- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

DECATUR, Ga. — Hurricane Katrina brought grief and loss to Zelda Richard and her family — it even drove them from their New Orleans home. But after they evacuated to Georgia, their local church followed.

“We lost some of our friends, family and everything we cherished,” Mrs. Richard said. “Church was the one thing that made us feel connected and gave us a sense of home.”

Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church was a major congregation in New Orleans with 20,000 members at three locations. The largest was destroyed in Katrina’s floodwaters, while the others sustained minor damage.

With many in his flock not planning to move back, Bishop Paul Morton decided to come to them. He’s opened a permanent church in suburban Atlanta to serve the spiritual needs of those who have found a new life hundreds of miles from their once-flooded homes.

“We wanted to be one church in two cities,” Bishop Morton said.

The church’s staff traveled with Bishop Morton in the days and weeks following Katrina to Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Memphis and Atlanta to minister to evacuees.

As his two remaining churches in New Orleans were being repaired, Bishop Morton preached at his brother James’ church in Decatur, east of Atlanta.

Bishop Morton said he had no plans to start a new church outside New Orleans, but eventually felt compelled to lay down roots somewhere where he could help evacuees. Under the same name of his ministry in New Orleans, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church opened its doors in an abandoned strip mall in Decatur.

About 2,000 people packed the new church for its first service on Jan. 29, and hundreds more were turned away because there just wasn’t enough room. In just four weeks, the church’s registered membership grew to 1,000. They join a ministry with up to 5,000 members attending services again at Bishop Morton’s two remaining churches in New Orleans, which reopened in November.

Many have offered money and gifts to help the church in its rebuilding efforts, including $500,000 from playwright and actor Tyler Perry, best known for his hit movie “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” He declined to comment on his donation.

“Every giving person helped out more than they’ll ever know,” said Raymond Steib, first assistant pastor of the ministry.

Mrs. Richard, who attended the church in New Orleans that was destroyed, said she’s been revived by the camaraderie at the Decatur church — one of the main reasons why she is staying in Georgia.

“For us to have this church here, it was almost like a touch of home,” she said. “It was almost like a baby finding their mother. It’s the one thing I can hold on to and remember all the good things, instead of the bad.”

Mrs. Richard, 43, evacuated with her two teenage daughters, sister, niece and 85-year-old mother, Mary Watson. The family didn’t leave before the hurricane hit because Mrs. Watson was just released from the hospital and couldn’t travel under doctor’s orders.

Mrs. Watson lived through Hurricane Betsy in 1965, but said the aftermath of Katrina was much more disturbing. The family traveled through nine hotels before finally landing in the Atlanta area. “Two hurricanes in one lifetime is enough,” she said.

The six family members shared two oxygen masks as they endured the toxic atmosphere in New Orleans for two days before they were able to leave. When the masks began to malfunction, they started to lose hope. But Mrs. Richard said they formed a circle and prayed.

“We thought we were going to die,” said Mrs. Richard, whose family was holed up on the top floor of a New Orleans hotel during the flood. “The building was shaking and the water was up to the fourth floor. So, we prayed and that brought us through.”

Now helping as accountant at the church, Mrs. Richard said the experience resonated with her when Bishop Morton preached soon after the storm about the importance of being faithful in desperate situations.

“If you lose hope, then you can’t make it,” he said.

Donna Hubbard, a member of Greater St. Stephen in New Orleans for 30 years before fleeing to Atlanta, knew the transition would be tough when her 10-year-old daughter repeatedly asked about going back to Louisiana. But the church gave both comfort, making it an easy decision to stay.

“The church has been our anchor,” she said.

Longtime Atlanta resident Debbie Campbell recently joined Greater St. Stephen in Decatur, saying she was impressed by the unity of the congregation.

“This church has given me an extra edge on how to handle trials and tribulations,” she said. “With everything they’ve gone through, they know how to overcome.”

Bishop Morton understands that most evacuees won’t forget about home, but he’s hoping to expand their capacity to believe.

“New Orleans is Greater St. Stephen and Greater St. Stephen is New Orleans,” he said. “We are simply spreading our wings of ministry to meet the needs of people in the city of Atlanta.”

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