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A promise to stay

By Kirk Noonan

Despite destroyed sanctuaries, rampant unemployment and loss of homes, AG pastors are determined to rebuild churches

For years, Slidell, La., has been a tranquil city where tourists scour antique shops and boat enthusiasts set sail. After the eye of Hurricane Katrina swept directly over Slidell, 31 miles northeast of New Orleans, the city is anything but idyllic. Splintered power poles lean low, sailboats stacked one on top of the other clutter the marina, and sidewalks overflow with piles of mud, soggy Sheetrock, furniture and twisted lumber.

Like many communities along the Gulf Coast, it will be months — and maybe even years — before Slidell regains some semblance of the way it was.

The same is true of The Harvest, an Assemblies of God church in Slidell, which was inundated for days with 5 feet of water.

Though Doug McAllister, senior pastor of The Harvest, has seen his church destroyed, his congregation scattered and his entire staff laid off, he is hopeful for better days.

“Even though our church building was put out of ministry, our parking lot was not,” says McAllister, 42. “Now we’re touching people in our lot who we would’ve never been able to if not for this storm.”

Within 48 hours of Katrina’s landfall, McAllister had invited Convoy of Hope to set up a distribution hub in the church’s parking lot. Tons of ice, water and food have been provided to those in need. Many of the volunteers manning the hub are laypeople and staff members from McAllister’s church.

“I laid them off, but they keep working,” says McAllister of his staff members. “They’re ready to keep serving in the ministry while we believe God for our finances and stay focused on our call.”

McAllister could be a spokesman for many AG pastors along the Gulf Coast who are faced with similar circumstances. More than half of McAllister’s congregation lost their homes and places of employment. Some will move away; others will stay but be unable to support the church financially anytime soon.

“For the short term, the storm has put our church out of business,” says McAllister matter-of-factly. “But our people are very resilient and we continue to meet in our parking lot for Sunday services. It’s true — you really don’t need a church building to have church.”

Despite such optimism, The Harvest’s predicament underscores the difference between Hurricane Katrina and other storms that have battered America’s coastlines. Katrina’s wrath affected hundreds of communities, leaving entire communities of people homeless and unemployed. That fact has left The Harvest and many other AG churches and laypeople in a perilous financial position.

“Every person in my church lost everything they had,” says Max Latham, pastor of Miracle AG in Boothville, whose hometown of Buras is located near the southeast tip of Louisiana. “But one thing we’re finding out now — even though we [the congregation] are scattered throughout Alabama, Texas and Louisiana — is that we all miss the fellowship and sense of community the church provides. It’s going to be difficult to rebuild, but we’re going back.”

Three weeks after Katrina, much of Buras is still underwater. But already numerous offers to help rebuild the church, says Latham, have come in. One church from Florida has told Latham it will help pay his salary for six months. Others have promised to send teams and materials for reconstruction.

“This is the mission field God has given us,” says Latham. “We were going to rebuild before we had all the offers for help, but now it’s just confirmation that the mission is ongoing.”

McAllister says the only thing he and his staff can do now is help others piece their lives together and move forward with ministry.

“We’re going to dig out, rebuild and re-establish our church,” he says almost defiantly. “God has been good to us and we’re going to pick up where we left off and keep serving Him and this city.

“I wouldn’t wish this kind of storm on anybody, but now that it has hit us,” he adds, “it has become an opportunity to meet our neighbors, feed the hungry, and give a cold drink of water to people in need.”

Ever since the Convoy hub in Slidell opened there has been a nonstop line of cars streaming into the parking lot. McAllister says more than 12,000 families received supplies and were ministered to in the first two weeks after the storm.

“People who have lost everything, including their homes and jobs, are out there every day so they can encourage their neighbors and let them know they can make it,” says Convoy of Hope’s Mike Ennis, of the volunteers who have worked at the hubs. “Christians across the nation need to be praying that God will meet these people’s needs, provide employment and that pastors and churches stay in these communities so there is not a spiritual vacuum.”

Avoiding a loss of spiritual vitality in these communities is precisely why McAllister, Latham and other AG pastors in the Gulf Coast are determined to help their churches rebuild and survive. And the best way to do that, they say, is to continue serving others.

Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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