Gulf Coast Christians See Brighter Christmas Despite Losses

Christmas will be different this year for the victims of Hurricane Katrina whose places of worship and homes of rest have been lost to some degree.

"We will have in many ways a very different Christmas than we would have in times past," said the Rev. William Maestri, spokesman for the archdiocese of New Orleans, according to Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. "And in some ways, it will be a deeper Christmas because we will see the things that really matter."

With churches waterlogged to the roof, many Christians are gathering in homes to give their praises and celebrate Advent with joy.

The Rev. Hadley Edwards of Bethany United Methodist Church in New Orleans invites a group of congregants to his house during the Advent season every year. Their church sanctuary, however, will not be available for Sunday worship this Christmas. Hurricane Katrina brought 11 feet of water to the church complex.

Still, Edwards preaches the joy and assurance of God's love.

"Not even affliction has the ability to dampen our joy," he said to his Bible study group, according to the United Methodist News Service. "Because the Lord has done great things for us, we rest assured of God's love."

Some, though reminiscent of moments in Sunday school, continue to hold on to a greater hope of the future.

"It's a joy and a peace in our hearts because, we’re sorry ... we lost this [church]. But then, let’s look for anticipation ... High Praise Fellowship is going to be bigger and better in the future," Herb Hellmers, elder at High Praise Fellowship in Chalmette, Louisiana, told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

High Praise Fellowship had seated 400 congregants in its sanctuary. Now, with many evacuated across the states, those that remain are making a new beginning at the home of the pastor.

On a path toward rebuilding churches, homes and lives, believers and other storm victims in the affected areas are not alone.

This year's hurricane response is reported to be one of the nation's largest with much of the donations from Christian organizations. The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity were among the top five in the amount of funds they have collected for hurricane relief. Together, they have received more than $371 million.

Smaller church affiliated groups outside the ravaged areas have also continued to share the love of God, sending out volunteers and relief supplies.

"These folks ... think that three months later, there's nothing left. 'We've been abandoned. Nobody else is here,'" said Mark Dronfield, a member at Cherrydale Baptist Church in Arlington, Va. "I think of God and the way He looks at it. He hasn't abandoned them."

Dronfield took a week off of work to join a group from his church to support relief efforts.

The Rev. Ramsey Gilchrist of The Falls Church in Falls Church, Va., told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, "It's really so simple. It's about loving God, loving others and helping the people who need help."

The Falls Church members have been volunteering in Slidell, La., where First Baptist Church continues to hold services in its damaged building.

"This is a time to be able to really live out the Christmas season by giving," said Falls Church member Lenk Skiles.