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'I didn't know these families'

A small church on Louisianaís Poarch Creek Indian Reservation is now home to 50 people and nine dogs.

BY SUSAN KIM | POARCH, Louisiana | August 31, 2005

"So it has turned into a good experience of getting to know each other."

—Rev. Steve Cheramie Risingsun

A small church on Louisiana's Poarch Creek Indian Reservation is now home to 50 people and nine dogs.

During the massive evacuation before Hurricane Katrina roared through, many families got stranded on the highway, said the Rev. Steve Cheramie Risingsun, pastor at the Poarch Community Church, a Native American Mennonite church.

"I didn't know these families before," said Risingsun. "They were stranded on the highway, and lost. They couldn't find a place to stay or any gas stations that had gas. The travel police found them, and they came and contacted me and asked if we'd open the church."

The 50-member church rose to the occasion, bringing in food and supplies. It hasn't necessarily been an easy road, said Risingsun.

"Well, some of the people staying with us are smokers, and some of them curse. They had their dogs running all over the place, into the sanctuary. Their kids were breaking into my office and stealing things. They were pretty wild. They were playing with the PA system."

Then he took some time to relate to them, Risingsun said. "We tried to deal with that and in the process we got to know the folks. One night we couldn't get the kids and teenagers asleep. It was 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Then I sat in a chair to try to get to sleep, and one elderly guy who has Alzheimer's disease started slamming drawers. He thought he was at work. I thought, I can't go to sleep, because this guy will walk out of the building. It turns out there are a couple of elderly people with Alzheimer's disease."

Risingsun found out these families had some challenges even before disaster struck. "I would get upset with these kids," he said. "But then I found out their mom was suffering so much from Lupus. She's 32 years old. So then it helped me be a little more patient with the kids. So it has turned into a good experience of getting to know each other."

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body.

Risingsun also pastors another Native American church near Grand Isle, Louisiana, an area that sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. "It's now underwater. We've got two to three more families coming from that area."

What's next for the families and their temporarily church home? Nobody is sure, Risingsun said.

"We're trying to help them get situated," he said. "I'm not sure. We're going to help them get settled here the next couple months. We might help them find some work here. We might try to help pay the first month's rent for them. They have to decide whether they want to stay or go. They may have some friends, I don't know."

Risingsun has lived through a number of hurricanes. "I went through Hurricane Camille, and Andrew, too. And I got rescued off a rooftop from Hurricane Betsy when I was young. Seeing the footage, these rescues, it replays all that in my mind. Back then they didnít have rescue baskets. You just hung on tight to the person and didnít let go."

Risingsun said he fears the impact Hurricane Katrina has had on Native American communities, but he doesn't yet know what it is. "It's hard to get communication," he said. "Many people are still evacuated. The ones that didn't evacuate, we can't get in touch with. Their cell phones are from the cell towers that are down. All I hear when I call is: 'The party you are trying to reach is in a hurricane-impacted area.' "

Those who he has communicated with have some frightening accounts, said Risingsun. "They've told stories of alligators being thrown by the waves, snakes being thrown around and biting at everything because they're frightened. This is a rough thing as far as wildlife. I worry about the ecology, all the oil and gas and chemicals in the water. People will be touching that, then rubbing their eyes, and touching their mouths and lips. It's only a matter a time before there's a real health concern."

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