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First Church minister will hold 'virtual service' for scattered congregation

Unitarian Universalists donate $141,739 online in two days to help hurting congregations.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The Rev. Marta Valentin

The Rev. Marta Valentin is the new minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. (Pictured here at the 2004 General Assembly; photo by Nancy Pierce) (Nancy Pierce)

A little more than a week from now, the Rev. Marta Valentin was to have conducted her first Sunday service as the newly settled minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. But then came the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and Valentin was searching for her congregants by phone and on the Internet, planning instead to gather the flock on September 11 for a virtual service by conference call. She was worrying about members she’d not been able to reach.

“We have so many people who stayed in the city, including people in wheelchairs, people who are not only developmentally but economically challenged as well,” she said by telephone. “I’d especially like to find my oldest member, Charles Foster, who is 92. He had a small stroke on Friday night and was hospitalized. His wife Cathy is also there with him.”

City, state, and federal agencies worked Thursday to evacuate the flooded and increasingly dangerous city, where tens of thousands of residents are still stranded with limited food, water, or medical supplies. Mayor Ray Nagin said conditions were getting worse: “This is a desperate SOS.” Meanwhile, search-and-rescue teams along the hard-hit coast of Mississippi had counted 126 deaths.

All along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, Unitarian Universalists struggled to reconnect with each other on Thursday, but most phone service remained out and connections were frustrating. The condition of two New Orleans UU church buildings could not be determined because no one was being allowed into the city. But UUs across the nation were rallying to help.

On Thursday afternoon, President William G. Sinkford announced that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations had raised more than $50,000 in online donations for hurricane relief in just over 24 hours.

[Update: By Friday afternoon, 1,014 online donors had given $141,739, according to Marcy Bailey-Adams, deputy director of stewardship and development for the UUA. She said other contributions were starting to arrive by mail.]

“In the midst of this profound tragedy, I am heartened by the determination of so many Unitarian Universalists to find a way to help,” Sinkford said in a statement published on the UUA Web site. “Congregations from as far away as Dallas and Houston are rallying to help coordinate emergency shelter and supplies, while trauma ministry teams are mobilizing to attend to the spiritual wounds of hurricane survivors.

“To support their efforts,” Sinkford continued, “the Unitarian Universalist Association has partnered with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to establish the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.”

Information about the fund, including a page for online contributions, is available at www.uua.org. (See “Related Resources,” right, for a direct link.)

Efforts were under way Thursday to save the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society’s building in Lacombe, La., which lost 80 percent of its metal roof to Katrina. Unlike New Orleans, Lacombe is accessible by road and the Society’s minister, the Rev. David Ord, was trying to organize a work crew to cover the church with a tarpaulin.

One of those who came to help was Michael Bourne, who drove down from Madison, Wisc., where he is a member of First Unitarian Society. Bourne could not be reached Thursday, but First Unitarian Society secretary Ann Smiley confirmed that he had driven to Louisiana. “He’s very active in social justice work here and this is the kind of thing he does. He’s a go-getter.” She said he was involved in relief efforts last year in Indonesia after the tsunami.

The Rev. Steve Crump, minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, La., said Bourne showed up at a meeting of the church’s leadership Wednesday. “I was talking about this UU from Wisconsin who was coming down and there he was. He just decided he was going to help. He kept being turned away by police and finally ended up at our church. Today he’s headed to Lacombe to help on the North Shore church. Workers over there are literally saving a church.”

Jennifer Nichols Payne, a staff member of the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference who is coordinating hurricane-related services from her office in Texas, said UUs were calling from all over offering homes to refugees. “They’ve called here from Louisiana, from Texas, from Olympia, Washington, and from Massachusetts. And there are lots of people from New Orleans who thought they’d be staying in a hotel for two or three days and are running out of money. We’re trying to put these people together. The congregations in New Orleans are just not there and won’t be for a long, long while.”

Valentin and her partner, Alison Chase, moved to New Orleans August 1 expecting to begin a new ministry in a very different way. Now she is in Texas, searching for her parishioners by phone and e-mail, “trying to keep the community together.” She said she was pretty sure First Church’s building is flooded, but had no confirmation. The same was true of the house she and Chase have rented.

The past president of First Church, Jyaphia Christos-Rogers, wrote in an e-mail published on the Southwestern Conference Web site: “My heart is so heavy. I just watched a video of our mayor’s report and have been surfing the blogs looking for info on specific neighborhoods. I had my first meltdown cry of the day.”

She was in Washington, D.C., when the hurricane struck and she had not been able to reach her father-in-law and brother-in-law. She wrote, “I am sitting so comfortably at the breakfast table here. I can only imagine what so many of my neighbors throughout New Orleans are going through. Seeing the devastation on TV without any way to reach out and help those who are really suffering or to find out about our homes is hard.”

As for the conference call service Valentin is planning for September 11, she said, “We’ll ask our people to come together by phone. I’ll send out an order of service and we’ll sing ‘Spirit of Life.’ It’s a way of being together. There’s not much more we can do.”

Visit uuworld.org for continuing news coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on Unitarian Universalists.

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