After Katrina, purpose driven congregation brings hope to its hometown
By Manda Gibson
Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, a group from New Orleans’ Celebration Church saw a woman crying on her lawn. A single mother whose home seemed unsalvageable, she was losing hope that she ever could rebuild a life for her family.
A woman from the group took her to lunch and bought clothes for her, and while they were gone, others totally gutted her home. When she returned, the home she had considered a total loss was prepared for rebuilding. She fell on her knees, weeping and asking how anyone could love her so much. The group shared with her about the love of God that had transformed their lives, and she put her trust in Jesus.
Stories like this have been repeated throughout New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, says Dennis Watson, pastor of Celebration Church. “We are seeing so many people come to the Lord, overwhelmed by the generosity, love, and compassion they are experiencing from Christians and churches.”
When Katrina hit, it almost destroyed Celebration Church’s main campus and heavily damaged the church’s second, smaller campus. Many of the 3,000 church members lost everything, including their homes; about half of the congregation still are displaced from their homes.
But the members of the purpose driven congregation believe they were saved to serve, says Watson. So, despite their personal and church losses, they are partnering with other Christians to reach out to the community around them.
One of the greatest things to happen after Katrina, says Watson, is that Christians in Louisiana now are working together. Immediately after Katrina, Watson and other pastors of purpose driven churches in south Louisiana formed the Pastor Resource Council (PRC) Compassion, a network of pastors and churches across Louisiana that are working together to bring help and hope to the Gulf Coast region. Their efforts have mobilized more than 10,000 volunteers, served and resourced almost 100 shelters, and brought more than 1,000 tractor trailers of supplies into devastated areas. Also, 200 pastors from various denominations in the New Orleans area have formed the Greater New Orleans Pastor’s Coalition; they are working together to rebuild and reach the city of New Orleans with Jesus’ love. The pastor’s coalition has established teams for prayer, evangelism, church and home rebuilding, family care, and economic development.
“Political leaders and others have realized the body of Christ has so much to contribute to the rebuilding process,” said Watson. “Our people have a real passion to serve others for love of God and love of people – not political gain. The Church of Jesus Christ has been the shining light in the midst of darkness and confusion.”
Being a purpose driven church has made a difference in how Celebration Church has responded to Katrina, says Watson. “The way that we function as a purpose driven church has helped us in keeping our people focused. In the midst of adversity, we are serving God by serving others.”
As a congregation, they prayed that God would enable them to fulfill their mission as a church, and Katrina is allowing them to do that, says Watson.
God’s great work
Several days after Katrina, Chris Meilleur, the church’s facilities manager, returned to New Orleans. He quickly saw that Celebration Church’s main campus was still under water, but the church’s smaller campus could be used as a relief center – so he and other church members worked with PRC Compassion to establish one. Since then, the relief center – the largest on the Gulf Coast – has been moved to the larger campus. It has been housed in tents and is receiving support and supplies from other churches, relief organizations, and government sources to get much-needed relief to the people of New Orleans. “Here was a man who discovered what God had called him to be,” says Watson. “Now he’s at the forefront of a great work God is doing.”
The center provides humanitarian aid – like food, water, clothing, cleaning products, personal hygiene products, and baby supplies – to almost 1,000 people daily, while serving as many as 5,000 meals a day.
“We are gaining influence in people’s hearts and lives through the relief effort and also gaining the appreciation of the government, as well as the business community,” said Watson.
Meanwhile, church members and volunteers traveling to New Orleans are partnering with Celebration Church, PRC Compassion, and other Christian organizations to clean out and rebuild thousands of homes. They’ll clean and rebuild church facilities too, so those churches can continue bringing hope to their communities.
Still in need
Still, Celebration Church has its own share of needs. Immediately after Katrina, the church laid off its support staff, trusting their skills would allow them to find other jobs. They helped some of their pastors find positions in other churches; the pastors who chose to stay, including Watson, are raising their own support. Though the church had the maximum flood insurance – $1.5 million – it sustained $6 million of damage.
They’ve been helped by churches like Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., which provided Watson a month’s salary through the Adopt-a-Pastor effort. Other churches have offered financial assistance, prayer, and volunteer support.
But they still need churches to help them and other New Orleans-area churches by praying; by sending volunteers to clean out homes, serve in the relief center, and help churches rebuild; and by sending supplies to churches as they learn of specific needs. Many churches in the New Orleans area have lost everything – from basic supplies like children’s markers and adult teaching materials to larger items like sanctuary seating and carpeting.
God is showing his faithfulness by taking care of specific needs in miraculous ways. One church in another state called Celebration Church to ask what they needed. Celebration Church asked for office furniture. A few hours later, the other church called back saying a bank was remodeling and could donate enough office furniture for 13 offices – the exact number Celebration Church was hoping to receive. Another church donated the seats from its old facility, while a different church is sponsoring a winter retreat for Celebration Church’s youth. Other churches, individuals, and businesses have given toys for Celebration Church to distribute to the children of New Orleans.
Investing in transformation
When churches give to help in New Orleans, they’re not only showing Christ’s love and compassion, says Watson. They’re investing in the spiritual transformation of one of the darkest cities in the world.
“New Orleans it going to be a greater city,” said Watson. “Since the days of slavery, New Orleans has had a spirit of poverty and racism. Those have been broken. Katrina put people into each other’s arms.
“Corruption has been exposed and eradicated. Isolation and competition between churches and Christians is gone as churches and pastors work to help others before themselves. What God has done is far beyond what we would have envisioned.”
Purpose Driven Ministries is asking churches to call pastors affected by Hurricane Katrina to see how they can pray for the pastors and their churches.