June 29, 2016

Mostly sunny

Hurricane Katrina shapes Northeast Ohio native’s ministry

MEDINA TWP. — When the Rev. Laura Fitt-Baird answered the call to Grace Disciples of Christ Church in Louisiana, she had no idea that many aspects of her ministry would be shaped by Hurricane Katrina.

Fitt-Baird, 37, who became pastor of Medina First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) early in November, said the experience was life-changing — and life-affirming.

The Rev. Laura Fitt-Baird, new pastor of Medina First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and her husband, the Rev. Joshua Baird, have returned to their Northeast Ohio roots. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY JUDY A. TOTTS)

A 2001 graduate of Lexington Theological Seminary, she served as associate pastor of Community Christian Church in North Canton when she responded to the call from Grace. The church’s search committee interviewed her by phone just a few days before Katrina swept through the south, and it took several weeks for them to contact her again.

Committee members didn’t realize just how extensive national news coverage of the storm had been, Fitt-Baird said.

“They sent me an email saying ‘We don’t know if you’ve heard about the hurricane, but if you’re not scared, we’d like you to come in person for an interview.’ ”

The church, located in the Covington-Mandeville area just north of New Orleans, did not lose power during the storm, so it quickly became one of the first mission stations of the Disciples denomination, hosting volunteers 24/7, providing showers, washers and dryers, and a place to rest and recharge.

As a church restart (formerly First Christian Church), the 45-member Grace congregation participated in a visioning process to decide what direction they wanted their future to take when Fitt-Baird was called in January 2006. Some congregants already were involved in gutting damaged houses, but the core of their contribution to recovery was providing hospitality for relief work volunteers by holding potluck suppers not only to show their appreciation, but to share stories.

Members also started the Shards Ministry, taking pieces of broken pottery and plates found in the wreckage and creating crosses and mirror frames they gave to homeowners and volunteer groups.

“They were given as reminders that they could still find wholeness and hope out of brokenness,” Fitt-Baird said, adding the group made more crosses to sell, raising about $15,000 for outreach projects.

About the same time, her then-fiancé, the Rev. Joshua Baird, 35, also a 2001 graduate of Lexington Theological, began his own role with the Disciples Hurricane Recovery Initiative, organizing work and teams for the Katrina and Rita hurricane impact zones, overseeing six different mission stations and networking with other faith-based groups and organizations with an eye toward planning long-term recovery projects.

He learned how to gut a house so he could teach volunteers and made sure work was available for people who came to help.

As a proactive move, his responsibilities grew to include training individuals who can respond to disasters by going to affected areas and organizing recovery efforts.

“Prior to this, the (Disciples) church hadn’t been involved in a hands-on way,” said Baird, who is director of disciples volunteering for the general church office. “Now we’re building a system so we can continue to respond to future disasters.”

He also wants to create other volunteer-friendly projects and make it easy for people to participate, to encourage groups that haven’t made mission trips before.

Family ties drew the couple, who married in 2006, and their 3-year-old twins, Jonas and Lilah, back to Northeast Ohio.

“We had a desire and calling to be near family,” Fitt-Baird said. “It’s important for the children to be close to their grandparents, aunts and uncles.”

She knew in January the position in Medina was available and began to talk with First Christian’s search committee. “They needed a pastor, and we needed to come home, but was it a match?”

Encouraged by what she heard about the congregation and community, she visited and preached as part of the search-and-call process before both sides reached a decision.

She said First Christian’s interim pastor, the Rev. Tom Madden, posted the blueprints of the church to remind people to keep planning and dreaming. She said they have a lot of great ideas to work with, including a youth group mission to Tennessee next summer, as well as continuing participation in local projects like the annual CROP Walk.

“We’re in a place of growth,” she said. “Not only do we have a lot of opportunities and potential for growth — and there’s excitement for that to happen — we have a lot of new staff, a new music director, a new Christian education director. We have a great, loving core of people. Now together we will explore where we will be tomorrow.”

Contact Judy A. Totts at jatotts1701@gmail.com.