- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. — The thick ring of trees outside the Mount Zion United Methodist Church is bowed as if the winds from Hurricane Katrina were still blowing. But the tiny building still stands, offering a spiritual sanctuary to its members and worshippers from three other congregations.

Ever since floodwaters leveled this Gulf Coast city of 8,000 people, the church has opened its doors to two Baptist communities and another Methodist congregation, each left without a place to worship. On Christmas, they’ll take that act of fellowship a step further.

Congregants from all four churches will abandon their separate worship schedule and gather for a joint service, determined to summon some holiday spirit despite a season of loss.

“It is going to be different,” says the Rev. RoseMary Hayes Williams, pastor at Mount Zion, “but all the joy will not be taken out of it.”

Like Mount Zion, the three visiting congregations — First Missionary Baptist Church, Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church and St. Paul United Methodist Church — were formed more than 100 years ago by freed slaves and their children. All can trace their membership back for generations of the same family.

At First Missionary, the tidal surge buckled the floor. A glass partition on the baptismal pool is streaked with green mold, and chunks of stained glass litter the ground outside the windows.

The floodwaters lifted three houses from one side of St. Paul to the other, where they remain crumpled in the parking lot. The water inside the church rose so high that its pastor, the Rev. Theodore R. Williams Jr., RoseMary Williams’ husband, found hymnals hanging from the rafters after the tide receded.

All that remains in the Goodwill Missionary sanctuary after a thorough cleaning is a wooden cross leaning against a pew. The Communion table, engraved “This Do In Remembrance of Me,” is now being put to more mundane use: storing plastic work gloves.

“Inside, I cried,” says Goodwill Missionary’s pastor, the Rev. Harry Toussaint.

The four churches were far from strangers. They had held joint revival services in the past, despite doctrinal differences and traditional Baptist opposition to ordaining women.

Now, all are trying to get by with just a fraction of their members.

The St. Paul congregation, which had about 120 members before Katrina, has been drawing no more than 25 worshippers on Sundays. The Rev. William D. Young, First Missionary’s pastor, says his active membership of about 150 has dropped by more than half.

The losses are a blow not just to morale, but also to fundraising at a time when the churches need donations more than ever. Each pastor estimates rebuilding will cost at least a couple of hundred-thousand dollars.

Some members who have moved away are still tithing, but the pastors don’t know how long that can continue as congregants face massive bills for restoring their homes.

“We’re trying not to complain, but just underneath all that we’re remembering, we’re borderline screaming or crying,” says the Rev. Valli Battle, who helps lead both the Methodist and Baptist services.

For Christmas, Mrs. Williams and other church leaders have organized celebrations so the holiday is not eclipsed by the anxieties of daily life.

On Thursday, they plan to distribute donated gifts at a children’s party where Mrs. Williams has invited mental-health counselors, in case the youngsters need to talk. The next night, a concert of religious music is scheduled for adults, focused on “the real joy — joy in Jesus,” she said.

Then, on Christmas Day, they will wake up for an early-morning service together. Many churchgoers are planning scaled-down holiday celebrations, with fewer decorations, smaller gifts and family traditions altered to fit their new circumstances.

Still, no matter what they have suffered from Katrina, they will gather in church and pray together on Christmas.

“The church has become what it needs to be for people’s lives: to give them hope,” Miss Battle says. “Even though we don’t have all the things we used to, there is hope.”

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