Presbyterians have long advocated for ecumenical and interreligious collaboration around the world. They have also led efforts in the United States to bring denominations and faiths together in common cause.

In the months leading up to General Assembly 225, the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligous Relations (GACEIR) is sharing individual reflections about ecumenical and interreligious ministry happening throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Through these stories we hope to inspire you to work ecumenically and with other religious traditions in your community to find ways to share God’s love with the world.

As the pandemic has reminded us, we are closer than we think. We have the same needs and wants for our families and our faith communities. We have limited resources and energy, yet we can find our ways through anything if we work together. Our communities are not only defined by geographies and background, but by shared purpose.

Have a recent story of ecumenical or interreligious cooperation to share with GACEIR? Please email me.
Dr. Dianna Wright, GACIER staff member

Storm relief assistance in Lake Charles, photo courtesy of CRE Nanette Cagney.

Storm relief assistance in Lake Charles.-Photo courtesy of CRE Nanette Cagney.

“In Southwest Louisiana we talk of life before the storms and after the storms,” said CRE Nanette Cagney, pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Lake Charles.

The “storms” are August 2020’s Hurricane Laura, followed by October’s Hurricane Delta, two of the five named disasters to hit the area in the last year. The “we” is everyone in Southwest Louisiana, including the patchwork of community groups that have come together in unprecedented ways to rebuild in the wake of recurring devastation.

Many of Lake Charles’ community groups work out of area congregations with different denominational or religious affiliations.

Pastor Cagney, in addition to her ministry at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, is a member of the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR), which encourages ecumenical and interreligious work by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In a recent phone call she described some of the ways worshiping communities in Lake Charles have come together after the storms.

She also praised a new spirit of cooperation between PC(USA) congregations, showing that Presbyterians in Louisiana are working together across historic divides to “love your neighbor as yourself” — a pillar of the church’s interreligious stance.

The five major storms since Hurricane Laura have included a 12-hour period in May 2021 when 15 inches of rain fell in Lake Charles, and Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana on August 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Each new weather event hampered repair and recovery work. Many businesses and other institutions the community relies on have remained closed for months.

Beyond damaging buildings and vital infrastructure, the storms made basic food provision difficult. Cagney said that Lake Charles’ north side, which is predominantly African American, “is a food desert with no grocery stores” as recently as last month.

For Mother’s Day, “the best gift turned out to be fruit and vegetables,” which were distributed to residents of north Lake Charles by the Vessel Project at St Andrew.

Ecumenical and interreligious work

St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, where Cagney has been the commissioned ruling elder since 2006, is hardly new to interreligious and ecumenical work.

Prior to 2020 the PC(USA) congregation teamed up with a local mosque and synagogue to facilitate antiviolence worship services and hold Q&A sessions about Islam. For the last 15 years St. Andrew has participated in a group called Women in Ministry, joining nondenominational, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Catholic, Muslim, Episcopal, Presbyterian and most recently Pentecostal women once a month for networking and support.

After Hurricane Laura in August 2020, St. Andrew broadened its collaborative ministry, working with what Cagney called “a larger coalition of faiths” to address the pressing needs created by recent storms, including the widespread food shortages.

“We are working together across lines to get whatever needs to be done,” she said.

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Food pantry and distribution center in Lake Charles. -Photo Courtesy of Deborah Serra

Specific examples of ecumenical collaboration Cagney cited include the following:

  • St. Andrew and First Presbyterian Church in Scotlandville (near Baton Rouge) have worked with Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church and a coalition of churches of color on rebuilding projects.
  • The Presbytery of South Louisiana was approached by the local Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) synod about working together in mission and pulpit supply.
  • Southwest Louisiana Rebuilds is a regional effort that includes broad-based congregational support, including First Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles, to rebuild houses.
  • First Presbyterian Church of Lake Charles and a Disciples of Christ congregation, Grace Point Christian Fellowship, have teamed up to build and share a new facility which serves as a community center and worship space, an instance of ecumenism covered in a recent American Press newspaper article.
  • Westminster Presbyterian Church of Sulphur, Louisiana, worked with a coalition of interdenominational churches and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to distribute food and supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura in the area west of the Calcasieu River.
  • St. Andrew is joining with St. Michael & All Angels and St. Paul Lutheran Church to form a “United Christian Fellowship” on the campus of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, a collaboration between the PC(USA), ELCA and the Episcopal Church.

The United Christian Fellowship is an exciting new venture that is especially important to St. Andrew, which is located across the street from the campus of McNeese State University.

St. Andrew is also teaming up the Vessel Project and Water’s Edge Homeless ministry, facilitated by a PDA community grant, to assist with Lake Charles’s housing crisis and homeless population.

“Housing costs have been astronomical because of the storms,” Cagney said. “Reasonably affordable housing after storm damage is extremely hard to find.”

Presbyterians reaching out to Presbyterians

Cagney also praised Presbyterians for working inside the denomination following the storms.

The Synod of the Sun, which includes presbyteries in Louisiana and Texas, “was very helpful, bringing food to the area and providing a grant for a summer feeding program through the Vessel Project.”

Predominantly white Presbyterian churches in Lake Charles have for the first time begun doing ministry with a predominantly Black Presbyterian church, First Presbyterian Church in Scottlandville, pastored by Patrice Butler, a CRE.

CRE Nanette Cagney. Photo provided.

CRE Nanette Cagney. -Photo provided.

“The First Presbyterian Church of Scotlandville has been a godsend,” Cagney said, “connecting us to Black churches in the north of Lake Charles.

“We’ve wanted for years to have a closer relationship with churches on the north side of town. Scotlandville has opened doors.”

Cagney said that the Scotlandville-led discussions have gone a long way toward helping to repair race relations between churches in Lake Charles.

“These types of coalitions are forming across the Presbytery of South Louisiana as we join together to rebuild after horrible devastation,” she said.

When asked what might be next for Lake Charles collaborations — ecumenical, interreligious or Presbyterian — Cagney said that congregations were discussing other ways to do outreach together, “such as community gardens, little free food pantries and joint Taize and Advent services.”

One thing is for sure for Southwest Louisiana and other areas seeking repair following difficult times: the most impactful responses draw on a wide array of community talents and resources. In Lake Charles, storm recovery has been that much stronger for connecting congregations and faiths.