What we can learn from “In Case of Katrina: Reinventing the Church in Post-Katrina New Orleans” and author Dr. Ellen Blue
By Rebekah Hasty, Program Coordinator for Connectional Ministries and Development
Dr. Ellen Blue is the Mouzon Biggs, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity and United Methodist Studies at Phillips Theological Seminary. She is ordained in the Louisiana conference of the United Methodist Church and is an accomplished author. She graciously agreed to visit with me on April 16 about her book and the similarities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and COVID-19. Her research and analysis are invaluable and share wisdom in a time of uncertainty.
Get a “seat at the table”
Church leadership needs to step forward as the moral authority. John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Wesley had a commitment to social justice and believed people could organize and change society for the better using science and medicine.
Blue wrote, “It can be easier to believe that we should simply submit than to believe that what I do makes a difference in how things will turn out not just for me and for those I love, but also for total strangers and unborn generations. Profound interconnectedness means that my life impacts all other lives, whether I want it to, and whether I am aware of it or not” (pg. 161).
Wrestle with theological questions: “Why did this happen? What does God have to do with it?”
Blue shares, “Among other changes, tragedy dramatically alters the survivors’ spiritual lives.”
We hope that times of trial and strife draw people to God and one another, yet many times fear and uncertainty alienate them from God and those they love.
People are searching for sanctuary in the traditional sense. The sanctuary is not only the place people come to worship, it is the place they come to feel safe. This unprecedented time has made that impossible and people are unlikely to feel the shelter of sanctuary the way they did in the past.
Realize congregations will look different
A great number of displaced residents of New Orleans left, never to return. Churches reopened not knowing where many of their congregants were living or even if they had escaped the floods.
Similarly, our congregations will be changed. Many will fear contagion and leaving their homes. We will need to take specific measures to protect and reassure our most vulnerable populations. This will not happen overnight or on an aspirational timetable.
Engage collaborative leadership
Clergy, staff, and laity must work together to address immediate needs. Involve laity with expertise. In New Orleans, authoritative leadership by the Catholic diocese proved rapid, but problematic. Pay attention to those on the “ground.” It will take longer, but it will be more organic and ultimately more successful.
Be creative! Now is the time for innovation and reaching out to new people in new ways not tried before.
Different churches will make different choices. What works today might not six months or a year from now. We are in uncertain times and needs will continue to change.
Collaborate with other churches. Separate churches working together support our hurting communities and congregations. We are stronger together.
Blue’s final chapter shares a quote from Vaclav Havel, a Czechoslovakian statesman and playwright: “Hope is not about believing we can change things; hope is about believing that what we do matters” (pg. 205).
As Christians and Oklahoma United Methodists, we cannot change COVID-19. What matters is we can share the hope that is Jesus Christ.