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For disaster-stricken churches, Easter brings promise of hope

The Easter message of renewal will be particularly poignant this year for four American congregations bouncing back from disasters.

Their churches were destroyed by a tornado in Kentucky, ravaged by fire in New York, shattered when Hurricane Ida hit the coast of Louisiana, and filled with smoke and ash from the world’s most destructive wildfire. history of Colorado. For pastors, the Easter promise of hope could not be more timely as their resilient congregations come to terms with what has happened and prepare for what comes next.

KENTUCKY

Members of the Mayfield First United Methodist Church will not celebrate Easter at their century-old sanctuary. They can not.

A Dec. 10 tornado destroyed their stately building as it ripped a deadly path through the western Kentucky community of about 10,000 people. A demolition crew demolished the rest.

Instead, on Easter Sunday, members will enter their temporary home, Christ United Methodist Church, to mark the holy day.

“It’s going to be tough,” Reverend Joey Reed said. He weathered the storm at Mayfield First, wondering if he would live to celebrate his daughter’s wedding.

Reed began his ministry shortly thereafter, encouraging the approximately 100 members of his church to move from suffering to bondage. Worshipers crossed the disaster area to assess needs, distribute thousands of dollars in gift cards and help residents save their belongings.

“The example of Jesus Christ is the suffering servant,” he said. “When we turn away from our own difficulties…we are able to let go of our own pain for a minute and focus on our neighbour, which is the fundamental strength of Christianity.”

As the congregation ponders the best way to rebuild, they continue to process the tornado’s destruction through waves of grief and help. It’s only been in recent weeks — after Reed celebrated his daughter’s wedding, escaped to a cabin with his wife, and mourned the death of their cat, George — that Reed realized that he still carried the trauma of the storm.

“Even though we place our faith in the resurrection and the life to come, there’s still this idea of ​​what it’s like to leave this one, and I think we’re still analyzing that,” he said. he declares.

But there was hope in the midst of despair, like the pieces of the church’s baptismal font rescued from the dump. “We all want to find those bright spots,” Reed said.

NEW YORK CITY

The Middle Collegiate Church gospel choir rocked to the beat of a live band during a joyous rehearsal at a synagogue that has become their new home.

“It’s Passover and our Jewish friends are exercising the most radical hospitality,” said the Reverend Jacqui Lewis, the church’s senior minister.

His church was gutted by fire on December 5, 2020, in what seemed like a tragic coda to an already difficult pandemic year. When Middle Collegiate recently decided to resume in-person worship, East End Temple led by Rabbi Joshua Stanton invited the congregation to share its sacred space during the rebuild.

“It was very clear when tragedy befell Middle Collegiate Church that we needed to live our values, open our doors,” said Stanton, who will pray at the church’s Easter celebration.

On Palm Sunday, the choir sang hymns in preparation for Easter, and even the carols they weren’t able to sing together after COVID-19 concerns canceled their in-person Christmas Eve service.

“It feels like a miracle, going through the fire and the pandemic all over the world, everything we’ve been through… to now have a home,” said Joy Lau, member of the Jerriese Johnson gospel choir of the church.

The multicultural congregation experiences what it calls “stand-up worship and street activism.” Members have provided meals for people with AIDS, worked on storm recovery, fought for environmental protection, and demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ equality, and women’s rights.

The belfry of the historic church housed New York’s Liberty Bell, which rang to mark the birth of the country in 1776 and later rang for inaugurations, deaths of presidents and in remembrance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The fire spared the bell and left behind a skeleton facade and two vinyl banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Just Love,” the church’s motto.

Amid the grief of losing their beloved church, Lewis asked parishioners to “worship God with joy” and find the promise of hope that is part of every Easter.

“For Middle, this is a moment of resurrection. We continue to face new challenges and we are the living body of Christ. More than ever, we understand this and what is our mission, our calling,” she later said on the website of her charred church.

“The hospitality and love of foreigners of Judaism that we inherit as Christians is fully manifested in these holy weeks for both communities.”

LOUISIANA

The windows of Saint-Charles Borromée Catholic Church were blown out and its ceiling, sacristy and vestibule collapsed after Hurricane Ida blasted ashore in August, hitting the small fishing community of Point-aux- Oaks, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of New Orleans.

Since then, its parish priest, the Reverend Rajasekar Karumelnathan, celebrates mass at the presbytery and in a tent set up in the church parking lot. Attendance dwindled after the storm: from around 80 people who attended Sunday services to around 15 worshipers now.

Celebrating Christmas under the ruins was particularly moving for the congregation, the pastor said. But he expects a different, lighter vibe for their first post-Ida Easter service, which promises believers eternal life.

“We have a lot of hope. We hope we can recover everything we lost,” he said. “Easter strengthens us.”

Parishioner Teddy Neal, who lives half a mile from the church, is still rebuilding his storm-damaged home. He would like to see his church and his house rebuilt – restored to what they once were or better.

“I see Easter as a new beginning,” said Neal, a truck driver. “I am humble enough no matter the conditions in or around the destruction – as long as I am present with Jesus during the Eucharist.”

COLORADO

In the charred remains of Bill and Jackie Stephens’ Superior home, where they raised four children and created countless memories for 22 years, daffodils are blooming again.

When he looks at the green shoots and bright yellow flowers, Bill Stephens sees rebirth. He also feels a new sorrow: for the house; cremated family photos and videos; the yard they loved on spring days, with its newly laid patio and magnolia tree named after their third child – “Maggie-nolia”.

“As a pastor, I see this and I walk away, it’s an illustration of Easter. It’s life out of death,” Stephens said. “In a way, it’s beautiful. , and in another way, it’s a reminder of, damn, we’ve lost a lot.”

The senior pastor of Ascent Community Church in nearby Louisville and his loved ones are one of 26 families in the congregation who lost their homes Dec. 30 in a wildfire that destroyed 1,084 residences in suburban Denver. Hundreds of other church members have been displaced.

The church itself, a cavernous space inside a former Sam’s Club with a 750-seat auditorium, was largely spared. Flames wrapped around the building, burning trees and shrubs in the parking lot. But ash and smoke seeped in through skylights and ventilation ducts, blanketing everything in sooty charcoal.

Volunteers took out anything that wasn’t nailed down to be washed before a building-wide deep clean. Carpets, curtains, walls and lighting have been replaced. The Ascension returned in February after two months of worship in a hotel ballroom.

At first, police used the Ascent parking lot as a staging area for displaced residents to collect passes to enter their neighborhoods. Thousands of people showed up and were greeted by church members, therapy dogs and meals. A relief fund raised a few hundred thousand dollars and the church contacted schools to care for the affected students.

As for the congregation, Stephens said suffering his own loss has positioned him to serve others. A twin family adoption program to support people through companionship and chores like grocery shopping. Volunteer therapists provided counseling and offered group sessions.

Three months after the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history, Stephens reminds his herd that people still need help dealing with trauma and challenges such as insurance, housing and the removal of debris. To his great joy, he sees the faithful mobilizing.

One thing he is sure of: Christ’s resurrection has a special meaning this year.

“That Jesus conquered the grave, conquered sin…and breathed life into Easter Sunday,” Stephens said, “there’s something really powerful about thinking of ours as a minor version of that.”

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Henao reported from New York, Meyer reported from Nashville, Tennessee, and Orsi reported from Superior, Colorado.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.