Hurricane dominates 2005 events


Analysis by Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Scripture tells us that challenges and difficulties should be seen as opportunities to experience God’s love and strength.

As 2005 draws to a close, the Mississippi Conference has seen during the year how true those scriptures are. In fact, that truth will continue to be manifested for years to come as the state recovers and rebuilds from the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

The Aug. 29 storm was the biggest news for Mississippi, Louisiana and much of the nation during 2005. It has been called the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States, claiming 1,321 lives in five states, including 231 in Mississippi, and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Many families displaced by the storm still cannot return home.

The storm impacted the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church in several ways. Five churches and one parsonage sustained catastrophic damage, while another 17 churches and 13 parsonages suffered major damage. Twenty-eight pastors’ homes were rendered uninhabitable. Gulfside Assembly in hard-hit Waveland was leveled. Seashore Assembly and Moore Community House in Biloxi sustained major damage. Numerous churches in the southern part of the state sustained at least some damage.

In the midst of the overwhelming storm, United Methodist churches and individuals responded quickly. While federal and state relief efforts have come under criticism for their response, church groups have drawn high praise from those impacted by the storm for providing food, clothing and shelter in the days immediately following the disaster and on a continuing basis. United Methodist churches outside the impacted areas served as shelters for displaced residents for weeks after the storm. Others gathered vital supplies, while others provided the means for transporting and delivering the goods.

Work teams from across the state and the nation have come to the Gulf Coast to provide help clearing debris and removing ruined sheet rock and household items so that rebuilding can begin.

Even as the Gulf Coast works to dig out from under the storm’s devastation, recovery teams will be needed well into 2006 and beyond. In addition to the physical needs Katrina left behind, the storm is expected to have a long-lasting impact on conference finances.

Other key news events from 2005, in no particular order:

  • The re-organization of the conference leadership council
  • The opening of a Mississippi field office for the Society of St. Andrew
  • A special session of the Annual Conference to make United Methodist PACT the conference insurance plan
  • The conference Commission on Religion and Race’s Journey Toward the Light tour and Light Partners program
  • Bishop Hope Morgan Ward’s five foci for the conference
  • The trial and conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.

Early this year, the Rev. John Moore, director of Connectional Ministries, presented a plan to re-organize leadership committees in the conference. The plan groups committees into “tables,” or teams, and creates a model for committees to work more closely together to resource local churches. The 2005 Annual Conference approved a two-year trial of the plan.

Tied to the ministry teams are five “key result areas” offered by Ward. They include mission, congregational development, strengthening small membership churches, racial reconciliation and wellness among clergy, laity and congregations. Ministry programs have been and will be developed with the foci in mind.

One action taken relating to mission is the opening of the field office for the Society of St. Andrew. Early in the year, conference leaders approached SoSA, a hunger relief organization with ties to The United Methodist Church, about opening a field office in the state. An offering taken at Annual Conference in June provided necessary funds for opening the office. Last month, Bob Fritchey was named regional director for Mississippi. His office is located at Wood Institute in Mathiston.

Few consider insurance an exciting topic, but it is an important one. During the first part of 2005, the Mississippi Conference Board of Trustees voted to join United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust (UM PACT), a company formed by the General Council on Finance and Administration and  several conferences to provide insurance to United Methodist churches and organizations. Later in the year, after reviewing conference churches’ insurance coverage, the Trustees asked Bishop Ward to call a special session of the Annual Conference to consider a resolution making UM PACT the insurance program for the entire conference. The session, held Oct. 22 at Jackson Christ UMC, was the first such session in recent memory.

The conference approved the plan and also held a worship service that reflected on Hurricane Katrina with words of thanksgiving and hope.

The Commission on Religion and Race toured several key sites from the civil rights era to learn and listen to those directly involved.

In June, a Neshoba County jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen for the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The 1964 killings brought international attention to Mississippi.

The three men were killed after they came to Philadelphia to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church near Philadelphia. After an intensive search by the FBI, the bodies of the men were found weeks later in an earthen dam.

Killen, then active in the Ku Klux Klan, was one of several men tried on federal charges in the killings but acquitted. No state charges were ever filed. Late in 2004 the state filed murder charges against Killen, 80. He was convicted on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Several United Methodists were members of a coalition of Philadelphia residents who pushed for re-opening of the case.