By Brian Blackwell, Baptist Message staff writer
METAIRIE, La. (LBM) –Hurricane Ida wreaked significant damage to five of Celebration Church’s eight campus facilities and hundreds of members’ homes, Aug. 29, 2021. But instead of pausing, the congregation has pressed forward in ministry, despite substantial repair needs.
“Serving our community has been a part of our DNA for a long time,” Celebration Church Lead Pastor Dennis Watson told the Baptist Message. “For most of our history we have talked about how we exist to bring honor and glory to God and to help people in the communities around us. We tell people when they join our church, we expect them to serve in the church or community, or both. Our people, in the midst of their own personal challenges and tragedies, continue to reach out to help others.”
Like other Louisiana Baptist congregations, Celebration Church was not immune from the impacts of COVID.
In January 2020, Celebration Church averaged 7,000 in combined worship attendance at its eight campuses in the New Orleans area and Northshore. But two months later, COVID-related safety concerns caused the church to move to online-only worship.
When in-person services resumed, June 2020, members slowly returned, with 3,800 attending about a year later, the most since the onset of the pandemic. A month after the high attendance Sunday, 102 new converts were baptized as part of a special “All In” weekend across its campuses. A week later crowds dropped again due to the emergence of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
When Ida made landfall, the congregation’s challenges deepened:
— a wall was destroyed and the roof damaged at the Lower St. Bernard Parish facility, Violet;
— much of the building was destroyed on the Westbank campus, Marrero (members are meeting at Life Center Cathedral Church, Marrero, five miles away);
— the worship center sustained significant damaged in Metairie-New Orleans (but members continue to meet there);
— in Kenner, the worship center roof and outside walls collapsed (the congregation meets in a smaller onsite facility where the Kenner Hispanic congregation previously met);
— and members attending the River Parishes campus, LaPlace, were displaced because of damage to the building, and now meet at First Assembly of God, LaPlace (one mile down the road).
Watson said the work on the Kenner, River Parishes and Westbank campuses may not be complete until late 2023. Repairs to the facilities on the Lower St. Bernard and Metairie-New Orleans campuses should be done later this year.
Watson’s home also was damaged. However, he and his wife, Vicki, were able to move back into it, mid-January, after living in temporary lodging since Ida
Despite all the setbacks, members served the people in their region multiple ways after Ida, Watson said:
— partnered with Mercy Chefs, a faith-based group, to serve more than 225,000 meals in September;
— distributed relief supplies, donated by others, to thousands of families impacted by Ida;
— removed downed trees, tarped roofs for senior adults and single moms; and
— performed mud out services in flooded houses. Looking to the new year, he said the congregation will focus on four key initiatives: continue to repair campus facilities, engage the community, make more disciples, and equip parents to disciple their children.
“We want our people to be followers of Jesus and not just Jesus fans,” Watson said. “We expect to bounce back from all this craziness.
“I posted on my Facebook page, recently, a photo of a church sign that said, ‘Living without God is like trying to dribble a football,’” he shared. “There are so many stress factors that people are dealing with; and if they don’t have the Lord and a church family in these times, they will struggle mentally, emotionally, relationally, financially and spiritually.
“To stay connected to the Lord, people need to be part of a church family,” he continued “and we at Celebration Church are doing our best to equip our members to be just that to a community that needs Jesus.”