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As 'Fat Tuesday' turns to Lenten abstinence,
a church asks itself, 'How can we serve others?'

New York, February 25, 2009 -- Even people who have no idea what Lent is know about Mardi Gras. Literally "Fat Tuesday," the day is set aside for revelry and feasting because a six-week period of fasting and penitence begins the next day, Ash Wednesday.

In most Christian traditions, the season of Lent is now upon us. Today is Ash Wednesday in many churches, and Lent begins in Orthodox communions on Monday. Lent is the time of preparation for Christians through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial for the death and resurrection of Jesus. For many, it is the holiest time of the year.

Yesterday's Mardi Gras festivities -- the most famous being the annual bacchanalia in New Orleans -- are over for another year. In most churches, "Fat Tuesday" is a more staid event, usually consisting of pre-Lenten "Fasnacht" meals and consumption of mounds of doughnuts.

For one congregation -- First African Methodist Episcopal Church: Bethel in New York -- "Fat Tuesday" combined a New Orleans style feast with prayer, fellowship, and an opportunity to support the rebuilding of the American Gulf Coast.

An offering received at Bethel last night will support the work of the National Council of Churches' Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, a project formed immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Henry A. Belin III, is a member of the Special Commission.

"When we began planning our 'Fat Tuesday' observance, we asked ourselves, how can we serve others as we do this?" Pastor Belin said Tuesday morning. "We thought of the people in the Gulf Coast."

Three years after the devastating hurricanes, large areas of New Orleans and Mississippi have yet to be rebuilt, a reality Pastor Belin has seen with his own eyes. "Tonight we'll have New Orleans style food and dress in New Orleans style," he said. "We'll have a jazz band to start us off and then we'll begin a prayerful reflection of where we came from and where we need to go when there are others in need."

The idea for the service grew out of a worship renewal program funded by a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Mich., with funds provided by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

The church has used the grant to plan innovative worship, Belin said, and church members have responded enthusiastically to a call to service. As a part of the program, the congregation studied the Old Testament prophet Samuel and his call to serve God. "One of the things we worked on through the Epiphany season was helping people recognize their own call, and understand that we have been called to serve."

The Rev. Garland F. Pierce, the NCC's senior program director for Education and Leadership Ministries, is a member of Bethel and served on the planning committee for the Fat Tuesday feast. Pierce led the congregation in moments of remembering and prayer for brothers and sisters on the Gulf Coast.

"The tragic destruction on the Gulf Coast is no longer front page news," Pierce said, "but we can't forget that there are still people living in trailers and substandard housing while they pray for a better place to live. Thankfully, the churches have not forgotten the Gulf Coast."

This August 2-8, church people from around the country will travel to New Orleans and Gulf Port, Miss., to participate in the third annual Ecumenical Work Week to help people rebuild.

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) ,


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