Any given Sunday at First Grace UMC in New Orleans
July 12, 2015
Story by Betty Backstrom
Tia Tucker, left, and Robin Pearce sing in the choir of First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert. 8/15/10
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is reported to have said, "Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America.”
But on any given Sunday in New Orleans, a walk through the doors of First Grace United Methodist Church paints a very different picture of church worship.
Sitting in the pews and singing in the choir are members of First Grace’s racially mixed congregation. Lively music and services offered in both English and Spanish provide the setting needed to appeal to a diverse congregation serving a diverse city.
This Mid-City church did not always attract such a blended group—at least not when it was First United Methodist Church.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, First UMC served a predominately white congregation. The church, once boasting a weekly attendance of 700 members, saw its worship numbers fall to less than 100. First UMC fell into the unenviable group of once strong urban churches facing a steady decline.
Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The storm damaged church was facing serious financial and membership losses.
Just one short mile “down the road,” Grace United Methodist Church was also in dire straits. Like First UMC, Grace took on flood waters when the city’s levees breeched. The church property had devastating structural damage, losing a back wall to the main building.
First UMC and Grace UMC were just two of the many New Orleans area United Methodist churches facing crippling damage and dramatic losses in their congregations due to the diaspora of the city’s residents. Not only did many people in New Orleans have no place to live, they also had no place to worship.
“The bishop and the cabinet developed the concept of Mission Zones in response to the lack of active local congregations in the New Orleans area,” said Rev. Don Cottrill, provost. “The vast majority of local church members were out of town since their homes had been flooded and made uninhabitable. It was not feasible to send many of the pastors back to the local church they had been serving. We decided to recruit pastors who were willing and able to take on the challenge of the circumstances and to organize Mission Zones in which there was an ‘anchor church’ and several other local churches in the surrounding area. In each Mission Zone, a lead pastor was appointed along with a group of pastors who were appointed to the Zone instead of to a local church. They worked hard as a dedicated team, serving local churches, their members and the community.”
Grace and First UMC were partner churches in one of these Mission Zones. Once the property for First UMC was rehabilitated, the congregation invited Grace UMC to use their facilities for their worship services. Eventually, both churches decided that the best option was to become one congregation—First Grace United Methodist Church.
Rev. Shawn Anglim has served as pastor for the newly merged church since its inception. “The people of First Grace are ordinary people living wonderful and complicated lives. But they have been faithful to the task of blending two unique congregations, making a decision that changed their lives and the lives of the people in this community for the better,” said Anglim.
“At the time of the decision to merge, I asked the congregations one question: Do you believe that we can do more for our city as one body of Christ than we can do as two bodies of Christ, one mile apart? Fortunately, their answer was ‘yes’,” he added.
One of the most significant ways that First Grace UMC has reached out to the people of New Orleans is through the establishment of Hagar’s House, a shelter for homeless women.
The storm displaced thousands in New Orleans and left behind a population of homeless persons that reached unprecedented levels for a U. S. city—one in 25 residents. In a 2008 article from USA Today, there was an estimated 12,000 homeless at that time, accounting for four percent of New Orleans’ estimated population of 302,000. UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homeless advocacy group, then reported that the number was nearly double the pre-Katrina homeless count.
After Katrina, a large number of those homeless began to camp under the Claiborne overpass on Interstate 10. In October of 2007, the city began taking steps to relocate the group to safer venues.
When First Grace United Methodist Church was approached by the city to help with the problem, the church took in a group of homeless women in need of shelter.
That action provided the seeds for what is now the church’s full-fledged ministry for homeless women in New Orleans. With the help of generous donations, the church was able to purchase and restore a spacious older home that houses the residents, who moved into Hagar’s House in 2010. Hagar’s House currently serves as home for three women with children and four unaccompanied women who now have a roof over their heads, a warm bed and the compassion of the congregation of First Grace UMC.
In order to receive donations for Hagar’s House and related community outreach efforts, the church has formed a nonprofit organization known as First Grace Community Alliance.
Carolyn Mayes serves as the house director for Hagar’s House. Mayes works closely with Nichol Luebrun, full-time building coordinator. Committed church and community volunteers team up with members of the part-time staff to show God’s love to the residents of Hagar’s House.
“One of the most powerful things to have emerged at Hagar’s House is the community that residents have created. Folks have built relationships with First Grace and among themselves, continuing to support one another even after moving on,” said Mayes.
An outgrowth of the Hagar’s House ministry, Project Ishmael is an immigration legal clinic for children. Housed at First Grace UMC, the ministry was birthed in 2014 as part of the First Grace Community Alliance.
“Project Ishmael is new, it's open, it's small, but it's growing. There is a huge need in New Orleans for this kind of help,” said Angela Davis, New Orleans attorney and project coordinator.
According to Davis, a full-time AmeriCorps interpreter will start working with Project Ishmael in September. “In order to take on more cases, we are working hard to find funding for a second attorney. With that second person, we could more than triple the number of children with whom we currently work.”
For more information about Hagar’s House or Project Ishmael, call (504) 210-5064.