NEW ORLEANS (ELCA) — The windows tell a soulful story at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, this New Orleans congregation boasts a perfectly manicured lawn, colorful flags blowing in the breeze and newly painted, air-conditioned interiors. Yet the streaked and clouded windows remind visitors that this church, which sits on a corner of Canal Street under the shadow of Interstate 610, was inundated with six feet of water for more than two weeks.
Grace Lutheran's buildings sustained $1.3 million in damage; only $400,000 was covered by insurance. Grace is one of seven Louisiana congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that suffered extensive storm damage, including flooding produced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Thanks to an informal network of volunteers from more than 170 ELCA congregations in 26 states, the congregation is debt-free and engaged in rebuilding the community around it. Hundreds of volunteers came to muck out the building, disassemble the pipe organ, and hand-scrub the mold that grew to the peak of the cathedral ceiling.
"Even though we're not there yet, the progress from where we were to where we are now is just unbelievable," said Beth Wee, a member of Grace Lutheran.
The building features new landscaping, an expanded kitchen, showers and sleeping quarters for volunteer work groups.
"We're creating an oasis of new beginnings," said the Rev. Philip A. Blom, Neenah, Wis., who served as Grace's interim pastor until June 2007.
The congregation established Saving Grace, an effort to provide assistance to New Orleans families in conjunction with the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) and other disaster relief agencies. LDR is a collaborative ministry of the ELCA and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The work is far from over, said the Rev. Michael W. Rinehart, bishop-elect, ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. "The need is actually increasing as the caseload (of families) is increasing."
Rinehart, who becomes bishop on Sept. 1, said that New Orleans-area congregations will put together a "clear vision with clear objectives" to become self-supporting in three to five years.
"This is a spiritual venture. It really has very little to do with repairing buildings; it's repairing lives," said Blom.
Blom knows about personal recovery efforts. Blom is a survivor of the Red River flood in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997. "I knew what it was like to be completely overwhelmed by post-traumatic stress," he said. His spiritual outlook was transformed by the volunteers who came from across the country to help his church and his family.
The goal in New Orleans, according to Blom, is not to return lives "back to normal." Rather, "the goal is to reshape people spiritually so they have a strengthened new capacity for life," said Blom.
When Grace member Debbie Pusateri looks at the work that's gone into the rebuilding of her church, she beams with pride.
"This church that we have is the greater church," said Pusateri. "Grace didn't build it, the larger church built this facility, and to see that hope and that love and that energy come in, that's what I'd like to give to the community — that same hope and love and caring," she said.
A video version of this story is at
http://media.ELCA.org/ramgen/videonews/gracenola.rm on the ELCA Web site.
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