FTE Day 5: Flood Narratives
One of the strong themes of FTE’s Leadership in Ministry conference was the theme of context. And this year, FTE took a long, hard look at the context of our experiences at the annual conference. While last year’s conference was in Boston, this year’s conference was in New Orleans, and while I’m no expert on Katrina, FEMA, Louisiana politics, or the massive disaster born of all three, having New Orleans as our context allowed me to experience some beautiful communities of faith and their responses in the wake of the storm. I’d like to share a few of those stories with you now.
Christian Unity Baptist Church is the headquarters of an organization called Churches Supporting Churches. A network of over thirty Baptist churches, many of which are independent and lack the support of denominational networks, CSC is dedicated to matching church and clergy resources all over the country. While we visited CUBC, we heard from three different ministers whose churches either had been or were being rebuilt through the work of CSC. The organization’s goals are to rebuild and restart community churches in order to make those churches agents of change in area neighborhoods. Not only did I enjoy hearing the very Baptist nature of this beautiful narrative, but I was deeply moved by the idea of churches coming together to support each other over great distances (one of the New Orleans churches receives support from congregations in Nashville and beyond) and in the middle of great hardship. Lacking a traditional support structure, these churches came together and forged something new and beautiful in the middle of a damaged place. And though the recovery hasn’t been perfect (one pastor told us they had only recently been informed of some FEMA money available to churches – information that had been available over five years ago) many other churches have reopened their doors and begun transforming their communities through this unique and beautiful network.
Another community we visited was First Grace United Methodist, a congregation that represents the joining of an historical white congregation and an historically black congregation. And while I was frustrated with our host’s simple dismissal of any racial issues that may have arisen during the joining of these two church bodies into one, it was clear that the church is thriving today. Both churches were originally struggling before the storm and the two communities were joined temporarily by the Bishop before deciding to join themselves in 2007. Today, they are a powerful voice for justice and restoration in the city of New Orleans. They operate community shelters, offer communal meals, and partner with organizations like the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice. Coming from a very white (and very wealthy) context, I wonder what would happen if we were somehow joined with an historically black congregation. Could we even pull it off? I only hope so, and that we would do so with as much grace and power as First Grace UMC.
Mary Queen of Vietnam is a Catholic congregation in New Orleans’ Village de l’Est community, and has a fascinating and inspiring story. Not only did the parish staff track down almost every parishioner dispersed across the US, but they worked together to set a communal date of return. The Vietnamese community returned almost en masse, and began rebuilding. But only did they rebuild, they became fierce advocates for justice. Not only did they prevent a landfill in their community, they also managed to convince one of the city’s power recovery companies to return power to the Vietnamese community far ahead of schedule. During the rebuilding effort, the church functioned as a communal hostel and coordinated supply drops with the Red Cross. Recently, the church established a Community Development Corporation to continue its advocacy work in the area. A powerful testament to the power of a tight-knit community and a refusal to allow systemic powers to ignore them, Mary Queen of Vietnam remains a powerful and challenging prophetic voice in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The final community we experience was All Souls Episcopal Church, a flourishing congregation that exists in a worn-out Walgreen’s facility in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward. Born out of the impromptu prayers and Eucharistic services of the volunteers who used the building’s parking lot as a supply depot, All Soul’s places its emphasis on serving as a community center with a special focus on children. All Souls sponsors music classes, summer camps, and continues to rebuild the badly-damaged neighborhood. They continually express generous hospitality (manifested to us in the form of a crawfish dinner) and have been blessed by a variety of donations from people all over the country.
For years, I’ve been terrified of proclamations that the church has to discover new ways of being the church. I’ve watched friends and family become obsessed with emergent movements and disorganized house church groups. And I’ve resisted. Hard. But if the church transforms into communities like these, I have great faith in the coming years. If this commitment to justice and advocacy and community building characterizes the church of the future, I’m on board. Because I saw in these places not only a commitment to justice and restoration, but to the practicing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in those areas. I saw and heard and touched and tasted the Good News in those communities in powerful ways. If we can learn to transform our communities like these churches (hopefully, absent the impetus of a natural disaster) the Church has a bright future and a credible witness to the world that we inhabit.