Living the resurrection


Coast churches embrace similarities to Easter story

By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

One found a calling to ministry. Another found a new outlook amid despair. A third has become a community symbol.

Three United Methodist churches along the Mississippi Gulf Coast plan to celebrate Easter on April 16 with a new sense of their own resurrection following the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

The Aug. 29 storm actually provided some answers for Eastlawn United Methodist Church in Pascagoula. The church had a new building and was searching for how to use it in ministry, says its pastor George Jackson. With devastation all around, but with a building standing, Eastlawn members began helping others.

“One of the things that has really impacted us is serving the community in a way where we now see what we need to be doing.,” Jackson said. “We’ve made a real sacrifice to that. We can’t use our church like we want because we’re feeding everybody and have people sleeping on every square inch available. It has heightened our awareness of being in mission right across the street, which is what we wanted to do when we planned our ministry and built the buildings. Our folks have been real committed to having our church do this.”

In addition to using its new building to accommodate feeding 500 to 600 volunteers a day and providing housing space, the Eastlawn congregation has sacrificed some of its own cleanup. Jackson said every family in the church except three lost everything. In addition, most of them also lost jobs and had family members who lost their homes.

“All of us are just so messed up,” Jackson said. “We just identify with everybody else. Everybody is like we are, so everybody needs help. We go with a team and the guy next door needs help, so we help him, too.”

Jackson said the idea of serving others has touched the hearts of the congregation. “We just decided that’s what we want to be doing,” he said.

Rebuilding takes money, but Jackson said that’s another area where Eastlawn members have come through.

“Financially, it’s been amazing how folks - even members who can’t live here anymore - are still keeping up their pledges,” he said. “We’ve got people living up in Oxford, over in Arkansas and Texas who send their pledge back. They haven’t been to church (at Eastlawn) in six months but keep on giving. If they didn’t do that we’d be short, but this is still their church (even though) some of them aren’t coming back.”

Folks at Eastlawn appear more aware of the meaning of the Easter story, Jackson said, and he’s eager to see where the church goes in the future.


Inspiring a community

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Pass Christian had just started construction on a new building when Katrina roared ashore. Fortunately, only the slab had been poured, so there was no major loss. Soon, work resumed. That’s when pastor Rose Mary Williams learned something about the building. “It serves as a spiritual symbol to our church and the community,” Williams said.

The new facility is located near the bridge over the Bay of St. Louis. With the bridge washed out, folks traveling along the coast must pass near the church.

“Every day I see people who say they just love seeing that church come up,” Williams said.

Recovery has come more slowly to the Pass Christian area, so seeing a new building nearing completion gives the community hope it can rise again.

The building was originally scheduled to be complete in March. However, that has been pushed back to May.  However, Williams said her members aren’t discouraged by the timing.

“We feel that the church is being built in God’s time,” she said.

Once the new facility is finished, the old one won’t be empty. Since the storm, the church has been home to four congregations. In addition to Mount Zion, another United Methodist congregation and two Baptist congregations have met in the Mount Zion building. Williams said she believes one of the churches will soon make other arrangements, but two of the churches will be at Mount Zion for an extended period.

While excited about the new building, Williams said her congregation seems more focused on Easter as it approaches. “I’ve had more folks tell me they are fasting and praying this Lenten season than I ever have. We have uplifted that more than in the past,” she said.


‘Up from the ground’

One can easily understand if residents of Pearlington were discouraged. One of the towns hardest hit by Katrina, that area of the Gulf Coast has seen the slowest recovery. While groups and agencies sprang into action around the larger  cities to the east, towns like Pearlington on the Mississippi-Louisiana border wanted for help.

Now, however, Pearlington United Methodist Church sees hope.

“The town is still pretty well destroyed,” said pastor Rich Handy. “Many members have moved away, and they aren’t planning on coming back. There’s nothing to come back to.”

But the generosity of others has boosted the spirits of Pearlington UMC members. It came in the form of a pavilion.

After the storm, Pearlington UMC members worshiped with Clermont UMC, the second church on the charge. But, Handy said, the Pearlington folks wanted to worship in their own community. First, the church received a tent, which looked much like a Quonset hut. Then, a volunteer team suggested a pavilion.

Handy said the church from North Carolina contacted him about working in Pearlington and suggested a pavilion to serve as a church.

“Here was a church planning to build a picnic pavilion for themselves,” he said. “They decided they wanted to spend their money on Pearlington church. They started on Thursday and finished on Saturday night.”

That was about three weeks ago.

Handy said church members were excited about meeting under a real roof. Curtains hang around the pavilion to keep out cold winds and rain, but that doesn’t bother the Pearlington UMC members. The pavilion stands on the slab that once was the site of the church parsonage.

“Right now we’re very encouraged. In the past, there was a lot of discouragement because there was not a lot happening. We didn’t have a building and didn’t know about (an) insurance (settlement). Now, we think we’ll get about $70,000 to $80,000 in insurance money and be able to build something,” said Handy.

More importantly, Handy said, his members have seen what it means to care for others. “We see lots of people caring. These (volunteers) are giving a week out of their lives to come and help out,” he said. “(Pearlington residents) are having a hard time accepting that kind of generosity and kindness. There’s no way they can replay that.

“I hope three or four years from now, if a storm hits somewhere else, some of these people respond and remember the kindness done to them and give to someone else.”

Handy anticipates a  more meaningful Easter.  “It will be a very thankful Easter,” he said. “They will be able to reflect on what good is happening in their lives. During hard times, one of the constants they have is the love of our Lord.

“I think I see lot of similarities from where they are. Some are living in tents as opposed to a pile of debris. I think they see something coming from nothing and relate to the resurrection story.”