Grief, faith and service: Louisiana churches face Hurricane Laura's destruction

One week on from August 27 – the day Hurricane Laura tore through southwest Louisiana, leaving a trail of destruction and at least six people dead – Christians are dealing with the reality of damaged buildings, the grief of loss, and the opportunity they have to show Jesus’ love to their community.

With winds of up to 240 kilometres per hour, category 4 Hurricane Laura was one of the most powerful storms to hit the gulf coast in decades. In particular, Laura wreaked havoc in Lake Charles, a small city that sits along the inland waterways between Houston and New Orleans – damaging homes, businesses and, of course, churches.

Here are updates from a few churches in the areas affected. Keep them in your prayers.

Glad Tidings Assemblies of God

Paul Burke and his wife Cyndi are the pastors of Glad Tidings (Assemblies of God) Church in Lake Charles. They were evacuated ahead of the storm and used the church’s Facebook page to communicate with church members.

On Friday – one day after Hurricane Laura hit – Rev. Burke posted a Facebook live video saying, “I’ve not heard from anybody about how the church is, I’ve not heard about my own home yet. Like many of y’all, we’re all eager to find out what [are] the conditions on the ground.”

“But in the meantime, just know that I love you all so much. We have each other and we have our faith and that is going to be enough. It is. The Lord is for us, and we are for one another, and we are for Southwest Louisiana, so we will be well,” he told church members before praying.

“The Lord is for us, and we are for one another, and we are for Southwest Louisiana” – Rev. Paul Burke, Glad Tidings Church

In the following days, he posted updates, encouragements, Bible reflections, prayer and practical information for church members. One live video was from a neighbouring church, Life United, where ‘Mercy Chefs’ – an organisation providing chef-quality meals in disaster zones – had set up. This also created opportunities for serving others in the community.

One particular video, from the church’s carpark, shows an emotional Rev. Burke as he processes the damage sustained by the local community, including their own church buildings. He also appears overwhelmed by the generosity of agencies offering help. Still, he encourages his church members, prays for them, and even leads them in a song of worship.

It's Sunday, August 30, 2020!

Posted by Glad Tidings Church on Sunday, 30 August 2020


New Life Apostolic (United Pentecostal Church International) Church

A handful of blocks away is New Life Apostolic Church (a United Pentecostal Church International church). Its evacuated pastor Kenneth Hasty and family also used a Facebook live video to connect with church members on Monday.

“I know we are all probably paralysed with the aftermath of this hurricane. And it’s probably frustrating to a lot of you considering the fact that some of us have come out of some serious crises already. Some of us have buried some loved ones due to this coronavirus, and now we’re having to plan recovery and repairs and all that stuff. And I know that’s quite frustrating.”

Hasty and his wife visited the church’s building the previous day: “You can actually see the sky from the big classroom at New Life. You know, it’s actually raining in the building.”

“This is not the place, our death or our demise,” – Pastor Kenneth Hasty, New Life Apostolic Church

“It’s kinda overwhelming considering the fact that there’s so much to do and, when you go home and you see rain falling in your living room, that’s frustrating. However, we know that God is with us and I remember the words of Job: ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, but blessed be the name of the Lord.’ So we’re going to give God thanksgiving in all that we go through.”

Pastor Hasty also had a message of hope for church members.

“This is not the end of the world. It’s not the end of you. This is not the place, our death or our demise, but I believe that we’re able to go through this and come out better on the other side,” he said.

“We’re going to help and assist you the best way we can while we recover and repair … I know some of you have lost everything…. and we will not turn our backs on anybody. We will help. We will assist, we will aid. We will pray. We will do everything we possibly can to help everybody. But, you know, our resources are not inexhaustible.”

Catholic Diocese of Lake Charles

It is a similar story for the city’s Catholic churches. Six churches in the Catholic Diocese of Lake Charles were destroyed, and another dozen were “highly compromised”. The six destroyed churches are Our Lady of the Assumption in Johnson Bayou; Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Charles; Our Lady of the Sea in Cameron; Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole; St. Eugene in Grand Chenier; and St. Peter the Apostle in Hackberry.

Of the six Catholic schools in the diocese, only one was able to reopen on August 31 when students returned from holidays. The others required repairs before classes resumed.

“The city is a disaster. No houses, no business is left untouched … We have 39 parishes and seven missions. All suffered some damage,” said Bishop of the Lake Charles Diocese, Glen J. Provost, in a report.

“We are here, we are open and we trying to meet the needs of the community,”–Mercy Sister Miriam MacLean

Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana began providing emergency relief within hours after the storm passed.

“We are here, we are open and we trying to meet the needs of the community,” said Mercy Sister Miriam MacLean, the agency’s director.

“The Lord preserved Catholic Charities from any major damage for sure so that we can be up and operational,” she said.

In Laura’s aftermath, Father Joseph Caraway from St Henry Church in St Charles proved to be a local hero. He reportedly using a chainsaw to clear a path so that the Mercy sisters could return to their convent and also deliver food to homebound residents

Lake Charles’ Episcopal churches

Lake Charles’ Episcopal churches also copped the brunt of Hurricane Laura, with parts of the roof at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church ripped off, causing water damage inside the church and rectory.

“I think that most people here just did not anticipate this level of destruction,” said Bishop Jacob Owensby, who the Episcopal News Service (ENS) reported spoke from his car after driving around in search of a mobile-phone signal. “This will define ministry in this diocese for years.”

“This will define ministry in this diocese for years.” – Bishop Jacob Owensby

Owensby told ENS he was deeply concerned about residents of the many small rural communities, already struggling to make ends meet, who could face devastating storm damage.

“These are people who are barely making it,” he said. “You take away their housing or you crush one of their cars – the impact on those people is life-threatening. And so you stretch that across western Louisiana, and you’ve really got a social justice and works-of-mercy challenge.”

Owensby said the diocese has been working with Episcopal Relief and Development – which is collecting donations for its Hurricane Relief Fund –  to identify the most urgent needs.

“Thanks be to God for them,” he said. “We’re grateful as can be.”

Lake Charles United Methodist churches

University United Methodist church in Lake Charles was also impacted, with Rev. Angela Cooley Bulhof – who had been evacuated with her family ahead of the hurricane and was in to Houston –learning that “one entire wall that faces the street basically collapsed … there are chunks of roof on all the buildings that were completely torn off”.

Lindsey Sirman is pastor of Squyres United Methodist Church in Ragley, north of Lake Charles, and from her evacuation site in Austin, Texas, she learned of significant damage to the church.

“We’ll get through this together, as we have through other storms.” – Lindsey Sirman

“Most of our windows — they’re broken,” she said. “Lots of roof damage, and we did get lots of rain and wind throughout the building.”

She promised that the church, despite its property issues, would be there for the community.

“We all have lots of hope and we know that God is with us, and we’ll get through this together as we have through other storms,” Sirman said.