2:00 P.M. EST Sept. 1, 2010 | NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)
Marilyn Osborn, 82, a petite woman with snow-white hair, and George Lewis, an African-American man in a bright yellow tropical shirt, are in the back of the church rockin’.
“I just can’t stay still when the music has a good beat,” Osborn said with a big grin.
In fact, the whole place is jumping to “I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me”—not something you would expect in a tall-steeple, historically white United Methodist church in New Orleans on Sunday morning.
Marilyn McCall, around the same age as the “other Marilyn,” looked around at the racially mixed congregation and said, “I think this is more the way God intended us to be.”
For hundreds of years before Hurricane Katrina, First United Methodist and Grace United Methodist existed in their own worlds. Geographically they were less than a mile apart, but they were divided by race.
The few and faithful
Katrina hit Grace hard, leaving the sanctuary of the historically black church damaged and unusable. First, traditionally white, was soaked by 5 feet of floodwater in its sanctuary, office and Sunday school rooms, but was structurally sound.
When the dust settled and the water receded, First and Grace were two of 90 churches in Louisiana damaged by the storm, without pastors and with an uncertain future.
In June 2006, Louisiana Area Bishop William W. Hutchinson appointed the Rev. Shawn Moses Anglim as lead pastor of eight United Methodist churches. Six were historically black churches. The other two were St. Marks United Methodist and First United Methodist. He had the assistance of three part-time pastors.
As people started coming back to New Orleans, decisions were made to merge, close or recreate congregations. Anglim was starting to see the possibilities in combining First and Grace.
Some thought the bishop was trying to force mergers, Anglim said, but he was creating a space for something new.
“Eventually, it was just clear to me the door was being opened,” said Anglim, now pastor of First Grace.
He polled members of both First and Grace churches and posed the question: “Do you think we can do more for our city as one body of Christ than we will ever be able to do as two bodies, one mile apart?”
There were a lot of tears, but everyone knew the right answer, he said.
One of the first people Anglim approached with the merger idea was Margaret Ferguson Washington, who had been a member of Grace for 32 years and was a strong lay leader.
“I wanted something more stable. When Pastor Shawn approached us with the idea of a merger because we had two small churches less than a mile apart, I thought that was a very good idea,” she said.
Merdes Troullier, who joined Grace in 1965, said after Katrina membership dropped to about 30.
The idea of merging was hard at first. “But I got an open mind. It has been the best thing that ever happened to us,” Troullier said.
Attendance since the merger has steadily increased from about 47 to more than 200. On a recent Sunday, the church welcomed nine new members.
“It has grown by leaps and bounds. I think it is a reflection of New Orleans,” Washington said.
Stained-glass windows cast shadows on the empty pews inside Grace United Methodist Church.
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At 184 years old, First United Methodist Church is even older than Grace.
Marilyn Osborn, the secretary for First Grace, joined First in 1946 at age 17.
When she evacuated the area for Katrina, Osborn was sure church would only be canceled for one Sunday and she and her husband would be back within three days.
“We took off on Aug. 28 and came back on Oct. 3,” she said. “This church had 5 feet of water over the entire first floor; we lost everything.”
After the storm, attendance at First fell from around 100 to a dozen.
It is the “new” people who were not at First or Grace before the storm that have given First Grace its joy, members said.
One of the most enthusiastic new members is Stephanie K. Martin, who is the official greeter.
“I believe when a person comes through those doors we want them to feel welcomed and we want them to feel loved. I strive to do that every Sunday. It is not fake. It is for real.”
Martin credits First Grace with the peace she has in her life.
She did not live in New Orleans before or during Katrina. She and her sons were on a streetcar passing First Grace one Sunday when they saw the gathering outside the church.
“My son saw a mixed group of people and he wanted to try it. I, of course, said that is an all-white church, and we can’t go there. I’m not going to expose you to that.” But he insisted.
As a single mother, Martin said the church has been a blessing to her son, providing him with an extended family of aunties and male role models.
Striking the right note
“When we get together and talk about Shawn behind his back we all say he pushes you but he doesn’t push you to do anything you can’t do,” Martin said. “That’s trust. It doesn’t make sense, we don’t make sense, this city has so much racial disharmony it is ridiculous. So we are not logical.”
Maybe not. But the congregation is joyful.
“You’ll always get that joy on Sunday,” Anglim said. “But your faith journey will have to become a real journey at First Grace because the diversity is real.”
What happened to New Orleans was horrific, Anglim said. People lost everything. Yet what you feel now is there is so much possibility.
“We’ve been baptized by Katrina,” he said.
“The name represents the church. It is what it is … nothing but a bunch of grace, nothing but a bunch of love, nothing but acceptance to be who you are,” said Martin with a smile.
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter of 18-34 content at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.