GULFPORT -- Patrick Sanders knew he wanted to be a priest since he was in the eighth grade. A native of Vicksburg and a graduate of Ole Miss, Sanders was doing a youth ministry at a couple of churches when he was asked to be the youth director at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach.
"We lived in a 440-square-foot cottage behind the church on Highway 80, and they got me a job as an assistant chaplain at Coast Episcopal School when it was in the Bay," Sanders said.
Sanders said he enjoyed his time on the Coast so much that he always wanted to return.
More than 15 years later, after Sanders graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, he and his family have returned to the Coast.
Sanders was recently selected to be the parish leader of St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Gulfport. Sanders and his wife, Jennifer, have three children -- Skye, Asher and Ames.
They have been sleeping on air mattresses while their belongings are being moved.
"After seminary, I was placed in the Delta where I served for three years and then I served in Southaven," Sanders said. "I was there for a little bit over six years. I had no intentions of leaving. But we had always wanted to come back because this was home.
"I was ordained out of seminary in the gym of Coast Episcopal School when it was a Hurricane Katrina relief center. And then St. Peter's called and here we are."
St. Peter's was one of several churches located on U.S. 90 before Hurricane Katrina hit the Coast in 2005.
After the storm, parish members decided to rebuild it and keep it on the beach instead of moving it inland.
"It's right in the heart of downtown Gulfport and right across from the harbor," Sanders said. "From what I've seen since I started Sept. 20, it's a very diverse church. I feel like the bell tower is a testament to the church's strength. They survived Camille and Katrina. They wanted to rebuild on the beach.
"It's a statement about faith and fearlessness."
Sanders said he hopes to help change some negative connotations that surround Christianity.
"A lot of people associate the image of God and the identity of Christianity as judgmental," he said. "But the image of God I see is a God that loves us and redeems us regardless of how broken we may be. If we are created in that image of God, then we can't see anyone as more broken than us. The challenge of the church is to let people know that they are loved, not judged and redeemed, not condemned."
While Sanders continues to get to know the members of parish, he said he also looks forward to working with other religious leaders in the area.
"The clergy on the Coast is some of the finest in the Episcopal Church," he said. "I'm a big fan of (Gulfport) Mayor (Billy) Hewes' 'one Coast' ideology. I believe that is true with the church -- one church. St. Peter's is part a religious network on the Gulf Coast."