YOUR ACTS HAVE STOOD ME ON MY FEET

When I was growing up on the Alabama farm, we would come in from the fields at noon and eat like we had never seen food before. When the last of the bowls were clean, invariably someone could be heard to sigh, “I feel like everyone in the world has eaten now.”

That’s a real syndrome. When you’re satisfied, it’s easy to forget those still in need. The opposite seems to apply also: when you’re in severe need, you tend not to notice others in worse shape than you. Case in point: Pass Christian, Mississippi.

Monday morning’s Times-Picayune highlighted this little town not far inside the Mississippi line from Louisiana and the site of Gulf Shore Baptist Assembly, a wonderful retreat on the beach which we use as much as the Mississippians do. According to the paper, Pass Christian was wiped out by Katrina and still lies there pretty much untouched. “Mississippi coast remains a wreck,” said the headline. No lots are cleared, the stench is everywhere, and displaced citizens shiver inside their tent cities. Mayor Billy McDonald, working out of a trailer, does not expect the word ‘recovery’ to roll off his lips for many months. Few people had insurance, fewer have jobs, there is no money, there’s precious little hope.

So, where is FEMA? In the weeks following Katrina, while New Orleanians were griping about the lapses of this government emergency response organization, all we heard was how pleased our neighbors in Mississippi were with Mike Brown and his team. No more. According to U.S. Representative Gene Taylor, “FEMA could mess up a one-car funeral.” “The federal response, from highways to housing to trailers, is completely unacceptable,” he said.

A reminder to us in New Orleans that our misery is wide-spread, the needs are all around us, and there is plenty of work left for all.

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YOU MIGHT AS WELL KNOW THIS UP FRONT

In the days and weeks after the full effect of Katrina was being realized, my mailbox was swamped with people responding to my articles. “How can we help?” “Where can we send money?” “We’re praying for you.”

Tuesday, November 29, will make three full months since the hurricane slammed into our part of the Gulf Coast, and two realities have now set in. One, nothing has changed, and two, everything has changed. Nothing has changed: the city is still devastated, still sitting there in darkness for the most part, Congress still debating what to do about the levee system, the mayor and governor still running around looking for a handle to start the rebuilding. Everything has changed: people in the rest of the country are moving on. A friend from Missouri said the other day, “They think it’s all over down here.”

It ain’t over. Not by a long shot, not for a long, long time.

I need to get word to my friends: the situation with New Orleans and our area is really really bad, and it’s not going to get fixed for a long time. If you tire easily, you will soon start clicking us off. As I expect many have. Responses from readers to my weekly articles are drying up. It’s totally understandable; it’s a bad sign of what’s to come.

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Like Drinking From A Fire Hydrant

There’s so much happening every day, it’s hard to monitor it all. I find myself amazed and impressed at the newspaper and other media outlets covering it all. Of course, they have large teams to pull it off. People send emails telling me they keep up with what’s happening in New Orleans through my website. I hate to tell them (and don’t) that what I cover is just a smidgen of the reality.

The state legislature just finished their special session up in Baton Rouge. They did a lot of great things, and in typically partisan fashion, pulled some boners.

Starting in January 2007, any building in the state that suffered 51 percent or more damage as a result of these two hurricanes must be rebuilt according to a new stricter state-wide code.

The state has just taken over 102 of the 117 public schools in Orleans Parish, with the state board determining which ones reopen and how they will be run. Critics pointed out that since the hurricane, not one public school in the entire parish has been re-started. This is a special-interest-riddled school system that had degenerated into the worst in the state. The infighting on the parish school board was comic-book-ludicrous over the past few years. This system has nowhere to go but up. Thanks to our governor, Kathleen Blanco, for sticking by her guns on this, even when some New Orleans legislators accused her of racism.

Anyone who buys in Louisiana on the dates of December 16-17-18 will not have to pay the four percent sales tax. The idea is to give the citizens a break, while encouraging businesses.

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Staying Busy–In Evacuationland And In The Homeland

Six pastors from our now-out-of-business churches in St. Bernard Parish met for the first time since Katrina Tuesday morning, and they had lots of company. In addition to James “Boogie” Melerine of Delcroix-Hope, John Jeffries of FBC-Chalmette, John Galey of Poydras, David Howard of FBC-Arabi, Jeffrey Friend of Hopeview-Violet, and Paul Gregoire of St. Bernard-Chalmette, we had Dr. Danny Decker of the Missouri Baptist Convention, and Mike Canady and Larry Badon of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Michael Raymond from Taylor Memorial church in the 9th ward was there, along with Freddie Arnold and me from the association, and our host pastor, Keith Manuel.

Keith has been interviewing people and writing for the Baptist Press, in these nearly-three months since Katrina. He bought a great camera and taught himself to take his own pictures. Anytime you go to www.bpnews.net and see a news item about the New Orleans area, check to see if it’s from Keith. He is a multi-talented pastor. You ought to hear him play the guitar.

Going to www.bpnews.net is a great idea. Do it once a day to keep up with what’s going on everywhere, not only down here in the swamps.

A brief synopsis of what the pastors shared….

Boogie Melerine is living in Florida. “We can’t find any of the pieces of our church or my home down on the island. I’m staying up here in a little trailer and right now, we’re having church in a deacon’s home. We’ve met for four Sundays and had attendance of 10, 10, 17, and 19. Before the storm, we were running 25. I don’t know if we had flood insurance. We had merged with the little church at Alluvial City and were planning to merge with Reggio, then we were going to sell out and buy some land inside the levee protection area.”

Everyone laughed. The levees didn’t hold; there was no protection.

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Time For The Nation To Return The Favor?

Today, Sunday, we welcomed the bravest man in America to New Orleans. Pastor Le Ngoc Thuong has moved here from California to become pastor of the Viet Nam Baptist Church. Others are moving out, but this courageous brother is moving in. He is inheriting a fine, active congregation. When I arrived for their morning service, I found I was in the order of worship to bring a “short message.” Like I’m capable of that. And, with a translator, the length is automatically doubled. But I managed to keep it to 10 minutes, and directed them to Acts 20:28 where the pastor is told to guard himself first of all, even before ministering to the congregation. After all, I told Pastor Le, if you lose your health, you’ve lost your ministry. If you lose your spiritual life, you have no ministry. If you lose your marriage, you have no ministry. So, take care of yourself first of all, then you’ll be able to take care of the church of God.

The odd thing is how many church members think they come before the pastor’s family, his spiritual life, or his own health. Not all, thank the Lord. God has blessed me with wise church leaders through the years who knew to support me in taking care of first things first so I would be able to take care of them and the church to the fullest.

James Carson is director of missions up in Winnsboro, LA. Saturday, he said something I thought you would find fascinating…

“While training mudout teams, I came across this Scripture that jumped out at me as a background for what we do with our mudout disaster relief unit. In Leviticus 14:33-48, God gave Moses and Aaron the laws for cleaning leprous houses, meaning homes and buildings where mildew and mold had set in. The priest was instructed to do the same thing we do with our mudout units.”

Brother James then, being a good Baptist preacher, comes up with a three-point sermon on this text. (1) The Plague. v. 33-35 He compares this with the plague of sin which affects us all. (2) The Prescription. v. 35-45 He tells how the units disinfect and decontaminate the houses after stripping them, comparing it to God’s remedy for our sin problem, the cross of Calvary. (3) The Provision. v. 48 Just as only the priest can declare the leprous houses clean, we can be declared cleansed of our sin only by the blood of Jesus.

Well, friend, as we say, “That will preach.” Thank you.

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Prayer Walking And Power Working In New Orleans

First, I need to tell you about Wayne Jenkins. Wayne leads the Department of Evangelism for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and he practices when he preaches. Last night he walked through the French Quarter witnessing and handing out leaflets telling people how to know Christ as Savior. He met so many Spanish people, he pulled a stack of tracts in their language out of his car and handed out a couple of hundred before the evening ended.

Wayne is making our New Orleans area pastors a deal we shouldn’t refuse. The annual “Louisiana Evangelism Conference” is scheduled for the First Baptist Church of LaFayette January 23 and 24, and Wayne wants to pay our way. He says, “We are providing pastors and staff and spouses in the hurricane affected areas with a $275 scholarship. This should provide two nights lodging, your meals and gas.” To get in on this, our ministers need to sign up now since registration is limited and on a first come, first served basis. You will want to FAX Wayne’s office (318) 445 0055 or call his administrative assistant (her name is Syd) at 1-800-622-6549. He needs to know your name, your spouse’s name, your church, address, phone, and e-mail address. You will receive a voucher in January, so you may make your own reservation and get yourself there. An incredible slate of inspiring speakers has been lined up.

Wayne conceived the idea for the PRAYER WALK for New Orleans which we held today, and he did all the work on it. All we had to do was show up…and take a walk. Nearly 200 of us gathered at Williams Boulevard Baptist Church this Saturday morning, including Dr. David and Patti Hankins from our LBC office in Alexandria, and Rick Shepherd and his wife from the Florida Baptist Convention office in Jacksonville, and a number of church prayer teams from throughout Louisiana. About a dozen of our local churches sent leaders to invite prayer walkers into their neighborhoods. By the time we got underway at 10:05 am, everyone present was wearing a black t-shirt with gold lettering, “Pray New Orleans,” with a fleur de lis on the front. Wayne provided tracts for us to hand out and miniature notebooks to record impressions, prayer requests we picked up from people we met, as well as experiences to remember.

We’ll be having another prayer walk before long, and this time we’ll get into the needier sections of New Orleans. The mold count is so high and the debris so widespread, we felt it would be unsafe to send people walking those streets.

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More Of The News From The Renewing New Orleans

After returning to the city, one of my tasks is going through the newspapers to see what I’ve missed. I mean, other than a men’s magazine naming Jennifer Aniston (is that her name? I’m so culturally hip) its “man of the year.”

ABOUT OUR SCHOOL SYSTEMS

To my amazement, the St. Bernard Parish public schools has reopened. The people who live in this parish are now virtually all residing in FEMA trailers, I understand, but to re-establish some kind of normalcy and to send a signal for others to come on back and get to work rebuilding the neighborhoods, the school board opened the St. Bernard Unified School. It meets in trailers and runs on generators and had 330 students the first day.

Meanwhile, New Orleans became the only public school system in the region that has not opened any of its schools since Katrina, even though several of their campuses in Uptown and across the river in Algiers had no damage. Out west in Jefferson Parish, the attendance is about 80 percent of what it was pre-Katrina. The Christian schools are all in crisis, if I’m any judge. Our First Baptist (Kenner) Christian School is running half the 300 students they had at their peak a couple of years ago. The church met Wednesday night to discuss what to do, and yes, considered the nuclear option of closing it down after 20 years, but decided to stay the course for a while longer. A church in South Carolina has sent some money to help, plus they have some insurance money coming that should buy temporary relief.

REBUILDING THE CITY AND WHAT WE ARE DISCOVERING

The contractor assigned to bring the Superdome back to speed says he’s finding materials and labor pricier than he had thought and the cost is going to be in the neighborhood of $200 million. That’s some neighborhood. The dome cost about $75 million to erect, as I recall. This being Louisiana, the original estimate was about half that. Those were 1970 dollars which were larger and stronger than the ones in our billfolds today, although we did not know it at the time.

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Coming Home From The Louisiana Baptist Convention Meeting

I drove back to New Orleans Wednesday from Monroe and reflected on what we had done and not done this week.

All of us from the storm-damaged section of the state were grateful for the attention given our situation on the program. Sometimes it was videos on the large screens in which our pastors talked. At other times, convention leaders gave their reports. Pastor David Crosby of New Orleans’ First Baptist Church made an eloquent appeal for the convention to stay with us for a long time to come.

There was politics (there WERE politics? I’m not sure) at the convention, as there always are. But I’ve been so out of the loop. Someone asked who I was voting for as president of the state convention and I didn’t even know who was running. We’ve not received any third class mail down here since August, and that rules out our state Baptist paper. It is available on-line and I keep trying to remember to look it up. Our Baptist Message is a terrific paper, and surely worthy of our attention.

Lynn Clayton was honored as he retires from editing the Baptist Message after about a hundred years. Well, almost. He’s truly one of a kind, and I have treasured our relationship which began in 1979 when Lynn’s pastor, John Alley of Calvary, Alexandria, and I were serving on a committee for the Foreign Mission Board (now called the International Mission Board). The Internal Revenue Service was calling for all U.S. missionaries serving overseas to pay income tax here in the states as well as in the countries where they were serving. This would impose a financial burden on the FMB of at least another million dollars a year. So, John and Lynn and I descended on Washington, D.C., and started calling on senators. We literally pounded the pavement. Louisiana Senator Russell Long gave us the support we needed and introduced the bill which we then lobbied for, calling Southern Baptists around the country and asking them to contact their senators. When it passed, the IRS was made to go stand in the corner (so to speak), and ever since a million dollars a year of the Lord’s money has gone to something other than taxes. Lynn Clayton was a great help. I’ve loved the man ever since.

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Snapshots Of Churches And Preachers And A Horse

Last weekend when our son Marty was down, we rode around the area and took a few more snapshots of damaged churches and I gave him the CD which Ed Jelks had made from some of our church-assessment trips several weeks ago. He carried this all back to Charlotte and has posted several of the church photos on our website.

All of these churches are in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, the worst hit area of Louisiana. There were plenty more pictures, but in the honorable tradition of editors through the ages, Marty chose only the most dramatic scenes.

And he included the shot of the horse in the tree. It’s not a great shot and was made from the inside of the pickup truck, I believe, but you get the idea. Ed Jelks thinks it was a mule. I say it was a horse. We both agree that it’s dead.

While you’re on that page, if you haven’t already, check out the Nehemiah cartoons. Even better, call them to your pastor’s attention. Many of our churches will be studying this wonderful Old Testament book this winter, and these cartoons are meant to complement that. Some will print out the ‘toons and transfer them to power point or to overhead cels and display them for the congregation in the lessons. Others print them out as posters to advertise the study. Permission is automatically granted for you to use them any way you choose.

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Finding People With Great Testimonies

In a couple of weeks, some of our churches plan to have block parties to welcome their communities home, to celebrate God’s goodness, and to strengthen their relationship with their neighbors. One of them, the Vieux Carre’ Baptist Church on Dauphine Street, one block over from Bourbon, will hold theirs in Woldenberg Park, on the river’s edge, next to the French Quarter. One of their workers said, “Help us find a couple of people to give testimonies. Dynamic stories of God’s grace.”

Saturday, I spent a couple of hours seeking out pastors to deliver checks from the Louisiana Baptist Convention and the adopt-a-church program. Significant checks. Ten thousand dollar checks. Eye-popping figures for the pastors who opened the envelopes in my presence.

“May I make a suggestion?” I said to the pastors. “When you tell your congregation about this gift, read the letter to your people.” The accompanying letter from Missions and Ministry Director Mike Canady is such a blessing, assuring the people of the support of the entire denomination. This is welcoming news to people who have lost their homes and church buildings and whose friends are scattered across the countryside. Just knowing that several churches have adopted them and are committed to help them re-establish a presence in their community makes all the difference.

I said to one pastor, “Every church has people in it who wonder what difference the denomination makes. And maybe one or two who are even hostile to the denomination. These are the people who especially need to know the commitment God’s people called Southern Baptists are making.”

“What church are you going to this morning?” Margaret asked me early Sunday. I said, “To as many as I can find, but just long enough to deliver these envelopes.” From 9 to noon, I got to only four of the churches, but traveled 75 miles doing it. I started with Mark Mitchell’s Urban Family Church in Kenner, then Tony Bellow’s Hahnville Mission, then the West Marrero Church where Anthony Barrett pastors, and finally to Oak Park Church under the leadership of Paul Brady. Paul was in the middle of his sermon at that very moment, but I left the envelope with someone to give to him.

“God is really blessing,” said Tony Bellows of the Hahnville church. “Our congregation is multi-racial now. We have a white lady teaching a Sunday School class.” He said, “You know, God rescued me out of two prison terms. I’d been selling drugs big-time. Thomas Ayo, pastor of the Krotz Springs Baptist Church, started coming to the Hunt Correctional Center, visiting prisoners. He witnessed to me and led me to Jesus. Later, he paid my way through the seminary.”

Thomas Ayo. One of my classmates from seminary in the 1960s. Good work, old friend.

I knew I had my testimony for the block party in Woldenberg Park.

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