The power of Hurricane Katrina to ravage Gladier Dalton’s New Orleans church in 2005 was no match for the power of hammers and friendship to restore new hope.
In 2014, College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., spearheaded the rebuild of Dalton’s house, which now also serves as the church building for her congregation, Faith Temple Church of God.
East Goshen Mennonite Church, Eighth Street Mennonite Church, North Goshen Mennonite Church and Waterford Mennonite Church joined College Mennonite to do the restoration through local donations and funds provided by Mennonite Disaster Service’s Partnership Home Program. PHP brings a church or group of churches together with a homeowner to rebuild a house, extending MDS’s reach.
The work team remodeled her home to double as a church space, replacing the former church building, now boarded up for good. The new dwelling, dedicated in November, lies six blocks from the old church in the neighborhood of Gentilly in the Seventh Ward, an area hit hard by the New Orleans hurricane.
The restoration has empowered members of Faith Temple to stand again on the rock of Christ, Dalton said. She is a bishop and leads the congregation with her brother, Jerone Dabon.
They are opening wide arms of welcome to their neighbors, still hungry for solid footing, by surveying the needs in the neighborhood and addressing them. The siblings’ late parents, Henry Jr. and Gladys Dabon, founded the church in 1971. Pre-Katrina, members totaled 75. Today, the congregation is 20 members strong and growing.
“Katrina took everything away from you — your home, your church, your family, your school, your doctor’s office, your favorite shop,” she said. “It devastated everyone’s lives.”
New friendships have restored her home and church as well as her hope for the future.
“Our ministry is surviving because of God connecting us with these Mennonites,” she said. “They brought the cool spring water that has been absent from my ministry for so long.”
A new partnership
Leonard Penner, a longtime New Orleans MDS volunteer, first met Dabon in a post-storm support organization, Churches Supporting Churches. Dabon shared with Penner how an inadequate post-Katrina rebuild of the church put the congregation at risk. Eventually, Penner linked the family to leaders of College Mennonite’s local service group, CMC-MDS. After that group connected to PHP resources, a partnership began.
The new friendships give hope that God’s work is not impeded by the limitations of God’s people, Penner said. Rural Indiana and urban Louisiana are divided not just by many miles but also by racial and cultural differences.
“Following God’s call is both simple and complex,” he said. “You and I can’t control that call, which usually stretches us beyond our comfort zone. But these new friendships are teaching us that we just have to let go, because God already has it figured out.”
New cross-cultural friendships are part of God’s redeeming work in Ron Kennel’s life. Kennel is a retired pastor and part of the leadership team of College Mennonite’s CMC-MDS. Dalton and Dabon invited Kennel to facilitate a leadership seminar for pastors in New Orleans in October. Many of these pastors of congregations similar to Faith Temple are gifted but have no formal training.
“My first response to her invitation was to question how much a white guy like me from up north could offer these new friends in their setting,” Kennel said. “But because of the bonds we have established in these past months, there has been an opening of a door for me to have a much closer relationship with my fellow African-American brothers and sisters than I have ever experienced before.”
Experience of God
Volunteers’ energy has stirred passions for the project, said two College Mennonite pastors, Phil Waite, the pastoral team leader, and Willie Kanagy. The partnering congregations provided 70 volunteers and donated about $45,000. This was added to the $10,000 in PHP funds to finance reconstruction.
Last summer, College Mennonite sponsored a gathering at their church where Dalton shared her testimony. She returned again in a pickup truck to bring her great-nephew, Steven Davis (see “Tour Gives Choir Member Chance to Share City“), to his freshman year at Goshen College. She took home boxes of Sunday school curriculum for Faith Temple that College Mennonite no longer needed.
Waite said he tries to help people talk about their faith.
“It can be such a challenge for people to articulate that,” he said. “But after the Faith Temple involvement, participants began talking about the experience of God in their lives in authentic and real ways. It’s been a thrilling and holy moment for me.”
“It is such a life-changing experience to forge new relationships,” he said. “I stress the relationship side more than the physical work, although one begets the other.”
The restoration meant Dalton could return to New Orleans after living an hour away since the storm. It is where she raised Davis, whom she considers her adopted son.
“I am made strong in my weakness because Mennonites were willing to come and to help in simple yet profound ways and to love us in our need,” she said.