devastated but greater media coverage of New Orleans has inadequately reported
the depth of the destruction of wind and wind-driven water. In some places,
Concrete slabs are all that remain of the historic Gulfside Assembly, a meeting place for African-American United Methodists for more than a century. The assembly grounds were almost dead center in the eye of Hurricane Katrina, and the only evidence that it once existed is a sign proclaiming the Bishop Ernest Dixon, Jr. Residential Living for Seniors. There is virtually nothing left of the buildings that once were classrooms for poor African American boys and a safe meeting place for leaders of the Civil Rights movement.
The assembly, situated only feet from the Mississippi Gulf Coast was the only place in a segregated South where African Americans could swim in the warm Gulf waters without harassment.
It’s all gone. Trees lie splintered. It’s impossible to determine where buildings once stood. Debris hangs twisted and dangling in the ocean breeze. Curtains line trees on the north side of the grounds, looking as if they are brightly colored liturgical banners.
The Assembly’s van sits embedded in a small ravine buried in fetid water, its windows blown out. A golf cart used for transportation is barely recognizable in the rubble. Laminated four-by-six wooden beams lay strewn about, snapped by the force of the winds.
Along the road which lines the beach where once impressive homes stood there is nothing today but stubble. Concrete pylons, once the foundation of these homes, now look awkwardly out of place.
There is human tragedy throughout the Gulf Coast and it must not be minimized. Lives have been lost and homes have been destroyed. Material things are replaceable and seen in perspective their loss is less important, of course. However, there is sadness in the loss of history as well. To mourn that loss doesn’t minimize these other significant life-changing losses, nor to be insensitive to how deeply meaningful they are. As I stand on the sand looking at the remains of Gulfshore Assembly, I realize how incomprehensible this tragedy is. For many here the loss is so complete–homes, mementos, and life itself–it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
Mississippi is still in emergency response mode. The damage is so substantial that even now a few places have not been assessed by professional disaster specialists. That will change very quickly because the combined response by various agencies is well underway and most shelters are targetting closing dates within the next few days.
I won’t be surprised to hear new stories of tragedy, or horror. We still have more to learn. The census of lives lost is still being compiled.
In the reality of this great loss is another story, however. The churches of Mississippi have performed with a degree of sophistication and effectiveness that is remarkable under any circumstances and even more so under these circumstances. Shelters are well-run. Food is being delivered. Medical services are available. Case management, a whole range of services to help families begin the steps to recovery, is being put together now.
Much has been lost. But the church has been present throughout, under extraordinarily difficult conditions, shining light, reaching out, encircling those dislocated and in grief, healing the broken and wounded, providing safety and shelter.
History has been lost. Community has been found.