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New Orleans church rebuilds life as well as building

‘Further, deeper’ into community is theme of post-Katrina ministry

May 28, 2009

After Hurricane Katrina, floodwaters reached these windows in the sanctuary.

After Hurricane Katrina, floodwaters reached these windows in the sanctuary. —Bethany Furkin

NEW ORLEANS

Walking into Lakeview Presbyterian Churchhere, it’s not obvious that the building was ever flooded. The sanctuary is bright and open. The kitchen stands ready to prepare dinners and treats for coffee hours. The Sunday School rooms are filled with creative activities.

But Administrative Assistant Amelie Welman allows outsiders to see a glimpse of the church as it was almost four years ago. In August 2005, the church and surrounding neighborhood of Lakeview were flooded when a levee collapsed after Hurricane Katrina, covering the area in about eight feet of water from Lake Pontchartrain. A small percentage of the neighborhood’s residents have been able — or willing — to return.

Although the building has since been renovated and was rededicated in January 2008, the church’s transformation is far from over, Welman said. The congregation, at about 335 members before the hurricane, suffered a 60 percent membership loss. The remaining members are now working to formulate a new vision and mission — one that will focus on partnership and community outreach.

“It’s been an interesting few years, trying to find out what God’s calling our congregation to be and to do because our community is so different,” Welman said. “It’s going deeper into your relationship with Christ, further into the community. Deeper, further is the theme of the transition.”

Lakeview is looking at ways to partner with other congregations and community groups. In discussion are a homeless ministry program and community garden and playground. This past Christmas, the church asked the congregation to make memorial donations to a hunger-relief charity instead of buying traditional memorial poinsettias.

The church continues to provide meeting space for local Boy Scout troops, Alcoholics Anonymous, a children’s chorus and a senior activities group. For about a year, it has also housed New Life Korean Church, which holds services on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons.  

The bonds among members and between the church and the community are stronger after Katrina than they were before the storm, Welman said.

“We are exploring how we can take that love and commitment to each other and take it out to the community,” she said. “The whole tragedy of Katrina just pales when you look at the blessings from it.”

One such blessing is the addition of young adults working at the church, Welman said. Alicia Weber, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer, splits her time between the church and the Lakeview Presbyterian Weekday School, a preschool adjacent to the church. After her year as a volunteer is up, she will work part time at the preschool and part time at the church as Christian education coordinator.

Another young adult, Maura Hooper, came to the church last summer and coordinated the Sunday School curriculum and teachers. She also wrote a Christmas play and an Easter play for the church’s children to perform.

The Presbytery of South Louisiana deployed four YAVs this year and has recruited eight for next year, Welman said, adding that the use of YAVs by the presbytery has been a result of the need created by Katrina.

“It’s really just been a gift for smaller churches for a YAV to come in,” she said.      

The revitalization of the Sunday School program has been very exciting, Welman said. Aimed at children from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade, the curriculum has five-week lessons, with a different method employed each week. For example, one week might use puppets to teach students, and the next might use movies. The fifth week of a lesson always includes a children’s worship, complete with bulletins, liturgy and a baptismal font.

The weekday school next to the church is also back in action after the storm. Open since 1946 and connected with Lakeview since 1951, the school has a long history. It was badly damaged in the hurricane, with the entire structure having to be replaced except the roof and outer walls. Dale Davis, longtime director of the day school and financial secretary for the church, said that she lost 60 years worth of resources in the flood.

Renovated in January 2007, the school now enrolls 70 children, which is where it plans to stay in order to maintain a good student-teacher ratio. Donations helped get the school back up and running. The Birthday Offering of Presbyterian Women, which funds projects not included in ongoing General Assembly mission budgets, contributed $205,000, “which is why we are here,” Davis said.

Help also came from spaghetti dinner fundraisers, volunteer labor and donations of books and supplies from churches across the country, including a California church that sent two truckloads of materials.  

That kind of help has allowed the people at Lakeview to ease back into a normal way of life, instead of the chaos they faced immediately after the hurricane, Welman said.

And for her, Katrina made a different kind of impact.

“Before the storm, I was kind of thinking it was time for me to move on,” she said, adding that since the hurricane, her job has been harder, but also more fulfilling. “I’ve been more certain that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

And Welman has hope that Lakeview is doing the same. “I feel strongly God didn’t bring us this far to let us go,” she said.

To read a 2007 PNS story about Lakeview Presbyterian Church, click here.

To read YAV Alicia Weber’s blog chronicling her year at Lakeview, click here

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