The Rev. Mark Lomax, in clerical collar, rubber boots and green Vatican City baseball cap, was standing outside his ruined St. Mark Catholic Church in the fetid stink of desolate St. Bernard Parish when four neighbors spotted him from across the street.

"My God, look who it is!" called Paul Gremillion to his wife and two neighbors.

The priest and his church members embraced in a mud-caked street, sweaty and dirty from foraging in the sludge that had coated the floors of their homes.

Tears came quickly.

"Oh, Father, will we have a church again? Will there be a parish?" one of the women asked, her voice quivering.

"We'll see. A lot's going to depend on the government and where they let us rebuild," Lomax said. "But you can be sure of this: Wherever the people are, the church will be there, too. It's just not clear where that's going to be yet."

So it goes around southeastern Louisiana and Texas, where in muddy streets and make-do shelters, in borrowed hotel meeting rooms and on the Internet, New Orleans pastors have confronted the most basic physical, spiritual and emotional needs of families who have lost all they owned.

"In the last couple of weeks, I've done literally everything, from social work and mental health counseling to psychological and spiritual warfare," said the Rev. Charles Southall of First Emanuel Baptist Church.

Southall is in Baton Rouge, La., tending to a few hundred members of his scattered New Orleans flock.

He and the parishioners lost everything they owned. He delivered his first sermon after the storm from a borrowed pulpit, wearing a suit and shoes donated by his hosts. He is still trying to locate members of his church.

He works with some and worries about the rest. Restful sleep has eluded him since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, he said.

"The need has grown so exponentially since the storm," Southall said. "It's so intense. I get two or three hours of sleep at a time, and then I'm up. There's so much hurt, so much pain."

Yet in the midst of the pain is a powerful recompense.

Although physically and mentally exhausted and having suffered their own material losses, many pastors said they have never felt more needed than in the past month, consoling, explaining, encouraging or helping solve the practical problems of housing, food and income.

The Rev. Walter Austin, a Catholic priest and Louisiana National Guard chaplain, worked with nearly 30,000 evacuees in the squalid Superdome for five days after the storm.

He walked among the crowds in his military camouflage, a chaplain's cross on his black beret and a Bible in his hand.

He introduced himself and showed people taking refuge there how to prepare the military rations they had been given. He preached morning scripture services from atop a generator cart outside the stadium. He spoke from the book of Job, the tormented soul beloved by God. He promised people that they had not been abandoned.

When, after five days, people began to file, exhausted and bedraggled, onto evacuation buses, many left the line to grasp Austin's hand in thanks.

"Some had urine stains on their clothing. Do you understand what they went through?" he asked. "But they were coming over to us to say goodbye and to thank us. And it was spontaneous, heartfelt.

"My being there meant something to them, and that was a real joy."

Said Southall, the displaced pastor: "They need to see the fearless leader. They need to see some human sign that God has not abandoned them when they need him most."

Southall has become more than a theologian and counselor. In a time of overwhelming need, he has functioned as a housing broker, relief expert and red-tape cutter. Politically active before the storm, Southall has dozens of contacts in public life -- people he can call on to help secure a permit or speed up an application for relief.

Lomax has been back to St. Mark's four times, each time encountering parishioners.

Officials estimate that all 27,000 houses in St. Bernard will have to be bulldozed.

Boats sit on roofs. Cars are upended on their noses, their rear wheels snagged on rooflines. The interiors of the houses are a dark, unrecognizable chaos of overturned furniture, muck and snakes, some poisonous.

"It's always the same," Lomax said. "They burst into tears. They came back for something -- anything -- but they can't find even the pictures of the kids."

On a recent visit, Lomax retrieved a few personal items -- a checkbook, a car payment book and pictures of his late father for his 91-year-old mother, who lost everything in the Lakeview neighborhood.

Then he drove slowly up and down streets lined with what used to be homes. He encountered couples standing empty-handed in front of houses. He knew some of them.

The Rev. David Crosby spends two to three hours a day on the Internet, reaching out to members of his First Baptist Church of New Orleans after they log in with their location, contact information and stories.

In the month since evacuating before Katrina hit, Crosby said he has slept in 11 bedrooms in four Southern states. He has held prayer services for strangers in motel meeting rooms, evacuation shelters and borrowed churches.

He encourages his scattered flock electronically.

"I'm sending out mass e-mails on a regular basis, to give them hope and strength for the journey," he said. "I tell them we're anchored in Christ, not our possessions, and that he will remain faithful to us. He will not abandon us."

Never have they been more challenged, they say.

"Their homes are gone, their businesses swamped," Crosby said. "They wonder what the future holds."

The Rev. Mark Lomax of St. Mark Catholic Church in Chalmette, La., tries to put the wing back on the statue of an angel at the church.The Rev. Mark Lomax, far right, with parishioners of St. Mark Catholic Church in St. Bernard Parish, which was ruined by Hurricane Katrina.