Out of Deep Waters: Presiding Bishop notes Episcopalians' generosity, compassion on visit to Gulf Coast

September 22, 2005

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold observed "profligate acts of generosity" and compassion by Episcopalians in the dioceses of Louisiana and Mississippi while visiting hurricane-impacted churches along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans and witnessing local relief operations September 19-20.

During his first visit to the region since Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29, Griswold commented on the incredible faith and determination of Gulf Coast Episcopalians, and noted with awe the resiliency and "deep compassion" of the local community.

"Even the people who've lost everything ... are reaching out beyond themselves for someone else who may have suffered more deeply," he said. "It's really an example of God's generosity made incarnate in men and women, and this is what gives us so much hope."

Accompanied by his wife, Phoebe Griswold; Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD); and Barbara Braver, the Presiding Bishop's assistant for communications, Griswold visited four churches and a relief operations center in Mississippi and five churches in New Orleans.

Rebuilding community

At St. John's Church in Pascagoula, Griswold was greeted by Bishop Duncan Gray III of Mississippi and his wife, Cathy Gray. The church, which suffered some water damage from Katrina's storm surge, held a service just five days after the hurricane hit.

Bob McDonald, an auto mechanic and teacher in Pascagoula, explained how he is trying to put his school -- scheduled to open early October -- back together. "The big question now is will I have any students," he said. "And where am I going to live for the next six months to a year?"

"But I don't want to leave," he added. "I want to help rebuild our community."

McDonald spoke about the sustenance that Christ has given him in the Episcopal Church. "It has made a real difference in what I look for tomorrow," he said. "If I needed help today, I'd go [to the church] across the street, but if I need help tomorrow, I'd be at our altar."

St. John's, now a scattered community, has about 60 percent of its parishioners remaining in Pascagoula.

"I think the most obvious people who are missing are the children, which is really sad," said junior warden Terrie Gall. "We have almost 50 acolytes, but only one turned up last Sunday."

Visibly moved, Gall said that it tears at her heart, "because those children are just wonderful and they love serving at the altar; they love this church and this community."

Making a difference

At St. John's Church in Ocean Springs, the Rev. Wayne Ray, rector, and the Rev. Marcia King, associate rector, are coordinating relief efforts and hosting volunteers from Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas. A group of 40 volunteers will soon be arriving from Pennsylvania.

"We're assessing critical needs ... but also working with those who, once they're up and running, will be able to help others," said King. "We're trying to do everything we can to make a difference in people's lives."

Leaving Pascagoula along the coast's Highway 90, Mississippi police escorted the group to two churches -- Church of the Redeemer, Biloxi, and St. Mark's, Gulfport -- that were destroyed by the hurricane.

One of the few things remaining at the site where Church of the Redeemer once stood is a memorial to the victims of the 1969 Hurricane Camille which, until Katrina, had been the worst hurricane on record to hit the Gulf Coast.

Redeemer's rector, the Rev. Harold Roberts, also lost his house in the storm. He is currently residing at the Very Rev. Bo Roberts' house in Gulfport, which survived relatively unscathed, and worship services are being held temporarily at North Bay Elementary School in Biloxi.

Built in 1846, St. Mark's is the oldest Episcopal church on the Mississippi coast and one of six that were completely destroyed by Katrina.

"Although the church is not standing physically," Bishop Duncan Gray III of Mississippi explained, "spiritually the church continues to stand and we will continue to do the work that God has called us to do."

"We're in good shape," said St. Mark's rector Bo Roberts. "Our congregation is excited about new possibilities for their homes and for the growth of the church. I didn't want to face a new challenge at this stage in my life, but we're walking with somebody else and we'll be okay."

Absorbing generosity

Coast Episcopal School, a center for relief efforts in Long Beach, is operating a medical clinic, distribution center, volunteer shelter and a donated kitchen under the directorship of the Very Rev. Joe Robinson.

Volunteers at the school are regularly unloading supplies from two or three 18-wheeler trucks a day, mostly coordinated through Lutheran/Episcopal Services in Mississippi based in Jackson.

"We also have friends around the country who are sending trucks directly to us," Robinson said. "So we're absorbing people's generosity from all directions."

Jennifer Knight, who established the school's medical center, is an RN at Urgent Care of Bay St. Louis and wife of the Rev. David Knight, rector of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, Long Beach.

"It has grown, thank goodness, with the volunteers who are willing to donate their time and energy and leadership," said Knight, also a member of the Honduras Medical Mission committee of the Diocese of Mississippi. "We have groups from Virginia, Indiana and Miami that have just arrived today that are rotating doctors and nurses and sending in things almost faster than we can order them."

Also contributing to the diocese's relief efforts, an Olympic cooking team from California has volunteered its time and energy to ensure that visitors, volunteers, medical staff and other relief workers are fed.

Biggest challenges

After a tour of the school's facility, a gathering of coastal clergy and spouses described some of their experiences from the past three weeks.

The Rev. Chris Colby is rector of Trinity Church, Pass Christian, one of the coastal churches that was destroyed. "I have a foundation and the nave has one of the structural arches in place with something of a roof attached," he said. "Both transepts blew away and there is one cleat on the deck to show we ever had a pew."

Eighty percent of the housing is destroyed, Colby explained, "so we're not going to have much of a congregation for a couple of years."

The Rev. Paul Stephens, headmaster of Coast Episcopal School, said that 85 percent of his faculty and staff have lost their homes.

"So one of our biggest challenges is just to be able to find a place for them to live so we can reopen the school," he said. "We don't know if we'll have 10 students or 110, but we'll get started and build on what we have."

Stephens expects the school to reopen on September 30.

"In the meantime, we're just glad to be able to make all these facilities available to the church," he added, "and blessed to be able to be the church in this community."

Seeing "people showing up to share whatever skills they have or whatever deep passion they have in their hearts to be in some ways part of someone else's suffering ... reveals what it means to be the body of Christ," Griswold said.

Bishop George Packard, bishop suffragan for chaplaincies, has ensured that military and civilian emergency response chaplains are deployed to locations in the Gulf Coast. He noted that relief efforts at Coast Episcopal School were much more advanced than usual for this stage after a disaster.

"We're bewildered how quickly you have gotten to this location," he said. "You're supposed to be in early recovery, but you're moving far beyond that with some speed."

Packard recently offered a program for clergy and spouses in the Diocese of Louisiana, helping them understand the various stages of a disaster and the ways in which they need to be caring for themselves as well as caring for their congregations.

Griswold also expressed his concerns about people who have sustained their own loss and trying to be available to others. "I hope you'll be gentle with yourselves," he said. "You have to give yourself permission to take time off, even though there is more that you could be doing."

Entering New Orleans

After visiting Baton Rouge, where the Diocese of Louisiana has temporarily relocated its offices, Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana led a team into New Orleans September 20 to visit Episcopal churches previously inaccessible due to the city's flooding.

He observed that vast parts of the city looked like they had been under eight to ten feet of water for weeks, "so I wonder about the future viability of those neighborhoods," he said.

With approximately 20 percent of the city still under water, some of New Orleans' Episcopal churches remain inaccessible.

A group of military chaplains greeted Jenkins and Griswold as they arrived at Church of the Annunciation on South Claiborne Avenue, which was under about six feet of water for almost two weeks.

"We have people who don't have cell phones, don't have savings accounts or credit cards," explained Jerome Kramer, rector. "We found some families through the internet and we're having a Bible study online. We have a chat room set up as it's so important for people to be able to chat with each other right now and see each other's faces."

Rector of Annunciation for just eight months, Kramer said he wasn't sure why God had called him there. "Now we're finding out," he said. "So we're going to rebuild God's church and God's people and get back to work."

He hopes to have a portable building erected in New Orleans as soon as possible to help restore services to the community.

Major Ira C. Houck, an Episcopal Church army chaplain, explained that all denominations in the army are working together. "We have a rabbi, Catholic priests, Orthodox, Presbyterians," he said, "all working together for the common good and under the headship of one."

Major Will Laigaie, chaplain for the 82nd Airborne division, said, "We're caring for the poorest of the poor. All those who had means escaped and so we're glad to focus on those who really could not help themselves."

Griswold thanked the chaplains for their ministries under such difficult circumstances and offered a prayer:

Lord God of the universe, creator and sustainer of all life, Grant us the serenity to respond to disaster in bold faith, Seeking not certainty but rather the assurance of your abiding presence, Grant us hope when we spiral into despair, And fill our broken hearts with love with which you surround us, As we rebuild, guide each hammer and nail with a ring of hope, Bless each bandage and conversation with a balm of healing, And strengthen each resolve with a blessed assurance that all manner of things shall be well. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christ Church Cathedral, which will celebrate its two hundredth anniversary in November, experienced only minor roof and water damage from the hurricane as the avenue on which the cathedral stands did not flood. The Very Rev. David duPlantier, the Cathedral's dean, greeted Griswold and offered him a tour of the building.

At St. Luke's Church on North Dorgenois Street, Griswold helped senior warden Elvia James move fallen branches from the front of the church. As James entered the church for the first time since the city was evacuated she gasped a sigh of relief, discovering that the damage was
much less than she had anticipated.

At the high altar, James found the lectionary open at August 28, two days before the city flooded, and the tabernacle full of hosts -- communion was received by all.

"One of the wonderful things was that the ciborium was full, so one had a sense that in the midst of this terrible desolation and devastation, the abundance of God's presence sacramentally fed us and gave us immense courage and hope," Griswold said.

At St. Paul's Church on Canal Boulevard, the water marks were easily eight feet high and opened windows suggested that some uninvited guests may have paid a visit. The church was still locked so the full extent of the damage would have to wait to be seen another day.

One of the few new churches to be built in New Orleans in recent years, Church of the Holy Comforter on Lakeshore Drive, experienced only light damage to the roof tiling. A generator is expected to arrive this week to power air conditioning in order to keep the humidity down and prevent more mold forming on the walls and ceiling.

Focused on the future

Speaking from Holy Comforter, Griswold explained that such experiences "teach us how fragile life is, how vulnerable we are and how much we depend on the things around us."

"But when all is stripped away, the gift of life, the gift of community, the gift of compassion -- those are the things that really instill us with hope and give us confidence for the future," he added.

Seeing the extent of damage to people's houses, church structures and the collapse of the economic structures in many communities, Griswold recognized that there is an impulse on the part of many people to offer help in the short term.

"But it's clear to me that this is a very long term situation," he said, encouraging people to stay close to these communities, parishes and dioceses for months and years to come.

Through Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), Jenkins explained, "we'll be present in these communities in long term ways. We're present now in short term ways -- we're doing feeding ministry, we're distributing water and supplies to speak to the necessities of life, but through ERD we'll be here for development."

It was ERD president Robert Radtke's second visit to the Gulf Coast in three weeks and one which gave him a deeper impression of the physical damage from the storm and the enormous task ahead in rebuilding the affected church communities.

Acknowledging the "wonderful work and ministry" of Episcopalians in Mississippi and Louisiana, Radtke said, "I am in awe of people's ability to focus on the future, especially given the deep personal crises many of the clergy have experienced. It truly is a heroic ministry."

ERD's vice president for program, Abagail Nelson, will return to the Gulf Coast September 26 to continue with programmatic assessment and help to develop plans. ERD expects to partner with local dioceses for three to five years.

Jenkins spoke about his own responsibility in helping to rebuild New Orleans and in reminding the civic and governmental leaders of a high calling.

"We don't need to rebuild what was here, because there were some very sick things here," he said. "We've seen the horror and the shame of the poverty and the racism in this city and of the gross economic system of the very wealthy and the very poor. The role of the church and for me is a prophetic role and it's calling the powers that be to a higher vision for the future."

Jenkins also asked for people to be patient.

"Every person on my staff is displaced, most of us are homeless, we are having a struggle to take care of ourselves and there will obviously be a time very soon when we can use the hands and the feet and the backs of others to help us dig out of this muck," he said. "But right now we need your prayers, we need your patience, we need your continuing gifts. We're showing up, we're holding on and we're doing our best."