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Priests need reassurance

Janet McConnaughey

NEW ORLEANS – Clergymen struggling to comfort the afflicted in New Orleans are finding they, too, need someone to listen to their troubles.The sight of misery all around them – and the combined burden of helping others put their lives back together while repairing their own homes and places of worship – are taking a spiritual and psychological toll on the city’s ministers, priests and rabbis, many of whom are in counseling two years after Hurricane Katrina.Almost every local Episcopal minister is in counseling, including Bishop Charles Jenkins himself, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.Jenkins, whose home in suburban Slidell was so badly damaged by Katrina that it was 10 months before he and his wife could move back in, said he has suffered from depression, faulty short-term memory, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.Low-flying helicopters sometimes cause flashbacks to the near-despair – the “dark night of the soul” – into which he was once plunged, he said. He said the experience felt “like the absence of God” – a lonely and frightening sensation.Churches and synagogues have played an important role in New Orleans’ recovery, supplying money and thousands of volunteers to rebuild homes and resettle families. But an April survey found 444 places of worship in metropolitan New Orleans – about 30 percent – were still closed 20 months after the storm because they were damaged or their congregations scattered.As for the clergymen, “sometimes they’re having to hold it together and put up a great front to give people permission to fall apart, so they can be the great rock that their congregation can depend upon,” said Barney Self, who operates a counseling hot line for Southern Baptist ministers.Still, Self said, he has received relatively few calls from New Orleans ministers, probably because it is hard to think about your own needs “when you’re up to your bahootie in alligators.”Freddie Arnold, mission strategist with the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, said Baptist organizations have been dispensing financial aid to pastors, sending them and their wives on weekend retreats, and dispatching substitute ministers so that they can take some time off.He said those efforts may have eased the ministers’ need for counseling.Roman Catholic priests have not reported any unusual counseling needs, said the Rev. William Maestri, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He said one possible reason is that priests do not have wives or children to support and protect.For more than a year, Rabbi Bob Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer has been part of an interfaith clergy support group, whose members share the frustrations involved in trying to comfort their congregants and deal with their own problems, too.For a while, formal counseling was part of every meeting of the region’s rabbinic council, Loewy said. “Recently, every meeting’s always had some level of debriefing and sharing,” he said.Many clergymen are reluctant to ask for help, keeping their feelings bottled up the way doctors and firefighters often do, said Karen Binder-Brynes, a New York psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress and whose clients include the Episcopal Diocese of New Orleans.She and others worry that that clergy members who do not get help could fall ill or resort to drinking or other “self-medication” for relief, and their marriages and other family relationships could suffer.For some members of the clergy, Katrina caused a spiritual crisis.”I found myself praying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ as Jesus did,” said the Rev. Susan Gaumer, whose own home was destroyed and who has also had to help with more problems – and officiate at more funerals – than ever before among her congregants at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. “I felt distanced from God, but God wasn’t the problem. I’m the problem. My prayer was, ‘My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?'”Then with some time, healing time and some grieving of my own, and some good checking in with a therapist … my prayer began to be a prayer of thanksgiving, for strength and for what I call the graces of the storm.”Jenkins, the Episcopal bishop, said he felt that the catastrophe exposed his failure before the storm to do enough to fight such evils as racism, poverty and poor education.But helping rebuild lives proved to be a life-altering experience, he said: “This is the best time for the most authentic ministry as bishop that I’ve had in my 10 years.”At the Greater Antioch Full Gospel Baptist Church, Bishop Lester Love said the storm has changed his sermons: “My focus now is, we’ve got to continue to have the faith that God is going to help us get out of this.”


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