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Displaced By Katrina, Church Members Create New Community In Houston


Ten years ago when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, members of the New Orleans Franklin Avenue Baptist Church scattered across the South. The mega-church in New Orleans has been rebuilt and welcomes thousands of people each week. But some 350 miles away in Houston, there's still a group of Franklin Avenue members who worship in the city where they fled, bound together by faith and memories of home. Houston Public Media's Laurie Johnson brings us this story.

LAURIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday morning, members of Houston's Franklin Avenue Baptist Church gathered in worship.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) And I'm fighting. Yes I am.

CHOIR: (Singing) Fighting for the Lord.

JOHNSON: It's a small congregation no more than 120 people. Most everyone here is from New Orleans, even the name of the church. There isn't even a Franklin Avenue in Houston.

ALETTA DAVIS-CLINTON: I was a member of Franklin at home, but this is the first time I ever felt a part of something.

JOHNSON: That's Aletta Davis-Clinton. She calls Katrina a curse for many but a blessing for her.

DAVIS-CLINTON: Hurricane Katrina - it was like a twofold situation to me because it really pushed me into an element of myself I didn't even realize was there. It really - the blessing of it really expanded me because I didn't realize how suppressed I really was in Louisiana.

JOHNSON: For example, Davis-Clinton, who has a master's degree, was making just $35,000 a year in New Orleans. In Houston, she earns twice that working as a senior marketing manager.

DAVIS-CLINTON: When I came to Houston, one of the things that really made me want to stay, from an economic standpoint, was seeing young African-American women really on the move. That was my driving force to stay.

JOHNSON: Another thing that made her want to stay was being able to practice her faith with other Katrina evacuees. Claudia Pickett was 60 years old and a recent widow when Katrina hit New Orleans. Her two daughters convinced her to leave and come to Houston with them.

CLAUDIA PICKETT: I did not want to be here. I wanted to go home.

JOHNSON: But her home in the Lower Ninth Ward had 8 feet of water in it. Everything she owned was destroyed. Pickett says there were weeks following Katrina when she thought she might lose her mind. Then she discovered members of her home church, Franklin Avenue Baptist, were also in Houston. They were meeting each Sunday at another church.

PICKETT: Because if it wasn't for the church family, I would have probably really lost it, I guess. And I said I was going to stick it out to the end with Franklin Avenue. I am not going anywhere. I'm not running away. I'm not leaving. I'm here to the end.

JOHNSON: Since Katrina, the church has gone through many changes. After the storm, as many as 400 people would gather in Houston to worship each week. That number has dwindled over the past 10 years. They still meet in a barrowed sanctuary, holding early services before the church they use is needed by its own members.

Like Pickett, David Coubarous also didn't want to leave New Orleans. He had a steady job. His family and friends were there, and he was, as he puts it, living right. But he says God used the hurricane and the move to Houston to increase his faith.

DAVID COUBAROUS: He did it for somebody that you're talking to and that you see every day, not just the people that's in the Bible that you never met or never seen. So if he did it for me, he definitely can do it for you if you trust him.

JOHNSON: That feeling is echoed by many in the congregation. It's in the little things. They mention Houston's terrible traffic as a true test of Christian charity. And it's in the big things like finding jobs, past dealings with insurance companies and leaving loved ones behind. But there's a sense among them that the storm has made them more determined and more faithful than they ever could have been before. For NPR News, I'm Laurie Johnson in Houston.

BLOCK: And we'll be reporting on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina all this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 6, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
The original version of this transcript incorrectly gave reporter Laurie Johnson's first name as Brittia.