Hope after the storm

Buildings gone, but church remains visible in Mississippi
September 30, 2005

A few hours after dawn on the first Sunday after Hurricane Katrina swept its broad path of devastation across lower Mississippi, the rector of St. Mark’s, Gulfport, stood on the concrete slab where the church once proudly stood.

“What is important here is to have people know that the Episcopal Church still lives,” said the Rev. J. Beauregrad “Bo” Roberts, rector of this historic parish for 37 years. “The Christian community still lives.”

Roberts became rector of St. Mark’s in 1969, four months before Hurricane Camille swept through the same area, lifting the church and carrying it more than 100 years inland. At that time, Roberts and parish leaders brought the Communion vessels outdoors, and Sunday services continued uninterrupted.

This time, many parishioners were unprepared for the devastation that awaited them when they returned. Military police who restricted movement into the area gave the church permission to conduct the Eucharist amid piles of broken brick, fallen power lines and rotting wood.

Surrounded by all of this and with tranquil blue waters of the Gulf within eyesight, more than 50 parishioners, joined by military police and rescue workers, gathered in testimony to their strength and determination to move forward.

“You are St. Mark’s Church,” said Roberts, as he wept unabashedly during his sermon. “You are the spirit of St. Mark’s Church. It’s you who have to stand for Jesus. It’s you who will bring us back as we once were.”

Nothing left standing

Built in 1846, St. Mark’s was the oldest organized Episcopal presence on the coast and one of six churches demolished by Katrina. A 20- to 30-foot surge of water, along 50 miles of coastline, swept a half-mile inland, smashing everything in its path. Only twisted signposts remain to show where the Ramada Inn, Denny’s and The Waffle House once stood along this stretch of Ocean Drive.

Despite the danger, Roberts remained in his rectory as Katrina pounded the coast. “The reason I stayed is that you cannot get back [in] after the storm. I wanted to be where I could be with my people – in life or death.”

He said he heard of no one who died among his parishioners. Bishop Duncan Gray III, who was at Gulfport that Sunday, said that, unlike in Hurricane Camille, no cleric or members of clergy families had died.

“Although the church is not standing physically,” Gray said, “spiritually the church continues to stand, and we will continue to do the work that God has called us to do.”
“It’s time for us to reach out to one another; to try and renew our faith, increase our strength and our relation to God,” he said. “Walking in the presence of Christ, we’ll be able to recover from the ruins that we find ourselves in today.”

Local needs

The first priority, Gray explained, is to give local clergy stability so that they can return to the area. “We need to make sure they have a place to live,” he said. “We may get motor scooters for them because gas is so hard to come by. We will get trailers for two or three to give them temporary space.”

The Diocese of Mississippi set up supply areas for local needs. Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach is receiving goods and volunteers to serve meals. Christus Victor, a Lutheran church in Ocean Springs, is home to Lutheran-Episcopal Services of Mississippi, an ecumenical social-ministry organization.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Diamondhead, was named as another distribution point. Episcopal Relief and Development immediately sent assistance – food, water and other basic needs – to where parishes have become disaster shelters.

National support

The Rev. Rob Dewey, chaplain with the U.S. government’s Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, worked with morticians in New York in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now, he has been deployed to Mississippi to support the men and women who make up the forensic team and to help families find their loved ones.

“I would equate it very much to 9/11,” he said. “I think we will all be here a while to offer assistance and support.” A center now provides information to people about family members who are missing. “This is certainly one of the most devastating things that I have been a part of,” Dewey said, “but the local folks are resilient, and we will do all that we can to help them.” After the service, Gray accompanied Dewey to the morgue, where the bishop blessed the facility.

Looking ahead

Catherine Gautier left the Diocese of Kentucky to become St. Mark’s youth minister and had been in the job just weeks before Katrina hit. Her future may be uncertain, she said, but she hopes to continue her work with the young people. About 20 of them attended the service.

“I ask people to remember us over the coming months, because the long term is going to be very difficult in moving forward and reestablishing this area,” she said. “It’s not about the past, but looking to the future,” said Diane Hayes, a parishioner since 1982. “St. Mark’s is not the church, it’s the people, and with everyone pulling together, we will go forward.”

Hayes, who remained in her waterfront house despite a flooded first floor and no doors, windows or electricity, described people’s generosity as staggering. “Not only have people been bringing water and food, two days ago someone came by with a case of fresh bananas,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d see fresh fruit for a very long time.”

Asked whether the church would rebuild, Hayes said it is important for the coast that it does. “We don’t want to not have a community here,” she said. “I know the first reaction is, maybe it’s time to move away. But if everybody did that, then the coast could not rebuild. So we have to stay and slowly put it back together and to make it our community again.”

For news of Mississippi relief operations, visit: http://www.dioms.org/