10.23.2010

Returning spirituality to the broken areas of New Orleans

(Photo: One of many abandoned churches in the Lower 9th Ward)

With his sleeves rolled up and rain dropping on his modest Impala, Reverend Dwight Clay drove me through the Hollygrove neighborhood in New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina.

The eight feet of floodwaters in 2005 changed it drastically with remodeled homes now sprinkled in between vacant homes, debris on the side of the streets, a closed community center and a demolished school.

“It’s looking like this five years later after the storm. These homes look like something out of the movie “The Color Purple.” A lot of the people who have come back are just tired from going through all of the red tape. Mind you, it was bad before Katrina, but now it is worse,” said Rev. Clay, 24.

(Photo: Rev. Dwight Clay taking me on a tour of his new building in August)

The spiritual condition of his neighborhood was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of his church, Greater Life Community Ministries. With only thirty solid members, Rev. Clay’s congregation is impacting the Hollygrove community with outreach programs.

“It’s not about having a big fancy church and sitting behind the four walls speaking good words. The people need spiritual upliftment in the streets and it is our job as preachers to do it. We have to unify,” said Rev. Clay.

Just three month ago his congregation was able to obtain a place to worship located above a Black-owned t-shirt shop and salon. It’s a giant leap from their days of meeting under a car port just around the corner, but Rev. Clay is not interested in erecting the best building.

“We need to reform the human mind. We don’t need to wait for others to come and do for us what we can do for ourselves. So, I don’t need a large congregation as long as I have a small group of people committed to the true mission of Jesus—serving the people,” he said.

According to a report in the New York Times, about a dozen out the 75 Black churches that existed before Katrina are actually back functioning. Congregations of nearly 200 have been reduced to a few dozen and many are still raising money to restore their places of worship.

Brother Willie Muhammad, who heads the Nation of Islam’s local mosque, knows firsthand the faith and dedication it takes to rebuild.

The mosque, located on Downman Street, was greatly destroyed. For nearly four years the few returning Believers held weekly mosque meetings in each other's homes, community centers, a hotel meeting ballroom and a building office suite. In January 2009 they hosted a rededication ceremony.

(Photo: Brother Willie Muhammad in the streets of New Orleans)

"Personally for me that experience was one of the greatest trials I have experienced thus far. The words, "We must depend on Allah and ourselves" have a greater meaning to me. However, my greatest joy was not so much us getting back in the building, but seeing the return of believers who lived in the city before storm. We walked this uphill road together,” said Mr. Muhammad.

With 70 percent of their mosque congregation returning, they have been involved in various initiatives including the Peace Keepers program along with hosting an annual Back To School supply giveaway. Mr. Muhammad also sees there is more to be done in healing the spiritual and psychological ills of the Black community.

“Sometimes as members of the clergy we can try to play the role of super pastor, rabbi, imam or minister, not realizing that there are believers in God who have been trained to wholistically address emotional and psychological pain. By failing to realize this, many have caused more damage while thinking they we're helping,” said Mr. Muhammad.

Pastor Carl Ming heads Caffin Avenue International Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely floored by Katrina.

(Photo:The restored Caffin Avenue International Seventh-Day Adventist Church)
They have been able to restore their sanctuary and hosted a packed community housing forum to mark the Katrina anniversary.

“We have made significant progress. Our members are moving back. We’re looking for great things by God’s Grace. We need to create opportunities for the people to be resourceful on their own. This house is for serving the people,” Pastor Ming said following the forum.


(Another abandoned church in the Lower 9th Ward. All photo by Jesse Muhammad (c))




(You can read more of my coverage of New Orleans the past five years by visiting www.FinalCall.com. Follow me on Twitter @BrotherJesse or "LIKE" my blog fan page on Facebook)