Orleans in mid-November to find that her house had been flooded and many of her belongings destroyed. A group of volunteers at the First Street Relief Center came and removed the debris. Another group will gut the house so new construction can begin.
So, Ms. Brown became a volunteer at First Street Church. "I came back to First Street to work and to thank God," she explained. She thinks of her effort as part of the healing process needed in the city. She feels good as she distributes health and school kits from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and other donated goods.
"It's good to know that United Methodists care from all over," says Doris Brown, opening yet another box.
First Street Church and the Central City/Uptown Relief Center continue to need volunteers. For possible service, contact the Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 877-345-5193 or 225-346-5193. Also visit the Storm Recovery Website for additional details: http://www.laumcstormrelief.com.
Barbara Wheeler is program associate for Communities of Shalom at the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Dec 29, 2005