Leaders of five Anabaptist denominations visited Louisiana to learn about the ongoing struggles of communities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The group included Belita D. Mitchell, moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren General Board.
The nine-member Council of Moderators and Secretaries visited Louisiana from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2. The council is a gathering of the leaders of Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, and Conservative Mennonite Conference. The group meets annually to discuss common concerns among Anabaptist denominations.
The council visited devastated New Orleans neighborhoods, worshiped with an Anabaptist congregation in nearby Metairie and attended the dedication of a house built by Mennonite Disaster Service in the southern Louisiana community of Pointe-aux-Chenes.
They also met with pastors and aid workers and learned about the enormous challenges still facing Gulf Coast communities as a result of the 2005 hurricanes. Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated from New Orleans and other areas have not returned. In many cases, they continue to live in trailers or other temporary housing arrangements in unfamiliar communities far from their family members, churches, and jobs.
Delays in restoring city services have slowed the return of evacuees, according to Tim Barr, Gulf Coast disaster response coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. Additionally, many evacuees lack the basic resources they need to make the transition home. “The hope is that a lot of people are going to come back to New Orleans, but the reality is that many people can’t,” Barr said.
Steve Swartz, general secretary of Conservative Mennonite Conference, said the house dedication was a highlight of the Council of Moderators and Secretaries’ visit. According to Mennonite Disaster Service, the house dedicated in Pointe-aux-Chenes may serve as a prototype for future houses in coastal southern Louisiana, where storm surges from Hurricane Rita caused great damage last year. The house was built on top of 11-and-a-half foot wooden supports to protect it from storm surges from nearby bayous. The house was graciously accepted by the predominantly Native American community of Pointe-aux-Chenes and given to a family of four whose trailer was inundated by Rita.
One of the ways the Church of the Brethren responded to Katrina was by providing child care at shelters and service centers for evacuees. Trained volunteers cared for more than 3,000 evacuee children in eight states in the weeks following Katrina, according to Roy Winter, executive director of the General Board’s Emergency Response program.
The child care freed parents to take care of family needs and gave children a place to deal with traumatic experiences. “Children need to be able to communicate and process what they’ve seen and experienced,” Winter said. “They actually communicate through their play.”
Bob Zehr, a retired pastor in the Gulf States Mennonite Conference, thanked the Mennonite aid agencies for their assistance to churches and communities in the Gulf Coast region but added that many needs remain. Zehr said that many members of the congregations he attends, Lighthouse Fellowship in Plaquemines Parish, southern Louisiana, have not yet qualified for housing assistance for various reasons. Zehr said that he fears that some people, such as those in his congregation, are “falling through the cracks.”
Members of the council said Zehr’s comments prompted a helpful discussion of the channels for mutual aid within the church community and that they would continue to follow up on these concerns.
At Amor Viviente, a Gulf Coast Mennonite congregation in Metairie, La., members expressed gratitude for assistance provided in the wake of Katrina. Everyone in the congregation was forced to flee as Katrina approached and spent weeks or months in Texas, Florida, or other parts of the country.
When they returned, many members found that their homes had been flooded and their household belongings were destroyed. Mennonite Central Committee provided financial assistance to members of the congregation and pays the salary of a worker who helps church members find other assistance.
“You have been the arms of God for us,” said Josefina Gomez, a member of Amor Viviente, thanking all those who have helped the congregation. “You made us feel that God was with us. We were never alone.”
Members of the Council of Moderators and Secretaries are Roy W. Williams, moderator of Mennonite Church USA; Steve Swartz, general secretary of Conservative Mennonite Conference; Ben W. Shirk, moderator of Conservative Mennonite Conference; Belita D. Mitchell, moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference; Don McNiven, general secretary of Brethren in Christ; Warren Hoffman, moderator of Brethren in Christ, Joe E. Johns, chair of the leadership board of the US Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Stanley J. Noffsinger, general secretary of Church of the Brethren; and Jim Schrag, executive director of Mennonite Church USA.