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'You find the circle'

Rev. Cliff Nunn was feeling down this week until a group of New Orleans volunteers unknowingly ministered to him.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW ORLEANS | August 5, 2006

"I can picture myself being involved the rest of my life in volunteering like this."

—Patrick Childs

The Rev. Cliff Nunn was feeling down this week until a group of volunteers unknowingly ministered to him.

Nunn, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, had a congregation of 68 members before Hurricane Katrina hit. Now, nearly one year later, 40 people regularly attend worship.

"I was really pretty low last night," he admitted. "I had lost one of the best members of my church who is moving to San Francisco. I was really pretty tired but I stayed for their devotional," he said, pointing to a room where volunteers have been working to repair the church, which still shows significant damage from Katrina. "It really helped. They minister to us. The volunteers that come here help me a lot."

This week, the volunteers at the First Presbyterian Church are all from the Chicago suburbs. They are painting the church's rebuilt bathroom a bright yellow. The color - and the group's own good cheer - are enough to lift the spirits of even the most tired residents.

As volunteer teams come and go, Nunn pastors a church that has been forever changed by Katrina. He oversees one Sunday morning worship service - but he feels like the church needs three services at least.

"We need a service for people who had no impact from Katrina. We need another service for those in the process of rebuilding. Then we need another one for those who don't want to face rebuilding."

You have all those kinds of people in the church - and throughout New Orleans - Nunn explained. "You have those who don't want to hear about the storm because some people are tired of hearing about disasters. You have others who want to process it in church."

Regardless, Nunn said, Hurricane Katrina changed the face of the churchgoing in New Orleans, for him and for other pastors. "It's such a a powerful turn of events. You've heard of out-of-body experiences? Well, this has brought about a strange out-of-church experience."

Prior to Katrina, First Presbyterian was what Nunn calls "a typical church, so to speak."

But the storm upturned normal lives and so-called normal churches, he said. "The storm makes you into a church that is much more like the Old Testament image of the Israelites and the New Testament early church than our normal American church experience. There are people who are suffering and poor and who have diseases - and you don't typically have that in the normal American church. And so people feel like they have been made abnormal. I used to have some poor people in my church. Well, now I have a whole bunch of people with a whole set of problems."

One volunteer, Glenda Childs, is from the Knox Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. The Illinois congregation formed a long-distance connection with Nunn's church in the wake of Katrina. Now the Knox congregation sends teams to New Orleans to aid the recovery, and Nunn has traveled to Illinois to speak about what it's like to try to come back from Katrina.

In addition to Knox Presbyterian, Nunn's congregation has also built a relationship with the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. On the first-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Nunn will preach at the Marietta church.

"I believe one of our major roles as clergy is interpreting this event for the rest of the country. We need to go to where they are and encourage them to come to where we are. If I can get them down here and get them a scouting trip, I can tell people we have a mission field down here. We need all the help and support we can get."

"I want to go to them to not only recruit people but to give them thanks," he added. "They have really helped us."

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has issued a plea for many more volunteers like those being sent by Knox and First Presbyterian to help the residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Childs said the church-to-church relationship has become rewarding for her and her fellow parishioners from Illinois. "Our church regularly donates money for people who are hurting," she said, "and this was one time we got to go where the money goes. We don't usually get to do that."

Her son, Patrick, is volunteering as well, before he attends Guilford College in North Carolina. "I can picture myself being involved the rest of my life in volunteering like this," he said.

Another young man, Alex Lueof, hails from the Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois. Lueof said he will major in international relations at Indiana University - and that volunteering has fine-tuned his focus even more. "I'm planning to be involved in humanitarian aid as a career. This has been a big inspiration."

Patrick Childs and Alex Lueof met for the first time on this volunteer trip - and they said they discover new things they have in common every day. "We live several whole towns away from each other. But we're both Yankees fans. And we were both born in November."

Nunn calls this a "montage of people."

"Nobody knows each other," he said. "But you find the circle."

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