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May 17, 2006

Update: Signs of life in New Orleans


On May 7, signs of new life abounded at Grace Lutheran Church, New Orleans, here in the midst of a Lakeview community decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Parishioners and visitors were greeted by a freshly landscaped church property featuring 100 trees and bushes planted by students from Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa. Colorful banners brightened the walkways, giving the property the look of a physical and spiritual oasis. Inside, volunteers had started to hang Sheetrock on damaged sanctuary walls.

Signs of hope surrounding Grace are rare. Levees that guard Lakeview have been undergoing repairs that are expected to be finished by June 1. But with the new hurricane season less than a month away, few properties are being refurbished. Most look as they did after the storm surge retreated. Destroyed blocks seem eerily quiet.

“We’re determined to rebuild to show people in the midst of all this devastation that we’re here to witness to them about the love of Christ,” said James Wee, president of Grace’s council.

Inside Grace’s church the excitement was palpable. Parishioners sang using worship books donated by Washington state Lutherans. They sat in chairs donated by a Jacksonville, Fla., congregation. Beth Wee played a flute solo on an instrument given by Atonement Lutheran Church, Overland Park, Kan. Organist Norman Maunz played an instrument from St. Paul Lutheran Church, Rosenberg, Texas.

That day’s sermon, based on the Good Shepherd passages of John 10:11-18, gave testimony to the negative and positive power of water and celebrated the first baptism to take place in the congregation since the storm.

“There was 7 feet of water in this building where I’m standing,” Daniel Duke, pastor of Grace, explained to a congregation filled with many visitors who had come to witness the baptism of 10-month-old Madison Lightfoot. “The storm was nasty and powerful. Looking at pictures of the destruction made one sick. But the same force that is so destructive and caused us so much anguish is also life-giving to our bodies. Through baptism we are restored to new life. It’s a paradox that the water that is destructive can also renew us by uniting us with the death and resurrection of Christ.

“Baptism is a sign of the promise that the love of Christ is never taken away. Through his death on the cross, Jesus paid forward with a life-giving gift of sacrificial love. We are called to return that love to our neighbors and do for others sacrificially. Jesus laid down his life for us so we can be free to live and care for each other. We have been brought together by God to change each other. In the aftermath of the storm we have discovered anew that we have all been called to give and receive the primary gift of Christ’s love.”

Madison parent’s, Tom and Laurie Lightfoot, described their post-flood journey. “I’m a chiropractor,” Tom Lightfoot said. “We lost our home and our business in the storm. We’re blessed to be safe. But we had to leave this place and go where I could find work to support the family.” He found a job 130 miles away with a doctor in Lafayette, La., where the family now lives.

“I recommended a church that they could join in Lafayette,” Duke said. “I wanted them to feel OK about belonging to a church where they live now.”

“We just couldn’t do that,” Tom Lightfoot said. “We wanted Madison to be baptized right here. We can’t live here right now, but this church and this community are our home. We couldn’t be anywhere else for this.”

In the late spring Mississippi heat, few complained about worship in a space that once was air conditioned. They plan to worship at Grace as repairs go on instead of at a nearby air-conditioned funeral home where the congregation gathered for services prior to Easter. Repairs, undertaken by crews from congregations nationwide, will likely take many months.

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