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Churches comfort victims

Money collected; sermons encourage the evacuees

BILOXI, Miss. — A week before, sheltered from the gathering storm, they had assembled to worship beneath a roof and walls supported by a pair of arching beams that crossed at their peak.

This Sunday, they sat in the morning sunshine beneath the blue sky. Behind the pastor, the beams still loomed, but their angles were skewed.

The roof and walls they supported were gone.

"I'm sad today because you can see what's left of our beautiful church building," said the Rev. Harold Roberts, conducting services on the plot overlooking Biloxi Bay where the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer used to stand.

But as workers clearing nearby lots sent tree limbs crashing to the ground, he reminded the few dozen faithful seated in their lawn chairs that a church is more than bricks and mortar: "I'm happy to see a good portion of what's left of our church."

Across town, the white-painted brick of the Lighthouse Apostolic Holiness Church had stood firm against Hurricane Katrina. But inside, the stained walls marked where the storm surge had peaked two feet from the ceiling. Pews were perched precariously on one another.

Like their brethren, the parishioners gathered outside for their first Sunday service since the storm, the boundaries of their makeshift sanctuary marked by orange plastic cones in a lane of Division street.

At both churches, there was no question this day what the text would be. Both Bishop DeBruce Nelson and Roberts turned to the 23rd Psalm, the passage clergy have always quoted in time of fear, grief and uncertainty: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

Yet this was no funeral, a point Nelson underscored as he exhorted the congregation: "If you've been through the shadow of death, you ought to stand on your feet."

They all did, shouting "allelujah" and "amen" in gratitude that they had emerged alive.

Other such services were held across the country Sunday.

Inside Reunion Arena in Dallas, 16 evacuees wearing pink ID bracelets joined hands in a circle to sing "Amazing Grace."

"This isn't about (federal) money or about trying to rebuild. It's about souls, God," said the Rev. James Millsaps, an evacuee who led the impromptu arena service.

In many churches, collection plates were passed to raise money.

"I saw those people who were just like my own mother. I saw those babies. I cannot be silent," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, a mostly black congregation that has pledged $100,000.

In the Houston area, clergy representing Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths gave sermons in the Astrodome and surrounding shelters.

Lilly Riley, 43, part of the first wave of evacuees to escape the squalid Superdome in New Orleans, said she was unemployed and, now, homeless. But faith, she said, would sustain her.

She clutched her Bible — one of the few possessions she still has — but had to borrow eyeglasses to read it.

"I'm here because I stepped out on faith and I kept going," she said.

Contributing: Associated Press