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In Florida, roofs are gone, pews are damp, parishioners thankful After the killer hurricane, and despite the hardships, many people still have faith


MIAMI -- On the seventh day, South Dade County celebrated life.

Parishioners sat on damp pews in churches without steeples or roofs. They looked up at open sky. They faced broken altars.

A Mennonite congregation in Florida City held outdoor services on eight folding chairs in front of the flattened church.

And yet even here at the heart of Hurricane Andrew's destruction, churchgoers' weariness evaporated at the sight of friends and neighbors not seen or heard from since the storm.

"I came here to see our family and friends and to see that everybody is alive together. I need to hear that everything will be OK," said Maxine Plummer, 51.

Ms. Plummer said she was deeply moved by the sight of donations -- thousands of bottles of water, diapers and stuffed animals -- stacked in hallways at Christ the King Catholic Church near Perrine.

"My faith has been strengthened by seeing what people have donated and how they're helping out," she said.

That, and the visions of hope spoken from pulpits, may have helped some people answer questions of why them, why their neighbors.

Some said they believed God was punishing them for their sins. Others said God was breaking down boundaries between people, between churches. In some communities, all-black churches and all-white churches joined as one, divisions generations old that evaporated in seven days.

"We know scientifically why the hurricane came to Miami," said Woo Lee, a Miami Lakes Presbyterian who conducts services three times a week in Homestead. "But religiously we believe strongly there is some other reason. We have to repent our sins."

Roman Catholic Archbishop Edward McCarthy said: "The Lord permits these crises to develop because he's calling us to a new level of humanity and virtue. . . ."

And so in hundreds of churches around South Dade, from the ripped-open to the air-conditioned and untouched, with Jesse Jackson and several earthly powers who moved from church to church, people left the pain aside for a few hours, celebrated fellowship and prayed for life.

In deep South Dade County, the Princeton Church of the Nazarene was packed.

"I feel very up at the moment, happy because I'm here," Don Bernecker, 54, said outside the church. "Everyone I know is here. There's not a broken finger, not a broken bone, not a lost life."

Nodding his head toward the congregation, as voices raised to the strains of "Because I Live," he said with a smile:

"We can sing."

Inside, under a vaulted white ceiling stained brown by rain, sobs of relief and empathy punctuated the Rev. James Spear's sermon. Children on parents' laps leaned through windows blown out by the storm.

"We spent all week trying to board up our roofs and patch up our houses, but now we've come to give our thanks to the Lord," Mr. Spear said. "I'm just thankful that I'm able to say to you, 'Hello, today.' "

Together, congregation members whispered, "Hello."

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