Pastor focuses on hope, not pain as neighborhood rebuilds
By Susan Kim for MDS
Around his dining room table in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the Rev. Charles Duplessis (pictured right) has a growing collection of articles about the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The headlines are sobering, referring to stagnant buildings, lingering trauma and bad choices—what has become known in sound-byte language as the “Katrina pain index.”
But Duplessis, pastor of Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church, is thinking more about raising the “Katrina hope index” 10 years after a storm that leveled his home, destroyed his church building and sent his community under 20 feet of floodwater.
Folding chairs are stacked neatly against the walls of his house, ready for Sunday worship. His congregation will stroll up the front walk, fill those chairs and then the ones in the dining room before they spill into the hallway where they can still hear his voice.
He remembers a decade ago when a Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) project coordinator stepped up the same front walk to look with him at the pile of debris that used to be his home. “When I opened up the plans, he looked at them and he said, ‘Let’s pray.’ And we prayed and he left,” says Duplessis.
Then MDS volunteers began arriving to help rebuild his home. He worked alongside them. “Everybody who came to work on the house, we met them,” says Duplessiss. “We met every Mennonite group that came in.”
Even while he pushes along construction of a new church seven blocks away, Duplessis is helping his community grow in faith. “We just started a children’s church, and we already have a Bible study and a women’s meeting,” he says.
Rebuilding after a second disaster
In 2010, after the house had been rebuilt, the Duplessis family discovered their home was among an estimated 100,000 homes in 20 states that contained toxic drywall imported from China. Emissions from the drywall not only corrode plumbing and electrical systems but have been linked to health problems as well.
“The children had rashes the doctors had never seen,” says Duplessis.
When federal and state health officials discovered the drywall was emitting sulfide gases, the Duplessis realized they had to strip the house, replace all the electrical wiring and all the appliances and rebuild again.
“We went to our insurance company and they told us they couldn’t do anything for us because it was a preexisting condition,” he says.
They faced a rebuilding cost of $80,000. MDS volunteers came up the front walk to help them the family rebuild a second time. Every task they completed, says Duplessis, seemed to be done with a sense of care and expertise.
“The amazing thing was, they knew how to do whatever needed to be done on a house,” he says. “They had a crew who did porches. They had a crew who did sheetrock. They even had a cabinet crew.”
Why return to the Lower Ninth Ward?
Seven blocks away from his home, Duplessis walks around the grounds of what will become the new Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church. A new sheet metal roof canopy has been constructed, and Duplessis estimates it will take another $500,000 to finish the church.
Already, he says, he has held worship services on the grass under the canopy. He believes God has made it plain that his church needs to come back to the Lower Ninth Ward.
“The church in any sane person’s life is a stabilizer,” says Duplessis. “The church has to get back to speaking instead of cowering in the four walls. We need to be the people who are ministering to this community.”
Like other residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, in recent months Duplessis has fielded questions about why he wanted to go back to a neighborhood depicted in the headlines as economically troubled, crime-ridden and impoverished. After Katrina, many said it should be cleared off the map.
Duplessis asks the simple question aloud: “Why go back? Our answer was, ‘We’re going home.’”
Photo provided by MDS.