Three years ago, a pastor of a 2,700-member church signed up for the reality TV show "Survivor: Thailand." The object of the game - to survive off the land and adapt to each other, or in Pastor John Raymond's words, "While you're pretending to be on everybody's team, you're really looking out for yourself."
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and its surrounding areas in August 2005, Raymond encountered an unexpected second part to "Survivor" in his life. This time, however, it wasn't a game. He called it "Survivor: Katrina."
Raymond is head of New Horizon Christian Fellowship in Slidell, La., an independent church he began pastoring around 2-1/2 years ago. The small congregation of 40-50 members is now down to 22, months after the hurricane devastation.
"We lost everything," he said.
The owner of the church facility that New Horizon had been leasing for worship services is still waiting on insurance money to begin rebuilding. Raymond and his congregants decided to move to a different building nearby, one that was also destroyed in the flooding waters but was still usable. The remaining Katrina survivors are slowly rebuilding their new facility and just completed building a stage, Raymond said.
Funding, however, is running low as the congregation has decreased and those that remain have little or nothing to give.
Federal assistance continues to flow into the ravaged cities, and denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and United Methodists, are raking up large contributions to offer to their affiliated churches in the storm-affected areas. But an independent church like New Horizon is left on its own.
"We're at a loss for getting help," said Raymond. "We don't have access to the various financial supports that many other churches have.
"People are giving billions of dollars to the Red Cross, but none goes to the churches. Since we're nondenominational ... it's just us."
Raymond explained that while people want to assist church groups, many don't know where to make their contributions except for such large agencies as the Red Cross, whose aid does not reach churches.
Around a dozen churches in Slidell were destroyed by Katrina, according to Raymond, and among them, New Horizon is the only independent church that he knows of.
"Others affiliated with other denominations are being taken care of," he said. "But for us, we're struggling financially personally as well as trying to rebuild the church."
Currently, New Horizon is holding worship services in homes.
With little knowledge and access to other types of assistance, Raymond's attempts to funnel any kind of funding did not pull through, including a loan assistance program by Small Business Administration.
After studying the FEMA website, running into complications while applying, and making calls for clarification, Raymond said he understood it to be a "useless cause."
Reflecting back to the reality show he had participated in, he explained, "With the game 'Survivor,' even though it was real in that they didn't provide you with food and you had to sleep out, you always knew in the back of your mind if something too bad happened, there was a medical team out in the woods that could help. Never was your life really in danger, and you knew in seven weeks it would be over.
"Here, you look at the devastation, and not only is there nobody saying, 'We won't let the bad stuff happen to you,' but nobody knows how long this game will last."
"The game was real to an extent, but nothing was as real as this," he said.
In the game, Raymond just had to drag his own self through to survive. With Katrina, he said, "You're dragging your family through; I'm dragging my whole congregation.
"Nobody signed up for 'Survivor: Katrina.'"
While there is no big prize money at the end of this reality, or even an immediate monetary outlet for assistance, Raymond and his congregation are playing the game differently.
The object of the game this time - to be on everybody's team and look out for each other.
With residents and evacuees struggling and without a church to go to, New Horizon, even in the midst of its own rough road, is being prepared to open its doors to the affected community.
"What we want to do is build out our church and provide a place where people who are new to Slidell can go to church."
To donate to New Horizon Christian Fellowship, visit www.rebuildchurches.us.