Faith-related assessments of damage from Hurricane Katrina are hard tocome by and people are dispersed so widely that some pastors have no cluehow their congregants are doing. With communication breakdowns, officialcounts on deaths and damage often are not yet available, denominationalleaders say.
Gwen Green, communications coordinator for United Methodist churches inMississippi, said efforts to contact pastors and churches are continuing.
"Communication is very difficult because phone service has been out, sowe're doing a lot of word of mouth, who's seen who," she said. In yet another dilemma surfacing in the hurricane's aftermath, not onlyare biological families separated but church families are, too.
"That's one of the toughest things," said Pastor Fred Luter, leader ofthe now flooded-Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, a New Orleans megachurch."It's not the building. I have no idea where our members are."
The Southern Baptist minister spoke in a phone interview from Dallas,where he managed to fulfill a long-scheduled speaking engagement, but he andhis wife are staying with their daughter in Birmingham, Ala., while theywait for the waters to recede.
Some congregations are not able to meet at all while others aregathering without the buildings where they long have worshipped. At the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Miss., the pews weresplinters, the brick bell tower a pile of rubble.
But on the first Sunday (Sept. 4) after the hurricane, congregants cameto give thanks for their survival and to pray for mercy. More importantly,it was their first chance to find out if friends and neighbors survived.
Thomas Walter was the church's caretaker for 16 years, and to see it inshambles broke his heart. But it was the sight of Jolove and ShirleyThornton, fellow churchgoers, that made him cry.
"Jo!" he yelled, and then they held one another tightly. "I thought youhad gotten out of here, and then I saw your car was still here, and I said,`Oh no!"'
Thornton explained that they couldn't get away in time, and had to rideout the storm, going from rooftop to rooftop until they were eventuallyrescued.
"I kept telling God, `I am not going to die here,"' Thornton said. "Wewouldn't have survived without his help."
Walter raised his eyes to the sky. "These are the miracles right here,"he said.
The Rev. Harold Roberts, who preached from a borrowed Bible on thegrounds of the destroyed building, said seeing his congregants again renewedhis faith. He announced that no one from the congregation, as far as heknew, was killed.
Other religious groups are still trying to find out the status of theirclergy and their buildings. Staffers who have relocated to offices away fromthe damage are trying to piece together reports from the field.
Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., toldofficials who reached him by cell phone from the U.S. Conference of CatholicBishops that at least 20 percent of his diocese's churches had beendestroyed, along with one-third of its schools.
In an online statement, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans urgedpriests to contact the diocesan director of priest personnel at a BatonRouge, La., phone number to report their whereabouts.
"Since we cannot return yet to significant segments of the archdiocese,we are developing a pastoral plan to offer priestly ministry for NewOrleanians in areas where there is a significant concentration of evacuees,"he wrote.
Other religious groups, too, have had information trickle in. EpiscopalBishop Duncan M. Gray reported in a statement to his diocese that it appearsthat six Episcopal churches were completely destroyed in the Diocese ofMississippi while many others were seriously damaged. The Presbyterian NewsService reported that Katrina had damaged more than half of the churchesaffiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in south Louisiana anddestroyed six in Mississippi. The Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of theUnitarian Universalist Association, reported that three New Orleans-areacongregations affiliated with his church are thought to be seriouslydamaged.
As of Tuesday, Luter had made contact with a slim percentage of hismembers.
"I guess out of 8,000 members that we have, I've been able to contact... less than 100 of them," he said.
But while he was in Dallas, he found some of them at the conventioncenter and Reunion Arena, where some New Orleans residents had beenevacuated.
"You don't know who's alive," he said. "You don't know who's dead. Everytime you see someone that's alive, it's just rewarding."
He hoped to make more contacts online, but that, too, has been achallenge.
"We're trying to set something up on our Web site," he said. "I'm stilltrying to locate the guy from the church who's been (in charge of) our Website."