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Hurricane Katrina

The storm robbed them, but it couldn't take their faith

By BRADY DENNIS, ALEX LEARY and CARRIE JOHNSON
Published September 5, 2005



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NEW ORLEANS: Thankful on the street corner.

In the middle of this cauldron of floods and fires and death, their voices penetrated the early morning air like a candle in the darkest night.

They clapped and swayed - four dirty, weary, newly homeless souls singing an old gospel hymn - at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon avenues.

Jesus is on the main line

Tell him what you want

If you're sick, and you don't get well

Call him up, and tell him what you want!

What they wanted Sunday morning was simply to give thanks. Each of them had been plucked from their homes by rescue boats on Saturday and spent the night in chairs outside Copeland's Restaurant, waiting for a bus to take them somewhere, anywhere.

The doors to the neighborhood churches were closed; the sanctuaries were empty and quiet. So these four - Emma Lee Bickham, 66; Amy Henry, 58; Pearley Breashears, 52; and Manny MacGee, 73 - joined hands and prayed on the street corner.

"We're just asking you heavenly Father to wrap your arms around this town," Bickham said to shouts of "Amen!"

"Thank you, Lord, for letting us see another day."

So many of the sufferers have felt that God and government abandoned New Orleans this week. But on one street corner Sunday morning, a few people held tight to the only thing they had left: faith.

"You have to believe and trust," Henry said.

GULFPORT, MISS: Taco shells in the pews.

There are hundreds of selections in the United Methodist Hymnal , but it seemed only right to pick up where they left off the day before Katrina: No. 512, Stand by Me .

When the storms of life are raging,

Stand by me;

When the world is tossing me

Like a ship in the sea,

Stand by me;

When the host of hell assail,

And my strength begins to fail,

Stand by me .

Huddled close amid the pews in the darkened sanctuary, members of First United Methodist Church eased their wounds with song and prayer at an 8:30 a.m. service Sunday.

"Lord ... we pray you will send your arms down to hug us and hold us," said Associate Minister Robbie Murden.

Forty congregants made it to the service, exchanging handshakes and tears and worries about the others. A message board out front held some answers: Catherine Barnes - okay, house destroyed. Kay Lang - in Memphis with kin. Jamie and Chuck Craig - house flooded, walls standing, we're okay!

The 93-year-old church was perhaps the only one in downtown Gulfport to escape without major damage. The basement was flooded and three of the 95 stained glass windows were broken.

"We're very thankful," said Senior Minister Guss Shelly. His home was flooded, and now he is living at the church with his wife, Sarah, and dog, Mick.

Shelly interrupted the service to hug a latecomer, who respectfully removed an Ole Miss baseball hat. Several times, Shelly paused to cry and said others should release their tension, too.

Though some no longer have jobs or homes to go to, they took ones, fives and tens from their pockets and dropped them on a gold collection plate. Shelly turned to Psalm 46: "We will not fear though the earth shall change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the city; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult."

Then the pastor offered up communion to those knelt at the altar. With no bread to use, they were given all that was available: broken taco shells.

BATON ROUGE, LA: A destiny to fulfill.

They gathered in the sanctuary of Shabach World Ministries wearing secondhand clothes and clutching borrowed Bibles.

Evacuees fled after Hurricane Katrina's rising waters consumed their homes and all of their possessions. Some are still missing relatives, so six days after their exile began, they prayed.

Lord, I lift your name on high. Lord, I love to sing your praises.

Of the 100 congregants at the church Sunday, about half were displaced residents. Many lived at the downtown river center, recognizable by their green wristbands.

Pastor James F. Scott, dressed in jeans and a pink button-down shirt, told the congregation to keep faith. "God has allowed you to live, which means each of you has a destiny to fulfill," said Scott, 38. "You may not know when your next meal may be, you may not know where your loved ones are, but you must still trust God."

Schwanda Washington sat in the third row and wept silently until the end of the service, when Scott invited her to share her testimony. She spent five days trapped inside her home on the west bank of New Orleans and was rescued by a neighbor as the roof caved in around her.

"It's hard to have faith right now," said Washington, 33. "But really, that's all I've got left."

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 01:16:12]


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