By Joe Isenhower Jr.
Rev. Philip Wottrich, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Covington, La., says three other pastors on a relief team sent by the Synod’s Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support (CMGS) and LCMS World Relief/Human Care after Hurricane Katrina hit his area were “a godsend at a time when I felt overwhelmed.”
“I can’t thank them enough for what they did. I was swamped and had little time to think,” Wottrich told Reporter. “They were an unbelievable blessing for us.”
Covington is about 30 miles north of New Orleans and five miles north of Lake Pontchartrain.
“We knew that at a time like this, the need for pastoral care would be critical,” said Rev. David Muench, the commission’s executive director.
The effort Muench coordinated provided assistance to pastors and others in six Southern District congregations. The endeavor ensued after LCMS district presidents, responding to a request from Synod President Gerald B. Kieschnick identified 18 pastors from 11 states with the “necessary training, experience, and availability to provide pastoral relief and assistance,” as Muench puts it.
“It’s amazing how these 18 pastors who were able to take as much as a week away from their own families and ministries stood with other pastors in ministry without asking anything but how they could help,” said Muench.
The 1,000-member congregation at Covington “was hit pretty hard,” said Wottrich, who was installed there only weeks before the Aug. 29 storm that drove a 30-foot surge of water in all directions from the lake, as tornado-like winds with torrents of rain snapped and uprooted trees, downed power lines, and caused “untold loss and damage” all over the area.
Wottrich said Katrina’s impact on local businesses and the economy is forcing many (including the chairman of the elders, the treasurer, and two teachers at the church’s school) to be relocated outside the area.
The church — on the same power grid as a nearby hospital — was one of the first properties in Covington to have power restored.
As truckloads of food, clothing, and emergency supplies arrived from Lutherans and others, “we quickly converted our family-life center into a distribution center for survivors, helping thousands and thousands,” Wottrich said. “We were open and helping people who had no options, because virtually no businesses — not even Wal-Mart — were open.”
He said that congregation members and community volunteers came together to help at the center “in spite of personal setbacks and challenges. Many of their homes were damaged, had no power, and had debris all around.”
At the same time, Wottrich said he “kept wondering how we’d find out if our members were OK.” Meanwhile, his own “personal checklist” included finding a home for his own family, who rode out the storm in Houston.
“So ‘overwhelmed’ really is the right word to describe how I was feeling,” Wottrich said.
The three pastors dispatched to Covington are Rev. Roger Kruger, director for Partners and Caring with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, in Omaha; Rev. James (Andy) Keltner, pastor of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Louisburg, Kan.; and Rev. Duane Maas, associate pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Springfield, Mo.
While in Covington the middle week of September — sleeping on cots in the church — Keltner and Maas found many of the members Wottrich wondered about, heard their stories about Katrina and its effects on them, prayed with them, and left Wottrich’s card for those who weren’t at home, “calling on my behalf,” as Wottrich said. “I’m very grateful for what they did.”
Kruger ventured into other nearby communities “checking on pastors and other church workers to see how they were doing,” as he put it.
All three spent time with Wottrich and the Holy Trinity staff and Lutheran volunteers who arrived unannounced from as far away as Iowa and the Pacific Southwest, “talking and praying with them, just to make sure they were OK, and to thank them for their Christian concern for people,” Keltner said.
Keltner said he also distributed food and supplies at the church and helped the staff get ready for services the next weekend.
From visits with Holy Trinity members and staff, Keltner said, “I saw God working in all this to help people refocus on what’s important in their priorities. I heard interesting and powerful stories of faith and the power of God — that He is still with them, and they will work through this ordeal.”
Maas had brought along to Covington small toys like the ones he gives “kids [whose] moms or dads … volunteer at our church.”
He said that when he saw the long lines of people signing up for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) relief at a food-stamp office next to Holy Trinity’s property, he “worked the line,” handing out toys, quarter-page information sheets about the church next door, stickers and booklets from Lutheran Hour Ministries, and paperback New Testaments.
Maas told Reporter that a man who had been through the goods-distribution line at Holy Trinity told him that he is a Roman Catholic.
“But he said he wanted to thank personally the Lutherans for being among the first group to help these people out and give them what they needed,” said Maas. “He was very, very appreciative.”
“I was in awe of how our church workers — pastors, teachers, DCEs, district staff, and support workers — were caring for people even while many of them were dealing with significant personal loss and stress,” Kruger said. “Christ’s love and compassion [were] being made evident to many through their ministries.”
“I was also, however, overwhelmed at the immensity of the task,” said Kruger. “After a week there, I was eager to go back to my normal work.”
“I suspect many will experience that same feeling, especially as these stories begin to fade from the news,” Kruger said. “But the work of recovery, including the tasks faced by our congregations and schools in the Southern District, is just beginning and will go on for years to come.”
Muench said the activities and impressions of the team who went to Covington are “pretty much the same” for all six pastoral relief teams, including a two-man team that also served at