- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Carolyn Campbell lifted her hands toward the sky, belting out the words that strengthen her: “When the storm of life is raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

The old gospel tune by Charles A. Tindley has been more than a metaphor for Ms. Campbell, who was rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina. The song kept her afloat as a flood of biblical proportions destroyed her home. In the months since, amid the rubble of what was once a neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward, its message keeps her spirit alive.

“I’m OK because I believe in God,” she said.

Many here have kept the faith in nontraditional ways — an offering left next to a woodpile that was once a church, a tribute to a ceramic Jesus figurine that survived against all odds.

“A lot of people think New Orleans is all Bourbon Street, but that’s not the people that live here,” said Elaine Coulon, a 66-year-old great-grandmother. “These are very spiritual, religious people, and that’s what will rebuild New Orleans and get it back.”

She is among those coming home to sift through and clean the wreckage, even though fewer than half of the city’s 500,000 residents have returned.

“We’re not where we all need to be, but some of us have been very blessed. I really feel blessed, but it’s still rough,” she said.

She spends her days in a trailer next to the skeleton of her home, quietly praying for her native city. Others are more vocal in their spiritual journey.

Teenage preacher Najee Johnson delivers sermons on a traffic island downtown, surrounded by abandoned buildings with blown-out windows, his oration aided by an amplifier.

“We must be saved by Jesus Christ,” the 17-year-old boomed into the microphone Saturday afternoon.

Some passers-by turned away; others nodded or honked. Dorothy Lemon, 68, stared, then joined in, shouting “Hallelujah” by his side.

Later, breathless from the impromptu revival, Mrs. Lemon said prayer pulled her through the dark months after Katrina hit.

“I lost all I had, but I kept the faith,” she said.

Street preacher John Raphael III said adequate federal disaster funding won’t lead to salvation.

“If we have the levees, but we don’t have God on our side, there are a million ways this city could be destroyed.”

Mr. Raphael said the two will give daily street sermons as more New Orleanians return. “Now is the time to give them hope,” he said.

But some, like Wilma Bell, long for the comforting walls of their places of worship.

Her daughters attend prayer service in a tent at the Baker, La., trailer park, where they keep camp until their home is rebuilt, but she prefers to stay behind.

“It’s nice, but it’s not like home,” she said. “My church was under water.”

As the waters of Lake Pontchartrain ravaged her neighborhood, she kept hope through prayer.

Her son Alex Bell, 44, returns daily to the 9th Ward, working to salvage what’s left of his home’s frame.

“The storm’s over, you’ve got to live,” he said. “Surviving was the hardest part; this is the easy part.”

Ms. Campbell, 47, said she keeps her pain inside to try to inspire others as she volunteers at a makeshift relief outpost. She reassures a toddler, finds shoes for families even though the ones on her feet are several sizes too big and offers her story through song to anyone who will listen.

Jason and Jenny Hochstetler, both 24, saw Ms. Campbell over the weekend. They drove their 3-year-old daughter from Staunton, Va., after family members gave them some extra cash for the missionary trip.

“I feel Jesus calls us to do that. We’re his hands and feet in the world,” Mrs. Hochstetler said.

Last Friday afternoon, volunteers from an Indiana church brought two boxes of Bibles to the relief center. Ms. Campbell quietly offered them to families picking up water and sheets.

“I gave all those Bibles away,” she said the next day. “That’s a powerful weapon, a gun that saves lives.”

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