By Lora Hines and Patrick Peterson
September 5, 2005
Father Harold Roberts speaks to his congregation during services at the Church of the Redeemer on Sunday in Biloxi. Services were held outdoors on the site of the Episcopal church that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. About 100 parishioners attended the service, many of whom were seeing each other for the first time since the storm destroyed their church, homes and businesses.
Knocked from its tower by Hurricane Katrina, the big bronze bell rang on Sunday from its resting place on the ground. A peal of the bell carried through vacant lots that last week hosted the finest homes in Biloxi.
About 100 Church of the Redeemer parishioners held a service on the grounds of their ruined church.
Not a brick remained standing, and most of the rubble had been swept off the site. But spirits soared as members of the Episcopal church gathered and saw each other for the first time since the storm.
"To see so many people here and well is wonderful," said Marcia Swetman, who has attended the church for 36 years.
About 11 miles away, Marta Halliburton asked everyone at Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs to pray for her 18-year-old son, Cody Bowen, who suffers from mental illness.
She hasn't heard from him since Aug. 28 when he was taken to the crisis intervention center in Laurel for treatment.
Meanwhile, Halliburton has been helping the American Red Cross to keep her mind off her worries.
"It's better to help someone else," she said. "It's been a tough week. There are so many people in need. We're so blessed."
Ministers across the Gulf Coast reminded churchgoers of all denominations they had much to be thankful for despite the wrath Katrina unleashed on them on Aug. 29.
The Rev. Julian Gordy, former minister of Christus Victor Lutheran Church, delivered Sunday's sermon to about 100 people, many of whom sobbed during the service.
"Some have asked where is God in the middle of this tragedy?" Gordy said. "The answer to that one is easy. God is here."
In Pascagoula, the Rev. Alphonsa Petway gave the same message to a small fraction of his congregation.
His church, the 131-year-old Asbury Chapel AME Zion Church, was severely damaged by Katrina. He and 20 members held Sunday services in a grassy area next to the church.
Part of the roof over the church sanctuary was ripped off the building.
But the area near the altar came out unscathed. The church Bible was spared.
The congregation sang songs a capella and shared storm stories. They held umbrellas over their heads to fend off the blistering sun.
"I would like to say I've got a good God," said member Emelda Simmons of Pascagoula. "He's not a good God right now. He's good all the time."
Fellow parishioners responded with "amen" and "that's right."
About 100 people gathered at Pascagoula's First Baptist Church, where volunteers across the country have been providing food to storm victims since Wednesday.
"What you think about your problems is where you stand in your Christian life," the Rev. Rex Yancey said. "Most of us lost everything except the most important thing. God expects us to display our faith in times like this. We have to have some burdens to appreciate the blessings."
Church member Mike Odon said Sunday's service was like an oasis. It gave him a break from the work he needs to do to restore his parents' home.
"This helps deal with that," Odon said.
"I don't know if I'll have a job. There's going to be tens of thousands of people without jobs.
"God has a purpose for everything," he said. "I have to believe that."
For Swetman and many of the parishioners at Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Sunday's service was the second time they had attended a service after their sanctuary was destroyed by a hurricane.
Camille left only the bell towers standing in1969. Katrina took even the tower that Camille left.
However, Katrina spared the congregation.
"This is both the happiest and the saddest day of my life," said the Rev. Harold Roberts, as he began the service. "I have yet to be called by Bradford O'Keefe (Funeral Home) for anybody in our congregation."
Several dozen reporters and photographers attended the service, as parishioners sat in lawn chairs and listened to music played on a boom box.
The service continued to the background noise of an earth-moving machine clearing debris, passing helicopters carrying supplies and the arrival of two giant Navy hovercraft, which brought cheers from the congregation.
Before the service, Gig Tisdale, a lawyer and National Guard pilot, arrived in a helicopter, bearing water and ice for the congregation.
Roberts added that a church in Daphne, Ala., had delivered supplies for the congregation.
"Don't be needy and don't be humble," he said.
Longtime member Ann Curet of Biloxi said some of the church members who lost homes plan to sell their property and move 300 miles inland.
"That's how you feel when you face what you have to do," she said. "I'm debating whether to rebuild or look for something else."
Even the younger church members, who did not endure the rebuilding after Camille, believe the Episcopal church will rise from the rubble.
"The church is always going to build back," said 18-year-old Jeremiah Fish of D'Iberville. "It's a family.
"Everybody's a family now, and we're trying to get out of this together."