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Hosts switch roles, gain new outlook

Members of small Louisiana church who survived Katrina lend a hand in tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan.

BY P.J. HELLER | SLIDELL, La. | October 16, 2007

Members of the small First Christian Church of Slidell, more accustomed to playing host to hundreds of volunteers coming to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, reversed roles recently when they took to the road to assist tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan.

It wasn't an easy transition.

"It was hard for us because Katrina's still so fresh in our minds and many of the people on the trip had personal damage to their homes," said the Rev. Susan Lassalle, pastor of First Christian.

"As we approached Greensburg, we anticipated it would be difficult to see what we saw - the piles of debris, the heavy equipment moving things around - and it was," she said. "It just brought us right back to two years ago."

In the last year, the Disciples of Christ church has hosted nearly 400 people from throughout the United States, serving as a "mission station" for Week of Compassion and the Office of Disciples Volunteers.

The volunteers come through Northshore Disaster Recovery, an organization representing more than 85 civic, government and faith-based groups. First Christian has hosted volunteers from 18 states, 38 different churches and five different denominations.

Lassalle said the church would have housed volunteers even earlier if it hadn't taken eight months after Katrina for electrical power to be restored to its Fellowship Hall. The church was also damaged by the hurricane.

When the EF-5 tornado destroyed the farming town of Greensburg on May 4, a similar mission station was established there by Disciples.

"They decided to do that and we had the idea of, 'Hey, why don’t we go and do the same thing that folks have been coming down here and doing for us, stay at the church which is a mission station and work in the community,'" Lassalle said. "We talked about it and the idea just caught on like wildfire."

Eleven members of the congregation made the trip Sept. 9-16 but Lassalle said the project actually involved the entire 60-member congregation.

"Everybody played a part in some way to contribute," she said.

Those efforts included the church's Christian Women's Fellowship putting together personal hygiene kits to be given out to Greensburg residents and a church offering which more than covered the cost of gasoline for members to make the 1,500-mile roundtrip in two vehicles.

"It was a church effort," Lassalle said. "There was an energy behind that, an enthusiasm behind that."

Those who traveled to Greensburg expected to work on individual homes similar to the work done by volunteers who come to Slidell. Instead, they found themselves constructing two 30-by-40-foot buildings that will be used to house tools and materials for the rebuilding effort in Greensburg and other Kansas communities affected by the twister.

"We feel like we really received a blessing because rather than just being able to help one or two families, the buildings that we were able to construct are going to house materials that will then help many families not only in Greensburg but in the surrounding counties," Lassalle said.

As construction was winding up on those buildings, some members of the work team were assigned to help cleanup and paint a home that was being rebuilt in the town.

The work team was coordinated through the Office of Disciples Volunteers and assigned to the South Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization. The volunteers were housed at the First Christian Church in Kinsley, about 30 miles from Greensburg.

Lassalle said the trip gave members a new-found appreciation for the volunteers who continue to come to the Gulf Coast.

"It was wonderful for our church," Lassalle said.

"It has definitely given us a wider understanding of the folks who are coming here and what they're doing," she said. "The preparation that it takes to plan the trip, the work . . . We can relate now to what it's like to drive for hours on end and then arrive somewhere to meet strangers . . ."

Lassalle, who came to First Christian in Slidell shortly after Katrina, said the trip came at a pivotal time as the church was going through a transformation process. She said that prior to Katrina, the church was "heading for an end."

"It was about to lose its pastor, its focus was only inward in maintaining itself week by week and it was not serving the community," she said. "Then Katrina hit.

"The storm just rearranged all that and we began to recognize the needs of our community that were staring us in the face and that we could actually become a part of that," she said. "One of the ways we could do that was by housing the volunteers. Now it's extended to other ways that we're looking to get involved in our own community and to answer the call of Christ to be ministering to people right here. So it's been a double blessing in every way that you could think.

"A church that was nearly dead before Katrina is now beautifully alive," Lassalle reported.

She said the church was already looking forward to making another volunteer trip next summer.

"I think as soon as the call goes out we'll have a lot of people sign up just because of what it meant to us as a congregation in our own development," she said.

Lassalle said there was a special bond between the people of Greensburg and her church members who had gone through Katrina.

"We shared something," she said. "We shared a loss together. We were able to hug people there and talk with them there and say, 'We know how it hurts' but also to share a word of hope. 'It's going to get better. We're beginning to see some of the daylight and you will, too.' It was a tremendous experience in that way."

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