Giving thanks in Katrina's wake

8/26/2010

1:00 P.M. EST August 24, 2010

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, left, listens as The Rev. Rachel Benefield-Pfaff shows the high-water mark left by Hurricane Katrina in her home in Gulfport, Miss in this 2005 photo.  A UMNS file photo by Woody Woodrick.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, left, listens as the Rev. Rachel Benefield-Pfaff shows the high-water mark left by Hurricane Katrina in her home in Gulfport, Miss in this 2005 photo. A UMNS file photo by Woody Woodrick.
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We have learned to lament.

“Mama, how much longer will we have to remember Katrina?”
--A child of a United Methodist pastor in Biloxi on Aug. 29, 2006, as his mother left for a first-anniversary service of remembrance.

On the second anniversary of Katrina, I headed for the coast with a sermon ready, a fierce sermon calling for courage and perseverance.

Somewhere in route, God brought to mind Psalm 131—a lament, a song for what has been loved and lost. It seemed right:  this was a day for grieving, for naming loss and devastation.

Tomorrow we would pick up the shovels and hammers and go back to work. This was a day to tell the truth: The wind and water had shattered our lives, destroyed our homes, scattered our possessions, shattered our cherished things, devastated our financial security and ravaged our community. We had become ones in need of help, the object of mission. It was our unwelcome task this day to grieve, to cry, to mourn and to move through this day toward tomorrow.

There was no going around it, over it or under it. We were called to go through it to the other side where strong hope abides.

We have learned to recognize signs of the presence and power of God.

“Butterflies flew over my mother’s casket.  We see more of them since Katrina.”  
--United Methodist layperson describing a sign of resurrection and hope at her mother’s funeral in Gulfport in spring 2008

On the Sunday following Hurricane Katrina, Mike and I worshipped at Mississippi City United Methodist Church in Gulfport. The church was in sight of the Mississippi Sound and ravaged by wind and water. About 25 were present for worship, outside in the parking lot beside the ravaged church. A table was set up, covered with a white cloth, holding the cup and the loaf. 

During the service, a child cried out, “Where is the bucket?”

The pastor regularly used the bucket for a children’s story in worship, to distribute treats or to collect offerings. The bucket was gone, and the child was inconsolable. As the pastor led us in The Great Thanksgiving, a butterfly of radiant color fluttered over the bread and cup.  It was remarkable, a sign of promise, of divine presence, of living hope.

We have learned that God revives us as we go and give.

“The churches that fully engaged the recovery are stronger than they were before Katrina”.
--District superintendent, Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference, 2009

“We were spared to serve.” 

With this mindset and heart song, 30 churches in the Seashore District immediately moved into action following Aug. 29, 2005. They welcomed volunteers, served thousands of meals, worshipped on Sundays with sleeping bags and toolboxes lining their sanctuaries, sought supplies, and visited and encouraged neighbors. 


Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, left, listens as the Rev. Rachel Benefield-Pfaff shows the high-water mark left by Hurricane Katrina in her home in Gulfport, Miss in this 2005 photo. A UMNS file photo by Woody Woodrick.
View in Photo Gallery

“If there were tools and sleeping bags in our sanctuary, it would be big trouble,” one volunteer commented. Later, this same volunteer wrote, “Our experience in mission with you has revived our church back home.”

We find ourselves by losing ourselves. We are revived as we give ourselves away in mission.

We have learned to engage in mission as a productive chaos of giving and receiving, of helping and hoping.

“This place is God’s workshop.”
--United Methodist volunteer describing Biloxi, Miss., 2007

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, we give thanks for more than 160,000 volunteers, countless prayers, remarkable generosity and ongoing work for families yet to be back home. We give thanks for United Methodist gifts through the United Methodist Committee on Relief in rebuilding homes and the Bishops’ Appeal for Church Recovery in rebuilding churches, parsonages and United Methodist mission facilities. 

Because of your partnership, 13,000 Mississippi families are back home through the massive effort of rebuilding. One hundred homes have been built, making The United Methodist Church one of the top 10 homebuilders in the state of Mississippi. Three permanent recovery centers have been built to house volunteers and to store supplies for rebuilding. 

Through your generosity, the recovery effort will continue with materials supplied and teams working through 2011. Thank you for your prayers, presence and partnership onward!

*Ward is bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.