The building of First Baptist Church Gulfport, Miss., was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. The church now sits 10 miles further inland. BP file photo
By Diana Chandler
GULFPORT, Miss. (BP) — The 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will found Gulfport Pastor Jimmy Stewart praying where First Baptist Church stood before Katrina destroyed it. But Stewart’s prayer marked the grand opening of the Mississippi Aquarium that now occupies the plot.
First Baptist Church of Gulfport has since rebuilt about 10 miles inland, and has no plans this year to commemorate Katrina. The devastating hurricane roared ashore Aug. 29, 2005.
“When it came to the 10th anniversary, I was in charge of a citywide faith-oriented celebration of what God had done in the 10 years, and honestly, there has just not been any traction there” this year, Stewart said. “And so, I think we’re over it.”
Stewart came to First Gulfport five years after Katrina, and has seen the congregation endure many storms and tragedies.
“The coast has taken a lot of hits, and it’s impacted our church,” he said. “But from 2008 to last year, I think we’ve added 1,000 members and baptized just shy of 300 … in the new location.”
New Orleans usually memorializes Katrina every August, but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined any event this year, New Orleans Pastor Fred Luter said.
“With this pandemic, it’s been difficult to even think about Katrina,” Luter said.
Were it not for COVID-19, the City of New Orleans would likely have continued its annual Katrina memorial event featuring city leaders and guest speakers.
“Because of the social distancing, we’re not doing any of that this year. Everything is going to be done virtually from different churches,” Luter said. “But it will not be the same as in the past, unfortunately, because we cannot come together. But we have not forgotten it. That woman Katrina changed our lives.”
It’s ironic, Luter said, that in the week before the anniversary, Tropical Storm Marco and Hurricane Laura threatened the city. But Marco weakened before easing ashore Aug. 24 at the mouth of the Mississippi River. And while Laura strengthened, it shifted west to Cameron and Lake Charles, La., killing six, causing widespread property damage and power outages, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 600,000 residents.
Katrina changed the landscape and population of much of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, including its numerous churches. While some, like Celebration Church in suburban New Orleans, rebuilt and grew, others including First Baptist of Chalmette, La., are praising God with a fraction of former membership.
Many congregations in Louisiana’s low-lying Plaquemines Parish and lower St. Bernard Parish chose not to rebuild, including congregations on Delacroix Island, in the fishing village of Yscloskey, and in Reggio, according to the New Orleans Baptist Association (NOBA). But the Southern Baptist church community has survived and is more ethnically diverse, NOBA Executive Director Jack Hunter said. NOBA counts about 150 congregations, including churches missions, both before and after Katrina.
“For this, we credit God’s superintendence and abundant grace most evident in His gift of pastors with fortitude, vision, passion, and love for one another, and in His gift of faithful partners at the Louisiana Baptist Convention and North American Mission Board who walked alongside us through the long recovery,” Hunter said. “Our partners have also invested their best people to start new churches here. We thank God for his goodness towards New Orleans.”
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), Katrina resulted in around 1,840 deaths and caused $125 billion in damage, although official estimates vary. Most of the deaths were in the New Orleans area, after levees failed and flooded most of the city and much of the surrounding suburbs. The death toll was the highest since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane in Florida that killed an estimated 2,500 people, the NWS said.
New Orleans is a different city than it was before Katrina. The city’s pre-Katrina population of nearly 485,000 was reduced a month later to an estimated 230,000, the U.S. Census reported. By 2018, the population had grown to an estimated 391,000.
In a culturally rich city of festivals and events, Luter said the month of August is now tainted.
“It (Katrina) has changed the life of our city and even the life of the church,” he said. “In years past before Katrina, a lot of people planned things in the city – weddings and things like that, anniversary events, reunions – but nobody now, nobody, plans anything for the month of August. Since Katrina, we have not had one couple to want to do a wedding in August.”
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which Luter has pastored for nearly 35 years, renovated and returned to its Katrina-damaged campus within three years after the storm. But in 2018, the church relocated to a new facility in New Orleans East and put the Ninth Ward campus up for sale. Its pre-Katrina worship attendance of nearly 6,000 was about 3,200 before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP).
Franklin Avenue’s legacy of surviving Katrina includes the birth of two new Southern Baptist congregations Luter launched when Katrina displaced many Franklin Avenue members. Both Houston’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, pastored by Shannon Lachlin Verrett, and United Believers Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., pastored by Manuel Pigee III, are now autonomous churches. The Baton Rouge church changed its name from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Baton Rouge in 2015 after it became autonomous. The churches, primarily composed of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church members displaced from New Orleans, have also attracted new members locally.
Multiplication has characterized Celebration Church based in Metairie, La. The church stood in flood water nearly three weeks, about 65 percent of its membership was displaced, and insurance covered only $11.5 million of the $16.5 million it cost to rebuild, said Dennis Watson, the church’s senior pastor. It took the church five years to rebuild.
In the meantime, Celebration Church renovated a church facility in New Orleans, which it had purchased before the storm, and worshiped there. With the help of partners and volunteers, the church began several humanitarian ministry outreaches, establishing a relief center, feeding the hungry, gutting 2,000 homes, and performing other outreaches, according to Watson. Over a two-year period, Watson said, the church served over 120,000 families and hosted more than 22,000 volunteers.
Before returning to its main campus in 2010, Celebration Church launched campuses in LaPlace and St. Bernard, La. Today, the church has 10 campuses in the Greater New Orleans area. Its pre-Katrina worship attendance of about 1,700 had risen to more than 7,000 by 2019, according to the ACP.
“We just kept reaching people and we kept running out of space,” Watson said. “The Lord blessed us and enabled us to reach lots and lots of people, which enabled us to start new campuses. … We were discipling people we were reaching, and raising them up to be leaders, and training people to be pastors as well.”
The church is now more ethnically diverse. Watson described the membership as 50 percent White, 40 percent Black, and 10 percent Hispanic.
“Katrina was very devastating for us in so many different ways. Not only did it devastate our facilities, and the homes of our members,” Watson said, “… but it was also devastating in the loss of such wonderful people that went to other churches around the nation.
“But what we really learned from Katrina was the value of really doing compassion ministry in our community. And the ministries we were able to perform in the community really gave us a great standing and reputation in the community, more so than any kind of marketing that we would have ever done.”
One of the congregations Watson encouraged is First Baptist Church of Chalmette, a congregation he pastored earlier in his career, longtime Pastor John Jeffries said.
When First Chalmette resumed worship at a local high school eight months after Katrina with 20 people and “zero members,” Jeffries said, Watson helped with musician supply. First Chalmette lost its campus to Katrina, and more than 90 percent of its 300 or so average attendees never returned after the storm, Jeffries said. Many Baptists, he believes, simply did not return to Chalmette.
The church rebuilt with the generosity of others, including more than 4,000 volunteers composed of Southern Baptists and others, he said. Volunteers also rebuilt his home that was destroyed.
“The Lord raised up an army to help us rebuild,” Jeffries said, “… but we’re not where we were before. We’re working on rebuilding the body. It’s a different community and a different congregation.”
Attendance averaged about 90 before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the ACP. Chalmette residents live on lower incomes, he said, and nearly every day someone comes to the church in dire need. Jeffries said the church is struggling, but committed to persevering.
“One of our goals after Katrina was to become a seven-days-a-week church,” he said. “And we are a seven-days-a-week church. We have something happening in that church every day, ministry-wise.
“I would say on any given day you could walk into our building and encounter maybe 40 or 50 people that are not members of the church that are being ministered to.”
The church operates a preschool and feeding and eyeglass ministries, and has restructured the church to include about 15 laypersons serving as leaders.
“I’ve got it set up that whenever the Lord draws me out,” he said, “they’ll be able to function as a church.”
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.