|New Orleans pastor rebuilds 'inner spirit of the people'|
The Rev. Connie Thomas surveys storm damage to Napoleon Avenue United Methodist Church almost three months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
A UMNS file photo by John Gordon.
A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Aug. 29, 2008
Three years and three churches later, the Rev. Connie Thomas is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina—as is her flock.
Katrina slammed New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, devastating the two small churches she served in the city's hard-hit 9th Ward. In the storm's wake, Napoleon Avenue United Methodist Church was decommissioned by the denomination's Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference, and Peck United Methodist Church was merged with two other churches to become First Street PW.
Jiselle Bock, Dr. Susan Berry and Thomas stand inside a portable exam room at Luke's House, a free clinic at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. A UMNS file photo by Betty Backstrom.
These days, Thomas is shepherding a third New Orleans congregation—Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, where the sanctuary is still in ruins, looking very much like it did in the days after the hurricane.
The urban, inner-city church is trying to rebuild its facilities, but Thomas has a bigger vision in mind. "My focus is on rebuilding the inner spirit of the people," she said.
From the ruins of Mt. Zion, a free clinic for the city's neediest residents has opened in the church's activities building. Called Luke's House, the clinic sees about 15 patients every Tuesday evening with the help of church volunteers and medical volunteers from Louisiana State University.
"We love Luke's House," Thomas said. "It is a hands-on ministry and is the heartbeat of ministry for New Orleans' recovery."
Still, her faithful flock would like to have their church whole again.
"It has been a hard year for me, but it has been a hard three years for members of this church," she said of waiting to rebuild. "For two years, we didn't know that we'd be a worshipping congregation."
On Sundays, the clinic is transformed into a sanctuary, but the layout is not ideal. The large room is separated by columns that block the view of the pulpit.
“This is the heart of who I am as a pastor.”
–The Rev. Connie Thomas
"A lot of people have commented on this," she said. "They say, 'When you are preaching, we can't see your face. It is like listening to the radio.'"
Thomas would like to install monitors and a projector so people can see better and feel like they are participating in a "live" service. "But how do you justify raising $2,500 for that when we have to rebuild the sanctuary?" she asked. "There are so many basic things we need."
Mt. Zion is surrounded by lots of rebuilding, including plans for a multi-family housing development across the street.
"We have a good group of children in the neighborhood, and we automatically inherit them on the weekends when they come to play on our grounds," said Thomas, who would like to provide some structured programs for the kids.
Homelessness is another area of ministry here. Mt. Zion hands out 40 to 50 vouchers every night so that homeless people can go to the Salvation Army for a clean bed, a place to shower and two meals. The vouchers cost $8 and are supplied by the congregation and another area church.
"This is the heart of who I am as a pastor," Thomas said, noting that more help is needed to keep the voucher program going.
She describes the members of Mt. Zion as "older and strong-willed."
"They are determined to come back and would not settle for anything else," she said. "It will be a history-making moment when they get back into the sanctuary."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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