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Evacuees and others look for answers and comfort at Sunday services

BATON ROUGE, La.—On the first Sunday since Katrina wrought destruction through the Gulf Coast, homeless evacuees joined with other worshippers in churches across the South to seek answers, comfort and spiritual solace after enduring a week of unthinkable loss.

At the 134-year old Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest and biggest African-American churches in Baton Rouge, church members prayed Sunday alongside hurricane survivors struggling to make sense of the devastating fury that upended their lives.

"Let's remember those who have been moved from their homes by a terrible storm called Katrina," said the Rev. Emanuel Smith. "Let us do all we can to reach out and be a blessing."

Similar scenes of compassion were played out at other houses of worship, an ecumenical display that bridged all faiths and denominations. In churches at the heart of the disaster zone to those many miles away, ministers urged congregants to reach out to those who had lost it all.

"God is asking us to give meaning to what's happening to us at this time," said Monsignor "Father Bob" Massett of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Metairie, on the western edge of New Orleans. "God has a plan for everything. This storm was in God's plan. ... He was with us."

The Roman Catholic church is just blocks from one of the largest deployments of rescuers in Louisiana history. Two candles twinkled on the altar, and sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows to cast cooling blues and greens.

The monsignor rode out the storm with about 11 others in the church's elementary school. He'd been passing out supplies from the food pantry to those who need them and had emptied out the school's food cache.

"No electricity yet, but we've been eating good," he said. "We've been looking out for one another. ... The Lord was good."

The task of temporarily relocating New Orleans' Catholic community of priests, nuns and staff to Baton Rouge, the state's capital about 85 miles away, is proving to be daunting.

About half of the 300 priests are unaccounted for, said Archbishop Alfred Hughes on Sunday after leading a special Mass in Baton Rouge's oldest church, St. Joseph Cathedral.

Most likely, they fled to other cities and have not reported in. "But some stayed behind in the city," said Hughes, also an evacuee. "Those I'm worried about."

The diocese of Baton Rouge is absorbing staff from the New Orleans archdiocese, which serves about 500,000 Catholics spread over eight counties. Next week, officials need to decide how to find classrooms for 50,000 students in the archdiocese's 104 schools.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other officials attended the Sunday service at the cathedral. The dead were honored, and the survivors were welcomed.

Hands went up all over the cathedral when Hughes asked the gathering of more than 200 people how many of them had been evacuated.

New Orleans evacuee Patty Hoppe said she's trying to stay upbeat, but is overcome by the tragedy.

"I have buried children and it's not been since then that I've been this numb," Hoppe said.

At the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, which has been housing evacuees, church members passed collection plates a second time to help feed and house hurricane victims.

Tynia Williams and her fiance, Dwayne Martin, fled their flooded home in Marrero in Jefferson Parish and were the first to come to the church's shelter last week. Traveling in a water-damaged car, they randomly turned the corner onto the street where Shiloh was located and found shelter.

"We turned the right corner. We were homeless," Martin said. "We didn't know where we were sleeping, where we were eating, but by the grace of God, he led me straight here. This was his will."

Across from the Baton Rouge River Center, where nearly 6,000 evacuees are staying, the Family Worship Center had gospel music and two services Sunday. A handful of hurricane refugees wandered around and spoke with church members.

"We understand a lot of people have lost faith and hope," said Adam Wallace, a member of the Baton Rouge church. "We want to help them turn their eyes to God. God spared so many people."

Evacuees living in and around Houston's Astrodome heard spiritual messages from an archbishop, a sheik and a rabbi on Sunday morning. The religious leaders spoke at several shelters on the Reliant Park grounds, including the Astrodome, a nearby arena and a convention center.

Ronnie Keelen, 40, said he found the service he attended inspiring. "Right now I'm just rejoicing," he said.

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(Knight Ridder reporters Dave Montgomery, David Wethe and Gina Smith contributed to this article.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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