Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple, but Where Are the People?

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

BELLE Chasse, La. _ It was shortly after 10:30 a.m. when the Rev. Argile Smith, dressed informally this remarkable Sunday (Sept. 18) in slacks and shirt sleeves, rose before a remnant of his scattered Southern Baptist congregation and summoned them to prayer.

The white steeple still stood atop First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse, La., but a patchwork of blue tarps covered the bald spots on the roof. They marked the places where Hurricane Katrina stripped off the shingles one day short of three weeks ago.

In the lot next door, three dozen Oklahoma Baptist relief workers prepared to cook 10,000 boxed meals for the Red Cross to deliver to stricken New Orleanians across the Mississippi River.

Everywhere around the church, trees were snapped, billboards crumpled, roofs scalped of shingles.

Inside, Judy Winfrey, who rode out the storm as her roof disintegrated overhead, bent over the keyboard this second Sunday after Katrina and launched into “The Name of the Lord.“

Arrayed before Smith stood perhaps one-third of the usual congregation of 250. They were among the first to return to the high ground of upper Plaquemines Parish, whose lower third lay in ruins downriver.

These are make-do, informal times. Many in the congregation were in jeans and clean T-shirts. Most had fled the area before Katrina. On their return, most found that their homes had been spared from flooding and were more or less dry. They were damaged but fixable.

They were a rare group, blessed for having a relatively undamaged church on high, accessible ground in a community just beyond the city and open to receive its returning residents.

Although the New Orleans area has gushed a torrent of prayer since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, the worship of its organized faith communities remains largely disrupted.

Masses and Sunday services have begun to return in St. Tammany, the River Parishes, and to some extent in Jefferson Parish. But closer to the city, they are almost nonexistent.

The largest churches in New Orleans _ Pentecostal giants Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, Beacon Light International Cathedral and Life Center Cathedral _ are flooded, wrecked or inaccessible. Their congregations are scattered like those of much smaller churches.

The city’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral appears relatively undamaged in the high-and-dry French Quarter, but the area remains sealed by civil authorities. No public Mass was celebrated there Sunday.

The city’s Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue is similarly dry, but also in an area still under lockdown.

So services close to the city, like the one in Belle Chasse, were rare.

But an early return does not necessarily translate into a secure future, either for First Baptist Belle Chasse or hundreds of others similarly situated congregations.

Four weeks ago, this church was stocked with dozens of families with children, Smith said.

They fled New Orleans on a few hours’ notice. They landed _ they thought temporarily _ with friends and siblings in distant cities. Now circumstance has forced them to put down roots in unfamiliar places and enroll their children in new schools on short notice.

Nobody yet knows how many of First Baptist’s missing faces will show up next week _ or ever, Smith said.

Still, the first words out of Smith’s mouth on Sunday were these: “How we have missed the opportunity to worship together, and how grateful we are to be back at it.”

If this was the moment for asking the big theological question _ Why did this happen? _ Smith opted not to seize it.

Instead, he took as his message a passage from the New Testament’s book of Hebrews, 10:24-26, urging his flock to do good deeds among one another, worship together and encourage each other.

“On this side of the storm, I don’t have to tell you what love looks like,” he said. “It looks like doing good works, where you look after your neighbor as well as yourself.”

But some, it was clear, had begun to grapple with the meaning of Katrina.

And since these were the self-selected faithful, they stood on the bedrock of Christian belief.

“I’m just so happy to see these people again. It gets you kind of choked up when you greet,” said Lorraine Hess, a church member for 36 years. Most congregants seemed safe and well, she said.

At 74, Hess is no stranger to adversity. A few hours before coming to worship Sunday, she telephoned a 24-year-old Marine grandson to say goodbye, literally hours before his deployment to Iraq.

“God is in control, ” she said firmly.

Then paraphrasing the book of Matthew, she said, “There will be storms and rumors of storms. God is always in control. If only we put our faith in him, he will pull us through.“

KRE/JL END NOLAN

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