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By Bruce Nolan
New Orleans – Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, members of
132-year-old Rayne United Methodist Church have finally moved back into
their storm-damaged sanctuary, even as masons continue substantial
repairs to the church’s toppled brick steeple.
Meanwhile, in Algiers, contractors are just starting what promises
to be at least nine months of work and more than $2 million in repairs
and expansion to Life Center Cathedral, where 1,000 people still gather
in a tent.
So it goes across the New Orleans area, where the recovery of about
1,500 damaged churches and other houses of worship has slowed to the
same hard slog that mirrors the recovery in general, according to a
church demographer.
Still, the members of Rayne Memorial and Life Center Cathedral are
in better shape than many. Even if their buildings were damaged, those
congregations have remained intact — if diminished — as nourishing
faith communities.
By contrast, the most recent numbers compiled by Bill Day of the New
Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary indicate that by the end of April,
about 30 percent of congregations in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany,
St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes still appeared to be missing from
the post-storm landscape.
In the hardest-hit parishes of Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard,
43 percent of pre-Katrina congregations have not returned, according to
Day’s research.
That represents slow improvement in the eight months since Day’s
previous benchmark, the one-year anniversary of Katrina. At that time
Day estimated that only 47 percent of congregations in those hard-hit
parishes were meeting; now it’s 57 percent.
Moreover, it appears across the board that surviving congregations
have lost significant fractions of their members. Day said it was not
uncommon to see surviving congregations functioning at two-thirds of
their former strength.
Although local churches have received considerable rebuilding aid
from other churches across the country, Day said their continuing
struggle no doubt reflects a hardship that construction dollars can’t
erase: the relative depopulation of many areas, especially St. Bernard
and lower Plaquemines parishes.
Urban planners and civic leaders generally think the recovery of
churches, synagogues and mosques both reflects and ignites a
neighborhood’s recovery. A neighborhood or region must support some
critical mass of residents who can come together to revitalize a
dormant congregation or renovate a damaged building. Places of worship,
in turn, can become centers for dispensing tangible services such as day
care, and vital intangibles such as rebuilding information and aid.
Day’s research teams of seminary students counted only 28 of 56
prestorm churches open in St. Bernard Parish, and 29 of 49 pre-Katrina
churches open in Plaquemines Parish.
In many cases, Katrina proved to be a brutal winnowing, decisively
killing off small institutions that were prosperous a generation ago,
before they lost their vitality because of population shifts or an
inability to attract younger members.
The wreckage of the post-Katrina landscape has forced major
denominations to cluster many surviving congregations together for
mutual sustenance until their prospects for recovery become clearer.
To varying degrees, both Catholic and United Methodist officials
have pursued that strategy with almost 80 damaged congregations in their
two denominations.
Starting this fall, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will
systematically revisit a 2006 plan that closed eight parishes or
missions and clustered another 20 badly damaged parishes around 17
viable churches. Although empty, those damaged parishes are still
technically open, and Day’s method counts them open, even though no
Catholic worship or ministry occurs in those neighborhoods.
In time, the archdiocese will have to decide which parishes have
sufficiently repopulated to warrant resuming operations, and which will
have to merge or close permanently.
Similarly, about three dozen damaged Methodist churches in 2006 were
grouped into seven clusters — recently reduced to three — in a plan in
which church members and pastors try to chart their futures in a
bottoms-up planning process, said the Rev. Martha Orphe, who is helping
supervise the process.
In the case of the Methodist churches, five congregations have voted
to close under the plan; two separate pairs of congregations are
actively exploring merger, Orphe said.
In the coming months, church officials and church members might
decide to close still more congregations, officials said. But in many
cases, that means churches are free to reinvent and perhaps revitalize
themselves in light of new circumstances, Orphe said.
“I have hope,” she said. “I do, I do.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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