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Monday, September 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Faith comforts storm's victims

Chicago Tribune

BILOXI, Miss. — In the Bible Belt, Sunday is the day for going to church, even if all that is left is a pile of rubble.

Hurricane Katrina spared little in Biloxi, a casino town where gambling and religion have long been at odds. But that did not stop hundreds of people from gathering on corners, in church parking lots and in grassy fields where churches once stood to share stories of survival and hope.

In Houston, a group of ministers offered words of comfort over loudspeakers at the four shelters where many of the 24,000 evacuees from New Orleans are being housed.

For an hour or two yesterday in Biloxi, there was no worrying about tomorrow, whether homes would be rebuilt, if there would be enough food to get through the week or whether they would have a job.

This was a time for rejoicing, for crying tears of relief and for embracing old friends and strangers who walked up from the streets. It was a time of camaraderie among those who share the bond of having survived a hurricane that has forever changed their lives.

"We have lost many, many things, but we are blessed because we are alive," George Parks, 54, told about 20 fellow parishioners sitting on folding chairs in the sweltering heat in the parking lot at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

As Parks spoke to a chorus of "Amens" and "praise the Lords" from the congregation, tears streamed down Hazel Price's face. Suddenly, the pressure of being the caretaker for church members who are now homeless seemed to take its toll.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck last Monday, Price, 51, has been responsible for preparing hundreds of hot meals — fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans — to distribute to 200 people a day in the neighborhood where New Bethel has stood for more than 100 years.

Price, who cooks for the church's food ministry, and her family are among about 12 people who have sought refuge in the church since the storm, living amid crumpled pews and glass from shattered windows.

They cleaned out a room near the kitchen, fired up the natural-gas stove and set a big table reminiscent of the one in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

On the other side of town, across the street from casino row, more than 100 people sat in lawn chairs at the site where the Episcopal Church Redeemer used to stand. Much of the church was rebuilt after Hurricane Camille in 1969. Hurricane Katrina will force parishioners to do it again.

"We will rebuild because it is important to the community that we are here," said Rev. Harold Roberts, the church rector. "People have not been able to talk to each other or see each other for days. But we are energized and we are telling the world that we will be all right."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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