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In Miss., 4 churches band together for holidays

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- The thick ring of trees outside the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church is bowed as if the winds from Hurricane Katrina are still blowing. But the tiny building still stands, offering a spiritual sanctuary to its members and worshippers from three other congregations.

Ever since floodwaters leveled this Gulf Coast city of 8,000 people, the church has opened its doors to two Baptist communities and another Methodist congregation, each left without a place to worship. On Christmas, they'll take that act of fellowship a step further. Congregants from all four churches will abandon their separate worship schedule and gather for a joint service, determined to summon some holiday spirit despite a season of loss.

''It is going to be different, but all the joy will not be taken out of it," said the Rev. RoseMary Hayes Williams, pastor at Mt. Zion. Church has been a refuge in this area still devastated by Katrina, a place where -- just this month -- authorities found the body of a storm victim.

Williams served as a teacher in the community for nearly three decades but says the damage is so pervasive that she sometimes gets lost driving through neighborhoods. Buildings that she once used as landmarks have been reduced to identical piles of rubble, she said.

Like Mt. Zion, the three visiting congregations -- First Missionary Baptist Church, Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church, and St. Paul United Methodist Church -- were formed more than 100 years ago by freed slaves and their children.

At First Missionary, the tidal surge buckled the floor, creating bulges like speed bumps. A glass partition on the baptismal pool is streaked with green mold, and chunks of stained glass litter the ground outside the windows.

The floodwaters lifted three houses from one side of St. Paul's to the other, where they remain crumpled in the parking lot. The water inside the church rose so high that its pastor, the Rev. Theodore R. Williams, Jr., RoseMary Williams's husband, found hymnals hanging from the rafters after the tide receded.

All that remains in the Goodwill sanctuary after a thorough cleaning is a wooden cross leaning against a pew. The communion table, engraved ''This Do In Remembrance of Me," is now being put to more mundane use: storing plastic work gloves.

''Inside, I cried," Goodwill's pastor, the Rev. Harry Toussaint, said about his first glimpse of the destruction.

As Mt. Zion's pastor, Williams knew she had to help. ''We were on a mission," she said.

The four churches were far from strangers. They had held joint revival services in the past, despite doctrinal differences and traditional Baptist opposition to ordaining women.

Williams said her Bible studies have turned into group counseling sessions. Toussaint takes pains in his sermons to tell worshippers to help others ''even if you're living in a tent."

For Christmas, Williams and other church leaders have organized celebrations so the holiday is not eclipsed by the anxieties of daily life amid the wreckage.

On Christmas Day, they will wake up for an early morning service together. Many churchgoers are planning scaled-down holiday celebrations, with fewer decorations, smaller gifts, and family traditions altered to fit their new circumstances.

''Christmas will be difficult, because we can't do exactly what we want to do," said Richard Cook, the Mt. Zion Sunday school teacher.

Still, no matter what they have suffered from Katrina, they will gather in church and pray together on Christmas, seeking in the familiar cadence of their preachers' voices and the holiday hymns a sense of peace they lost when the hurricane came ashore.

''The church has become what it needs to be for people's lives: to give them hope," said the Rev. Valli Battle, who helps lead both the Methodist and Baptist services. ''Even though we don't have all the things we used to, there is hope."

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