'We will not shrink from this challenge'


By Tim Tanton
UMNS Managing Editor

GULFPORT — Sitting outside a blown-out church building, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward acknowledges the grief that Mississippians feel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but today she is all about resolve.

“The United Methodist Church is committed to this recovery,” Ward says. “That commitment is long term.”

Beside her looms the ruin of Mississippi City United Methodist Church, a gutted building that still holds random attributes of a vital church – a few pews and chairs, a piano, a stuffed toy. Mostly, though, it has a lot of open space.

Like the church, much of the area along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast still looks as battered as if the storm struck yesterday instead of half a year ago. While recovering slowly themselves, the churches at the same time are helping homeowners and their communities rebuild.

“We will not shrink from this challenge,” Ward says. But she acknowledges the enormity of the job ahead. “The task of rebuilding is long, is arduous, is beyond our comprehension still.”

Ward is encouraging United Methodists to help the churches in Mississippi and Louisiana rebuild through the Council of Bishops’ Katrina Church Recovery Appeal. The appeal will be emphasized during U.S. annual conference sessions in May and June.

The bishops launched the appeal to raise money for rebuilding churches in the Katrina-stricken areas, help pay pastors’ salaries and re-equip congregations for ministry in their areas. The appeal is different from the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s fund-raising work, which is supporting humanitarian relief on the coast.

Mississippi City United Methodist Church exemplifies the pressing need.

“This is one of our most historic churches,” Ward says. The church was founded in 1890 by a mission pastor who sent an appeal across the conference requesting dimes to erect the building.

Ward has preached twice here, including one occasion, right after the storm, when the church had its communion table set up in the parking lot. Today, about 100 members of the congregation meet for worship in a nearby warehouse that the church owns.

The conference is working with at least six congregations to figure out if their churches will be rebuilt. 

More than 40 churches are expected to have losses of more than $150,000, and the conference is expecting more than $4 million in uninsured and under-insured losses to churches and related properties.

“It’s essential that we respond to the bishops’ appeal for the rebuilding of our churches,” Ward says. “Our churches are strategic centers” for nurturing and worship, she says, noting that 30 conference churches are hosting work teams along the coast.

United Methodist giving is helping keep pastors in their communities, she says. “In Mississippi, the pastors who evacuated returned very soon to their congregations. A number of the pastors never evacuated and experienced the storm even as their homes and churches were destroyed. The presence of pastor leadership in a community is a shepherding gift to the entire community.”

Despite the adversity, Ward says she is seeing a new spirit in the congregations. At Heritage United Methodist Church in D’Iberville, members have collected sleeping bags and tool kits. “They have regained their strong sense of being a missional congregation.”

Some congregations have drawn closer in connection with one another, such as a white church and an African-American congregation that have been worshipping together since their buildings were destroyed.