Surrounded by scenes of devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina, more than 50 parishioners of St. Mark's Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, were joined by police, military and relief workers September 4, as they worshipped on the site where their church once stood -- a testimony to their strength and determination to move forward.
"You are St. Mark's Church," said the Very Rev James Bo Roberts, rector, as he addressed the congregation. "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."
Built in 1846, St. Mark's is the oldest Episcopal church on the Mississippi coast and one of six that were completely destroyed after Katrina hit August 29.
"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."
Despite the dangers involved, Roberts remained in his Gulfport rectory as Katrina pounded the coast, "because it's difficult to gain access to the area afterwards," he said. "I wanted to be where I could check on my people and be available to them."
Roberts' house in Gulfport is about 20 feet above sea level, yet the water, he said, came right up to the door.
"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 added. "Walking in the presence of Christ, we'll be able to recover from the ruins that we find ourselves in today."
It is Roberts' second hurricane as rector of St. Mark's. He had lived in Gulfport for only four months when Hurricane Camille devastated the area in 1969. Until Katrina, Camille was the worst hurricane on record to hit the Gulf Coast.
The first priority, Gray explained, is to give the local clergy some stability so that they can return to the area. "We need to make sure they have a place to live," he said. "We will probably get some motor scooters for them because gas is so hard to come by. We will get trailers for two or three clergy to give them temporary space."
The Diocese of Mississippi is helping to set up supply areas for local needs. Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach has begun to receive goods and volunteers and is hoping to serve 2,000 hot meals a day. Christus Victor, a Lutheran church in Ocean Springs, is home to Lutheran-Episcopal Services of Mississippi, an ecumenical social ministry organization.
St. Thomas, Diamondhead, will become another distribution point along the Mississippi coast in the weeks ahead. "Once these are fully operational, all the people who are eager to help our community will have a place to come to, a place to send materials and we will begin to step out into the community," Gray said.
Supplies are being received at several churches throughout Mississippi and the diocese is organizing these to be transferred to the coastal operations centers.
Episcopal Relief and Development sent immediate assistance to the diocese, where some parishes have become disaster shelters. ERD's support is helping to provide food, water, and other basic needs.
The Rev. Rob Dewey from the Diocese of South Carolina works with the U.S government's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. He was deployed to Mississippi August 29 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 has been set up where people can provide information 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 offered a blessing over the facility.
Originally from the Diocese of Kentucky, Catherine Gautier has been youth minister at St. Mark's for just six weeks. She is hoping to continue her work with the young people in the parish despite the devastation caused by Katrina.
"I have asked for people to consider getting in touch with organizations such as Salvation Army or the diocesan offices to offer support," she said, "but to definitely remember us over the coming months because the long term is going to be very difficult in moving forward and reestablishing this area."
Gautier explained that her husband's family lived on Jackson Avenue in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where three homes in a row were destroyed by the hurricane. "Only one home on that street -- my husband's grandmother's -- is still standing," she said. "It has been really painful to see how many people have lost their homes."
"It's not about the past, but looking to the future," said Diane Hayes, a St. Mark's 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 is still living in her house by the sea despite it being five feet deep in water and without doors, windows and 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 explained that 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."
Further information and updates about the Diocese of Mississippi's relief operations can be found online at: http://www.dioms.org/.