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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If there is a lifeblood to the rich and storied culture of this community, it is faith. As constant as the summer heat and as strong as the ancient oaks that withstood Katrina’s wind and water, it is everywhere. Faith runs through the people here as thick and sweet as Waffle House syrup, filling them with the certainty that their towns will rise again, that what was destroyed will be rebuilt, that what was lost will be found.

It is a faith that in some cases has nothing to do with God or Jesus or Jehovah or any other Higher Power, just an ingredient as vital to Southern living as corn is to grits.

But it is a faith that finds its loudest, clearest voices in the pews and pulpits and fellowship halls of the churches, from the simple white wooden chapels to the giant ornate brick sanctuaries that were everywhere before Katrina hit.

The phone book lists more than 50 churches of all stripes in Waveland and Bay St. Louis: Baptists, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Mormon, Presbyterian. How their houses of worship fared in Katrina varies as widely as the ways in which they pay homage to their God. Some were untouched. Some were wiped off the map.

After coming through Hurricane Katrina with its building unscathed, the First Missionary Baptist Church of Bay St. Louis is helping its members and neighbors recover from the storm -- and recruiting new disciples along the way. Click Play below the image to hear Pastor Alan Jenkins talk about his vision of the church's role.

In the heart of Bay St. Louis’ African-American community, in an outwardly plain block building at 256 Sycamore St., is the 110-member First Missionary Baptist Church where Pastor Alan Jenkins preaches Sunday mornings at 10:45. While surging storm waters deluged a house not 20 feet away and 18 inches higher, not a drop crossed the threshold of Jenkins’ church.

'A miracle, that's for sure'

“It’s a miracle, that’s for sure,” says Jenkins during an interview in the church sanctuary that was in the final stages of an extensive renovation project just before the storm struck. The church’s new pews, flawless carpet and stained-glass windows in a violet, pink, purple and amethyst color scheme, are as sharp as Jenkins himself, dressed in slacks and a black Promise Keepers polo shirt.

Since the storm hit, Jenkins’ church has been spreading its good fortune both within the congregation and without.

For starters, “We’ve opened up the church to other churches of all denominations so they could worship if they lost their place.” Several congregations have accepted, sending both worshipers to Jenkins’ pews and guest preachers to his pulpit. Others, he’s sad to say, have not.

That sharing aligns neatly with Jenkins’ top goal when he began preaching in Bay St. Louis five years ago: “breaking down some of the barriers” that he says keep the vast majority of Southern churches self-segregated along racial lines.

The church, which asks members to tithe 10 percent and has been the beneficiary of many out-of-town donors, has been able to spread financial fortune as well. In addition to helping its own worshipers -- some of whom lost everything to Katrina -- with money and supplies, First Missionary Baptist is helping strangers.

Jenkins used his sermon last Sunday to tell parishioners who survived Katrina that “God done spared you for a reason. …You didn’t escape the storm because you were smart and evacuated” or because “God said, ‘You’re just too good to kill.’”

No, Jenkins said, there are only two reasons he can see that folks were spared: to become saved as Christians and to help save others: “It’s high time we get about our father’s business.”

Bibles and gift cards

And so at the end of Sunday’s service, he passed out 40 Bibles and 40 envelopes containing gift cards good at local retail outlets. His instructions were stern: “These gifts are not for your best friends. They are not for your family members.” They were for neighbors and others in the community who look to need a boost in their own faith.

Jenkins, an advertising man in his day job, enclosed a letter with the gift cards explaining the church’s mission to recruit Christian disciples: “To prove God’s love for you, we have enclosed a $50 Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club gift card and a Holy Bible to help you in your restoration and your revival.”

In the religious community itself, there is no shortage of a need for restoration and revival. Nobody can give exact numbers, but Jeffrey Reed, pastor of Power House of Deliverance Ministries and Bay St. Louis’ councilman for Ward 3, estimates that 65 percent of the area’s churches, including his own, suffered “major damage.”

“We got 13 feet of water inside the church buildings,” he says, including the sanctuary, family life center and restoration house. The latter, a 3,000-square foot building where couples and families were counseled, “has to be totally demolished.” In all, Reed figures the damage at close to $800,000. The church’s insurance, not a flood policy, will pay nothing.

Services continue at gutted sanctuary

Be that as it may, Reed says, the gutted sanctuary at 1278 Washington St. is open for business Sunday mornings at 9:30, fitted out with folding chairs and drawing as many as 125 worshipers from its membership of 250.

“We have a lot of hope,” Reed says. “We can either be victims of this destructive storm or we can maximize the moment. We have chosen to maximize the moment.”

There’s not even a gutted sanctuary over at Christ Episcopal Church. Just yards from the gulf shore, the church at 912 S. Beach Blvd. was in the direct path of surging Katrina, covered by 35 feet of water at the height of the storm. Only the bell tower and a sparse scattering of rubble across the parking lot remained.

But the church never stopped holding Sunday services on the site and has since erected a tent there to offer a little relief from the sun.

A letter to parishioners from senior warden Scott Bagley on the church’s Web site happily divulges that Christ Episcopal, between rectors when Katrina hit, has learned that Mississippi native Elizabeth Wheatley will accept the ministry.

Other pages on the site, updated “every day” by vestry clerk Kimberly King, contain news of members, offers of help, plans to rebuild. And rebuilding is just a given, the alternative never discussed, a tenet of that same faith that pulses in everyone here.

Back at First Missionary Baptist, where they are as likely to hug a stranger in their midst as they are to look at him, that faith springs forth in gospel harmony from the swaying, clapping choir as Brother Stefan King warms up the congregation for Sunday services: “I’m looking for a miracle, I expect the impossible, I feel the intangible, I see the invisible …”

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9 COMMENTS

christians seem to be interesting people, they don't see themselves as someone waiting for help, they seem to act to life instead of letting life act on them. hats off to them... best wishes

I FELT VERY HUMBLED WHEN I READ THIS ARTICLE. OUT OF TRADGEDY AND DESTRUCTION IT'S NICE TO READ ABOUT FAITH AND HOPE AND THE LOVE AND STRENGTH TO REACH OUT TO OTHERS. I USUALLY DO NOT COMMENT ON ARTICLES. I PRAY FOR THOSE WHO ARE STILL HURTING AND GIVE THANKS TO ALL OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE GONE ABOVE AND BEYOND HUMAN CAPABILITIES TO HELP OTHERS. I STILL BELIVE IN "ONE NATION UNDER GOD"

Faith knows no boundaries and neither does Jesus. I'm glad to hear that my Southern brothers and sisters haven't abandoned God in this time of crisis! My own denomination suffered buidling damage in Ol' Miss, and we've sent money and people down to assist - not just church people, but every-day people too. Need plays no favorites.

Our prayers are with you. How inspiring that you are using positive vibes to expand Gods word from a tragedy Restoration of all our lives is the only solution

These storms cleared away many buildings that protected us and a great many walls that separated us.
God's speed in rebuilding what's good, and in carting away the debris of what never should have been. Katrina's legacy may be a better world with less "stuff" and more sharing. Well done!

"No amount of darkness can hide a spark of light". May we all remember to be thankful for each day and choose to be bring hope and love to one another. Bless the victims for their strength! You are an example to us all about the need and power of prayer!

Hats off to the Rev Jenkins. Opening the doors of his church to other faiths and challenging people to help others is love in action. Too bad some are allowing their denominational label to act as a barrier. His positive influence among those affected by Katrina will bring results and change lives.

THERE IS SO MUCH DIVISION IN CHURCH TODAY. THE IDEA OF BRINGING ALL DENONMINATIONS TO ONE CHURCH TO WORSHIP IS A GREAT IDEA. AFTER ALL,WE ARE ALL PART OF ONE BODY, THE BODY OF CHRIST.

I am from Louisiana and have helped over 40 families from New Orleans to the Mississippi.I am writing because I have met a Mormon woman from Waveland who needs a little help.She could use food and toilitries,is there any way you can help her or send me in the right direction?Thank you!

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