Sunday before Mardi Gras

Tuesday is the big day. Normally a holiday for our citizens, and a welcome one at that, this year we have some representatives of the North American Mission Board coming to town–they’re good people, but they don’t keep up with the local calendar–and some of us will be spending the day with them.

Sunday morning, I preached at Oak Park Baptist Church on the West Bank of New Orleans. They were commissioning their Sunday School teachers for the year; like everyone else down here, they’re running a little off schedule. Interim minister Joe Kay announced that a church in Ruston had sent $10,000 to help install showers in the renovated educational building so they will be able to host volunteers coming to help rebuild the city. He read a letter from a couple who belonged to Oak Park decades ago, sending their love and a thousand dollar check. The church voted today to allow the Billy Graham “Rapid Response” chaplains to live in a residence next door for the next three months. At the end of the service, the altar was filled with members recommitting themselves to pray for this city. State Legislator Jim Tucker, a member of the church, was present. He has a standing invitation to attend our Wednesday pastors meeting in LaPlace to bring us up-to-date on legislative doings.

Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose is defending Mardi Gras, which has become a popular task around these parts, since much of the nation wonders whether the city has lost its mind by staging this party in the midst of the great devastation. He says some of the same things the rest of us have, that 98% of the people in the French Quarter who are guzzling barrel-size beers and flashing their bodies for beads are not from here. They are from “your” town. “You’re watching a mirror of yourselves,” he says to the nation.

Chris Rose is put out with what the media–and some self-serving politicians, I might add–have done to the image of this city, post-Katrina. Listen to the national coverage of our disaster and you come away believing the rich white folks of Lakeview got off easy compared to the poor Blacks of the Lower Ninth Ward. “Never mind,” he writes, “that the flood itself ignored such devices and claimed lives, property and peace of mind indiscriminately and equally across race, class and gender lines and across hundreds of square miles.” He writes, “The failure of the Corps of Engineers was true democracy in action. Or would that be inaction?” Read any paper in the nation commenting on New Orleans’ having a Mardi Gras this year, and it comes out to rich white folks partying at the expense of the neglected minorities.

Rose quotes a friend who lives in the Lower 9th, that she is fed up with the reaction when she tells people where she is from. “They immediately think I am poor, uneducated, have no car, no job, and was too stupid to get out of town when a hurricane comes.” She adds, “I’m not stupid.”

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Living and Dying in the Crescent City

Since Katrina, our funeral homes have been busier than before. At first, it was “Katrina” deaths, with the newspaper notices announcing that “He died on September 1″ or “She died of a heart attack in a shelter after the hurricane.” Now, judging from the obituaries, it seems to be the normal kind of dying. But with one third the population of what the city was before the storm, you would think we’d have fewer deaths. I have no answer to this.

A member of the Kenner church, a lady who had moved away some years ago and with her husband had been residents of a nursing home in Mississippi, died this week and the family asked me to do a brief memorial service for her in the local cemetery’s mausoleum. Standing in that little chapel waiting for everyone to gather, I heard a man say, “This place gives me the willies.” In slots all around the chapel wall, perhaps reaching 12 feet high, were remains of the deceased over the years. I never come into that chapel without going to the rear where a glass case, not unlike a china cabinet, holds the cremains and photographs of a number of people. I go to the pictures of three brothers side by side, all of them dying before they were 30 years old. I did every funeral. I can only imagine the pain their parents must still be experiencing to this day; you never get over that kind of grief.

On the way out of the associational office to the cemetery, Jennifer Smith called. “Can you run by here?” Something had happened at Highland Baptist Church where her husband Scott is pastor. When I arrived, police cars were everywhere. Scott explained, “A few weeks ago, two men came by, said they were trying to find construction work, and could they put their pop-up camper on our church parking lot. It occurred to me this morning I had not seen either of them for two weeks. If they weren’t going to stay here, we need to get that camper off the parking lot. We have some FEMA trailers coming in. I decided to see if the door was open.” It was.

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The work goes forward. One step at a time.

My mother sent us a copy of the recent “Daily Mountain Eagle” from Jasper, Alabama, with a large write-up about her and Dad. The headline: “Retired miner, 94, and his wife have lived and loved through almost a century of hard times.” Writer Lona Vines calls mom “a fiesty 90 year old who still cooks a full course dinner for her family at the noon hour.” (Mom tried not to be offended; she won’t be 90 until July 14.) Mom and Dad were married March 3, 1934, which means they are about to celebrate 72 years. The article says, “At 22, Carl asked for the hand of Lois Kilgore, a sweet, yet lively young woman he had met in church. Her father wrote a note to the judge giving his permission for the not quite-18-year-old to pledge her heart to McKeever. He has kept that note for 72 years.”

((Want to write them a note of congratulations? Carl and Lois McKeever. 191 County Road 101. Nauvoo, Alabama 35578. Thank you.))

Monday’s news. Labor shortages are crippling local shipbuilders. Bollinger Shipyards has canceled a $700 million contract it worked years to get, then took a pass on a $150 million job because high wages and scarce employees meant the company could not turn a profit.

A group of congressmen came to town Sunday and toured the ugliness Katrina inflicted on the city. One of them, Westmoreland of Georgia, said he has often been to New Orleans in better times, but since the storm his image of the city was formed by our crooked politicians, daredevil looters, and absentee cops. Over the weekend, he saw the city as it is, and met a group of leaders who call themselves Women of the Storm who have changed his opinion. “All we’d seen in Washington and on TV,” he said, “were people who did not give a good representation of what was going on down here.” He says he voted against the Baker bill recently, which would have created a buyout fund of $52 billion because it was an invitation to fraud.

Wednesday’s editorial cartoon fits here. Cartoonist Steve Kelley has Uncle Sam telling a guy, “I paid twice what I should have for blue roofs.” “And blew $900 million on the wrong type of trailers.” “Just storing them is costing another $25,000 a month.” The listener says, “Why didn’t you send the money directly to our state?” Uncle Sam answers, “Everyone knows you would have mismanaged it.”

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Sunday in New Orleans and Doyline

Mardi Gras parades are rolling in our city. Judging by the televised portions, not many people are lining the streets to grab for beads, but it’s an emotional thing for the city. Front page of Sunday’s Times-Picayunes addresses the two ways Mardi Gras is viewed. The outside world sees decadence and debauchery, beads and breasts, Bourbon Street and booze. To most locals, Mardi Gras is about kids catching throws, masking with friends, bands marching down St. Charles Avenue.

I had not thought of that distinction, but it explains something. I recall a phone call I received one Mardi Gras Tuesday (redundant, I know) at the First Baptist Church of Kenner. A church supply salesman was calling for one of our ministers. I told him it was a holiday, the offices were closed, and Jim was not in. Long pause, then, “What holiday is it?” Mardi Gras. Another pause, then, “And you close the church of the Lord Jesus Christ for such an ungodly display of wickedness as that?” I said, calmly, I hope, “Sir, the entire city shuts down. No stores are open, the streets are jammed. For most of us, it’s a great time to stay home with the family. Some of our people go to the parades and witness.” And I wondered why I felt it necessary to justify this to him. Incidentally, the man still wanted to argue that we were wrong in closing the office, that we should take a stronger stand against the wickedness.

I told the gentleman that most of the parades are as tame and harmless as your high school homecoming parade such as we used to have in Double Springs, Alabama. It’s in the French Quarter where people show out, I explained, then felt bad because a) I had argued with him at all, and b) I’m in the weird position of defending Mardi Gras.

Home prices are zooming in this post-Katrina era. In most areas of metro New Orleans, something like 20 percent since the hurricane. This is the result, of course, of 200,000 homes being unliveable and the ones that are being highly sought after. Paper says some people are buying the damaged homes in Lakeview at one-half the previous value because they have finally found a way to afford to buy a home in New Orleans. Go figure.

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The latest news from New Orleans and Cumming, Georgia

Today, Friday, the city of New Orleans celebrated two openings. The Morial Convention Center, infamous as a place of suffering of stranded citizens following Katrina’s floodings, has been repaired and is open for business. Then, Harrah’s Casino, the city’s only land-based gambling hall, sitting at the foot of Canal Street a block from the river, welcomed back nearly all its 2500 employees as it threw open its doors. The front page article in today’s Times-Picayune celebrated the “miracle” of Harrah’s contacting almost all its workers and returning them to work for the same wages as before, and this without the aid of a single FEMA trailer.

Reading of those 2500 employees, I have vivid memories of the flurry of promotion and the fury of controversy in the early 1990s over allowing casinos in New Orleans. The gambling industry promised and bumper stickers everywhere proclaimed, “25,000 new jobs!” Speak out against the casino–as many of us did–and you were accused of not wanting to help poor people out of their poverty. To this day, there are not 25,000 gambling-related jobs in the entire state. Unless you add the counselors and bankruptcy lawyers helping people deal with the consequences of their gambling.

The mayor of Kenner is in trouble. In the days following Katrina, Phil Capitano signed several large contracts for millions of dollars, mostly for debris cleanup. When city council members tried to find out the details, they were not allowed to see them. Now the U.S. attorney and a federal grand jury are involved, with both the mayor and the council members receiving subpoenas. This comes just a few weeks before the election, and yes, the mayor is up for re-election. His arch-rival, retiring police chief Nick Congemi, is running for his honor’s seat.

The special called session of the state legislature ended its meetings today. We’ve not heard of today’s doings, but yesterday they voted to consolidate our numerous fragmented and disjointed levee boards into two, one for the west bank of the Mississippi and one for the east. Governor Blanco had pushed for one board composed only of professionals, most of whom she would appoint, but settled for the two boards.

What the governor apparently did not get is the down-sizing of New Orleans city government. For decades, we have had too many judges, too many courts, seven tax assessors, and two sheriffs. With one-third the population as before, it’s high time to take an axe to this cancerous growth. Politics were on display in Baton Rouge in all their selfish ugliness, and when the legislature splintered into factions, the issue died. Some say it will be back in the next regular term. We can hope.

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Doing well and finishing strong

Nearly 60 of us met at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace Wednesday morning, getting underway at 9:15 and ending at 11:30 for a lunch of po-boys, soft drinks, and dessert, furnished by the church. As usual, at 10:30, the 8 or 10 women in attendance excused themselves to meet with Linda Williams, wife of Joe, our FBI chaplain and NAMB counselor-in-residence. It was a full morning.

David Lema reported that the Portuguese-speaking mission meeting at Emmanuel Spanish Church had 65 in attendance Sunday. “They had six saved last week,” he beamed.

Jose Mathews came in on a crutch, followed by his wife Othello. This pastor of Discipleship Church in defunct East New Orleans is living in a trailer near Baton Rouge. He told the group of the warm hospitality of the sponsoring Oklahoma church, of returning from that visit only to experience a stroke, followed by the death of his mother. He’s in therapy three times a week, but when today’s session was canceled, they decided to drive down to see everyone. He received a royal welcome.

Warren Jones reported on the recovery of New Salem Church in the 9th Ward and the new ministry they are committed to having in that neighborhood.

Rick Lopez reported that Lake Forest Church on Morrison Avenue in East N.O. has officially gone out of business and has deeded their assets to the association. “We’ve had teams of workers in fixing up the building,” he said, “and it looks great. The Franklin Graham organization is going to use it when we’re finished.” I’m always eager that everyone know the association is not Freddie Arnold and me, so when Rick finished, I asked everyone, “Who exactly is this association he’s speaking of?” They called out in chorus, “Us!” Exactly right. A Baptist association is composed of all the Southern Baptist churches in that area, with the executive committee being the pastor and one elected layman from each church.

Charlie Dale reported to the group on the progress of Grace Church, saying how excited he is to be back.

Kevin Lee reported on the rebuilding of Edgewater Church, of the tent that was donated to them, and of their services Sunday in the frigid temperatures. “We were all so glad to be there,” he said, “no one noticed the cold. I told Charlie Ray you could set fire to the tent and no one would move.”

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All the help we can get

Since the hurricane, several people have offered to help our pastors and churches rebuild their libraries. The folks at Saddleback Church in California even went so far as to say if we would give them the names and contact information of pastors who lost their libraries, they would make arrangements for a shipment of books to each one. That was easily done on my part, and greatly appreciated by our ministers. The last offer we received, however, stood out from the others. This lady was determined.

“Some men from our church went down to New Orleans and came back telling us about your situation. When I told them I want to help rebuild the church libraries, they said that is low priority right now.” She was clearly offended, believing as all good librarians do, that reading is not only next to cleanliness and godliness, but probably a means to both. We e-mailed back and forth a few times, with me explaining that rebuilding the churches and gathering the dispersed congregations actually do take a higher priority. Finally I said, “Bring your husband down and see for yourself.” Today they did.

She and her husband are spending tonight in our Rachel Sims Mission Center in Uptown New Orleans, then attending our Wednesday pastors’ meeting at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace. I suggested she might want to talk to the pastors about their needs.

I picked the two of them up at their hotel Tuesday morning and gave them the grand tour. Lakeview, Gentilly, out to the associational office on the lakefront, Franklin Avenue, East New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Ninth Ward. All morning long, the sights seemed to get worse and worse. Soon, they got so caught up in gawking at the devastation–and this nearly 6 months after the hurricane–that the husband would forget to take pictures. They got out of the car and walked around inside Edgewater, Gentilly, and Arabi churches. “What’s so amazing,” he said, “is that it is mile after mile of this same misery.”

Clearly, the tour was sapping their spirits and overwhelming their comprehension. That’s why I was delighted to find Warren Jones standing in front of New Salem Baptist Church in the Upper 9th Ward. He smiled that grin that lights up entire neighborhoods and waved me down. We circled the block and parked and walked over to where he was conversing on the street corner with two men and a woman.

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People want to be together

Sunday morning, I drove 75 miles and attended the first post-Katrina worship services of Edgewater Baptist Church in New Orleans, the combined church services in Chalmette at the high school, and Poydras Baptist Church further downriver. The weatherman called this the coldest day of our winter, but the sun was bright and it was a wonderful day for the Lord’s people.

“Kevin preached from Revelation 21,” said Cheryl Ray. “About the hope God’s people have. That’s in line with the sign we’ve put in front of Edgewater, that this is a place of hope for people right now.” I had run by the church site on Paris Avenue at least a half hour before they began services. Already a dozen people were working around the tent in the front yard, testing the sound system, straightening chairs, getting ready for worship. “We ended up with nearly 60 present,” Cheryl said in the afternoon. Did they freeze? “It was cold. We closed two sides of the tent, but left part of it open so we’d get some sun.”

“One of our members drove in from Mobile. We had some seminary students who had stayed over from Saturday classes to go to church with us. And several people in the neighborhood, working on their homes, came over and worshiped with us. Other than that, we had about 50 Edgewater people. Everyone was so glad to be there. People want to be together.”

This must have been my tenth “first service since Katrina” and she is so right.

New pastor Kevin Lee has arrived from Denver, where he was on the staff of Riverside Baptist Church. “I’ve found a place to live in Metairie,” he said. Brave, courageous man. In November, I met Pastor Le Ngoc Thuong who had just moved from California to serve the Vietnamese Baptist Church in Gretna, and called him the bravest man in town. However, Pastor Le has a healthy church building and an intact congregation. Kevin Lee has a gutted church, a devastated neighborhood, and a dispersed congregation. Brave indeed. I prayed with him the promise God gave me two years ago after I left the pastorate to become director of missions for the Baptist churches of the New Orleans area: “Faithful is he who called you, and he will bring it to pass.” (I Thessalonians 5:24) We’re going to need a lot of courageous leaders to get through the days before us.

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Laughter and tears

Searching for the Laughter. I spoke Friday evening to the First Baptist Church of Moss Point, Mississippi. Many of their people suffered extensive damage from Katrina, the entire area is still digging out and rebuilding, and Pastor Michael Perry felt his people needed some laughter. He invited me to bring my easel and markers and do some caricatures and tell some of my funny stories. I was glad for a break from our usual routine over here.

The traffic out of New Orleans on a late Friday afternoon used to be a nightmare, particularly heading east toward Slidell, so not knowing what to expect, I left early. With almost no one living in East New Orleans, the traffic was alarmingly light. I arrived at Gulfport ahead of schedule and decided to take a 30 minute break and throw a little business to the Krispy Kreme folks. I ordered two glazed and a small coffee and bought the latest edition of the “Sun-Herald.” The contrast between what these folks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are going through, recovering from the storm, and what New Orleanians are experiencing was stark in some ways, the same in others.

Three hundred homes on the Gulf Coast will have to be checked out for their historical value before owners will be allowed to rebuild. The Mississippi legislature has approved a bill which will lend rebuilding homeowners up to $25,000 at zero-interest for 20 years. Some coastal towns are discussing elevations and stronger building codes as their communities come back. Meridian is trying to find trailers to house its evacuees. Mardi Gras parades will be held as usual on the coast. Oxford was burying legendary football coach Johnny Vaught, 96, who had assured former player and now pastor, Gerald Morgan of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, “I’m ready. I know Jesus Christ has forgiven me for my sins.” The news from tiny Pass Christian, location of the state Baptist conference center and wiped out by Katrina, read: “Today is the last day for ‘Right of Entry’ forms to be turned in.” Fellow writes in to “Sound Off,” that he returned to his slab–the only thing left of his home–and found that the American flag he had erected had been stolen.

I said to the Moss Point folks after dinner, “Let me tell you what happened today at our associational offices.”

I arrived this morning to find Baptist volunteers from Arkansas and Kansas rebuilding the sidewalks in front of our property. The city had had to take out our big tree and the walk to repair a busted water main not long after the hurricane, and it’s been a mess. Under Freddie Arnold’s direction, the men were pouring new sidewalks. I went over and introduced myself to them, expecting the usual friendliness and bonhomie. Instead, they were quiet and intent on their jobs. Later, we ordered po-boys for lunch and the men sat around the table in our break area, had prayer, and dived in. I joined them and we swapped names and I tried to get a little conversation going. No luck. Finally, it occurred to me what was going on. They were still in Katrina shock. The devastation throughout our city had stunned their minds, sapped their strength, and depressed their spirits. We live with it every day, but they were still adjusting. So, I decided to try something.

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Three brief notes. Ministerially speaking.

One. Here’s what a pastor told me Wednesday. He leads a church–or led it, to be exact–which was completely erased off the map by Katrina. He’s back in the neighborhood now and, without a church building of any kind, gathering 60 people for worship on Sundays in what he calls a porch and someone else said is a shed. Before the hurricane, his little church did good to run 25. “Half of the sixty we’re running now are Catholics,” he said. Two things make that remarkable. “They used to ridicule us,” he said, “that we were some kind of sect or cult. Now we’re the only church down there.” And the other thing. “We’ve been told the Catholic diocese had only 14 million dollars insurance on all their buildings in the whole area. With so many church buildings destroyed, they don’t have the money to bring them all back, so they’re closing down the churches in the outlying areas. And you know that good Catholics have to go to church each week, and they are taught if you can’t get to a Catholic church, go to another one.” He smiled and said, “So, they’re coming to our Baptist church.” He says he grew up in that same remote area decades ago, himself a Catholic and persecuting the Baptists.

(Do I need to say again that we’re not anti-Catholic. I know many dear brothers and sisters in Christ who are Catholic. I’m just reporting how things are changing around here, sometimes for the better, sometimes the worse.)

(An inserted note: 24 hours after posting this article, the Friday, Feb 10, Times-Picayune announced in a front-page article that the New Orleans Catholic Archdiocese is indefinitely shuttering 30 local churches, out of a total of 142 in the area. They are closing many schools and completely shutting down seven church parishes. This is due to the tremendous damage to the buildings, the loss of hundreds of thousands of local citizens, and the staggering $84 million in uninsured losses the churches incurred.)

Two. Thursday, I went to see for myself the FEMA base camp on the West Bank where we are now boarding hundreds of volunteers from all over, people who come to help us gut out and rebuild houses and churches. Terry Henderson directs the disaster relief work for Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board. He and several volunteers sit at computers in a house adjoining Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers answering e-mails and taking phone calls from churches interested in coming to help, getting and giving information.

“There are two of these camps,” Terry said. “One in St. Bernard Parish and this one. Each tent contains several hundred cots.” The one we stuck our head into had perhaps a dozen men sleeping across a darkened area; this was two-thirty in the afternoon. A large tent nearby served as the feeding station. “They get three meals a day here,” Terry said. “The workers will pack a lunch for a volunteer to take to his job site. It’s actually pretty good food.” Down the path was a row of large pods. “Shower units,” he said. And on what was obviously a playing field, tent after tent in a row, one of them designated “Women.” This base camp easily accommodates two thousand people.

“No one under 18 is allowed to stay in a FEMA camp,” Terry said. “The church groups with kids have to try to get into one of our mission centers or take over a church fellowship hall somewhere.” (To arrange for that, call Aaron Arledge 504-235-6462.)

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