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United Methodist Pastor Eldon Simpson welcomes Grace Bennett to Port.

The United Methodist Church of Port Washington had a guest soloist last week. Dressed in the green robes of the Chancel Choir, Grace Bennett sang to an emotional congregation about God's love and steady care even in times of extreme trouble.

She knows from whence she speaks. Bennett, a long-time resident of New Orleans, was forced out of her home and livelihood by Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately for us, she chose to spend some of her time away from home here in Port Washington.

Grace and her 7-year-old son Conner were the guests of Port's own Dr. Abe Berens. Ninety-seven year old Dr. Berens who is still very active in Sands Point civic activities, also happens to be Conner's great-grandfather. And although the Bennetts are happy to be visiting here, they are worried about the life they have left behind.

"I don't think the rest of the country can grasp what it's like," commented Grace." We are fortunate to be able to go back home (her house received only minor damage), but for us, the concept of home is re-arranged. Things in New Orleans will never be the same." A professional jazz musician who personally knows and has played with some the biggest names in music, Grace understands clearly that the culture she once knew and navigated within professionally has vanished. It remains to be seen if the new New Orleans can be better than the old.

"It's hellacious, like a war zone," she said, narrating several horror stories not shown on the news and not repeated here." This type of catastrophe brings out the best and worst in people. Some folks became heroes and others became predators. New Orleans already had a corrupt reputation. Now any sense of innocence that it might have retained is lost."

Grace, who has performed and recorded with jazz greats like The Nevilles, the Marsalises, Harry Connick, Jr. and whose own producer is the legendary Allen Toussaint, is also the music director at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church. Since the church remained largely undamaged by the storm, it has become and will remain a Red Cross base. Its pre-school has opened its doors to folks who need safe child-care while they go back to work (or find new jobs) and is just a safe haven amid chaos.

"We have been having what we call a Weekend of the Cross, a youth outreach program," Grace noted, describing a regular event that brings Methodist teenagers from around the state to help repair and build homes, schools and other facilities for needy folks. It is Grace's hope that in the future, kids from all over the country can come down and help. It's physically exhausting, but spiritually fulfilling.

Grace has returned to New Orleans, to pick up the pieces. "I have been lucky, but many of my friends lost everything," she said, relating her plan to invite a number of folks to camp out at her house once power has been restored." I may have lots of people sleeping on the floor. They have lost everything."

To find out more about St. Matthew's church, log onto StMatthewsUMC.com.


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