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Utah service is balm to the weary

Members of various religious denominations attend church services with hurricane survivors at Camp Williams on Sunday.
Members of various religious denominations attend church services with hurricane survivors at Camp Williams on Sunday.
Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

CAMP WILLIAMS — Jerome Kennedy raised his hands, swaying to the final words of "Amazing Grace" as he allowed himself to feel hope for the first time since Hurricane Katrina left him homeless and stranded in New Orleans.

"I'm in here jumping up and down, thanking him," said Kennedy, who arrived in Utah Saturday night after spending the week in the Superdome until the stench and the chaos drove him onto the street. "It's a relief — and we need it."

Kennedy sang his familiar Baptist hymns along with fellow refugees who packed the auditorium at Camp Williams on Sunday evening for a nondenominational church service. Utah's newest evacuees worshipped hand in hand with members of several local Baptist and Catholic congregations who shared their choirs and clergy with the hurricane survivors.

"I hope that this can lift people up and keep them there, not just until the next sermon but for the rest of their lives," Kennedy sad.

Pastor France Davis of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City aimed to do just that by coordinating the mixed-faith event that for most hurricane victims was their first worship service since Katrina hit.

As Davis read the 23rd Psalm, evacuees and Utah natives joined to repeat the words of the famous passage, shouting out with force, "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."

"People were busy trying to meet their physical needs and their food needs. I am convinced for the long term and the best well-being, the spiritual needs must also be met," Pastor Davis said. "We hope they will be strong and trust in the Lord."

For hurricane survivor Alcidia Johnikin, that spiritual balance had been lost along with her home and job in New Orleans. After hearing the congregation ring out the words of "Oh, how I love Jesus," Johnikin said not only were her spirits lifted, but she was able to feel a little piece of the hometown she left behind.

Now, Johnikin said she can once again feel hope that her city will be rebuilt.

"I was really despondent. I'm so far away from home, and even though I know I couldn't go back, in the back of my mind I wanted to go home," Johnikin said.

Katie Scott, a Riverdale resident and member of the Calvary congregation, hoped the love of the ministers and the congregation would help ease some of the refugees' minds and help them realize "they're our brothers and sisters."

More than anything, Scott said she wanted the refugees to feel that although Louisiana and Utah are states apart, the love for Utah's expected 2,000 refugees will forever tie the two regions together.

"When I met one lady, we hugged and were so happy to see each other," she said. "It was like I've known them forever and we've just met."

The sermons and remarks of several local clergy and Utah dignitaries echoed the idea that Utah has a special bond to the refugees who have already arrived or are expected to fly in through the next few days.

As Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert read from the Bible about service, he thanked the evacuees for giving Utah the chance to assist and care for them.

"You were strangers before, but I'm here to tell you now you are friends of Utah," Herbert said. "I appreciate the enthusiasm we hear today that is chasing down that doom and gloom."