One Street in New Orleans

In Greek mythology, Elysian Fields was the final destination of good souls after death. The Fields were a land of song and sunshine where the air was sweet and cool. The good souls existed there in the flowery meadows for eternity.

In New Orleans, Elysian Fields is the name of one of the hundreds of boulevards, this one stretching from the Mississippi River, alongside the back of the French Quarter, all the way north to Lake Pontchartrain. A block from where it begins by the river sits the French Market. A couple of blocks north and one block west on Frenchman Street lies one of our favorite restaurants, the Praline Connection, where you can get a plate of crowder peas and turnip greens, fried chicken or meat loaf or breaded pork chops, then top it off with a slice of sweet potato pie with praline sauce, all for less than ten dollars. It’s as New Orleansy as they come.

A block or two further up Elysian Fields sits the Baptist Friendship House, where NAMB missionary Kay Bennett and her staff do an incredible job of ministering to troubled women and needy children of this section of the city. These days, while the neighborhood lies mostly vacant, the Friendship House is hosting volunteer church teams from Oklahoma. Gradually, the homes in the area show signs of returning to life. They have electricity, but the last I heard, no phone service.

As you get closer to Interstate 10, the signs of the floodwaters that followed Katrina are everywhere, the high water marks on the sides of houses and businesses, most still lying vacant. In the area around Interstate 610, and north to the lake, it’s a dead zone. The yard plants are dried and dead, businesses untouched, the houses still adorned by their National Guard insignia from the first days when searchers would check the homes for survivors and spray the results on the outsides or roofs.

The traffic lights are still out. It’s a gentleman’s game at the four-way stop signs with a dozen vehicles lined up behind you and that many staring at you from each direction. Elysian Fields is a wide street, with six lanes in places, and no one is choreographing the movements through these cross streets. You pull up, look around, wait, and go forward, hoping for the best.

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Reminding One Another. Reminding God.

Tuesday, Dr. Roger Freeman came by to visit. This outstanding pastor of Clarksville, Tennessee’s First Baptist Church formerly shepherded the FBC of New Orleans, leaving in 1993. I have great memories of his kind spirit and gracious manner. While we were catching up on each other’s news, his wife Priscilla called on his cell phone. I asked to speak to her and said, “I want to tell you my Sarah story.” Sarah is their 16-year-old, but she was about 7 when this happened. I figured they might have forgotten the incident.

That day, little Sarah was feeling sad for a certain lady in the church whose husband had just died. “She’s all alone now,” she said. Then she brightened up and said, “But she’s not alone. Jesus is with her. He’s in all fifty states and foreign countries.”

Roger laughed and said, “I had forgotten that! It was worth the drive down here to hear that story about my daughter!” I made him promise to tell me other ‘Sarah stories’ as he thinks of them.

Over the years many of my preacher friends have given me stories from their children which I still tell. Like the one from William Carey College’s Larry Kennedy’s son Steve, of the time he attended his first big church wedding and watched as the groomsmen filled the front of the church and the maids entered. As the bride glided down the aisle, Steve leaned over and whispered, “Mother, does she already know which one of those men she’s going to marry or is she going to decide after she gets there?”

I tell the story of Knoxville’s Central Baptist Church-Bearden’s Larry Fields whose little son John was asked to be a ringbearer in a wedding. John was notoriously independent and unpredictable, so when he behaved beautifully and never complained once about the tuxedo he wore, mom and dad were baffled. What could the bride have done to get John’s cooperation? The riddle was solved at the reception when John stalked up to the new husband and wife and asked loudly, “Where’s my fire truck?”

I know stories from Sans Souci’s Paul Moore’s daughter Rachel, from Vallejo’s Bryan Harris’ three daughters and son, and an entire encyclopedia-ful from my own children and grandchildren.

Children are precious. Even when they’re grown, they’re still our children. If you doubt that, ask my mom. Her six children are ages 62, 64, 66, 68, 69, and 70. (I asked her once if having senior-adult children made her feel old. She said, “No. It’s not my problem.”)

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The excitement quotient

(Let me ask the help of everyone who reads this. Please invite any First Responder–those who helped New Orleans during and just after the hurricane–to our appreciation event scheduled for Saturday, April 8, at the New Orleans Arena from 10 to 4 pm. Call Cherry Blackwell at 504 451-9333 for more information. Last Saturday at Tall Timbers, I met two men who flew helicopters during those critical days in New Orleans, and neither had heard of this event. We want them all to know and to come.)

Sunday morning at Luling’s First Baptist Church, a deacon delivered a mini-sermon just before leading in prayer. He said, “We’re all excited about LSU getting into the Final Four.” A chorus of amen’s rose up. “But it bothers me that I am much more excited about my basketball team winning than I am about the Lord Jesus Christ loving me. And that makes me ashamed.”

I appreciated what he said, and later handed him the following note: “If the Lord loved us as infrequently as LSU gets into the Final Four (every 20 years or so) on those rare occasions when He did, we’d be plenty excited.”

The problem is it’s hard to stay excited about a constant. Inherit a million dollars and you are ecstatic for a few weeks. Eventually, you come down to earth. No one who has been a millionaire for years goes around in a state of euphoria. The most beautiful girl in town agrees to marry you, and you’re on cloud nine. But a year or ten years into the marriage, you’re back to normal. Let a young pastor get called to the biggest church in the state and he is overwhelmed by God’s goodness. A year later, he is overworked and overwrought with the expectations placed on him. Life has returned to normal. No one can live on a mountain of excitement.

Fortunately, the Lord has not asked euphoria or even excitement from us. Just faithfulness and steadfastness. Those who measure a worship service by its emotional highs are missing the mark. As the old preacher used to say, “It’s not how high you jump that impresses God but how straight you walk after you hit the ground.”

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The latest scar on America

Sunday afternoon on C-Span, NBC anchor Brian Williams told a crowd in Boston’s JFK Presidential Library, “There are many scars on America. Birmingham, Selma, 9-11, and the latest one–the city I’ve always considered the most interesting of all American cities–New Orleans, Louisiana.”

A sociologist at Houston’s Rice University conducted a study and found that 3 out of 4 Houstonians believe the 150,000 evacuees from Louisiana have put a great strain on the city and are responsible for a huge increase in the crime rate. I expect both of those are true. John Culberson, U.S. Congressman from Houston, was quoted in Sunday’s paper: “I think the percentage of people unhappy with the deadbeats from New Orleans would be larger but for the big hearts of Houstonians who want these folks to get back on their feet, as I do.”

I’m not sure we want to analyze Mr. Culberson’s statement too closely. We love you, we want you to do well, you’re a bunch of deadbeats.

Another Texas congressman, Jeb Hensarling, came to New Orleans recently with other House members invited by the Women of the Storm, in order to expose leaders to the real situation down here, as opposed to what they hear from other sources. Hensarling did not want to be confused with the facts, so he left a meeting of business and civic leaders before they could present their plans on the recovery of this area. In Congress he lambasted the citizens of this area as being lazy do-nothings who wait around for the federal government to solve all their problems. It was either Hensarling, or perhaps Senator Bob Bennett–want to be careful here and not target the wrong person–who slammed the local citizens for not carrying flood insurance even though they live beneath sea level.

A nationwide study has revealed that 67 percent of the citizens of New Orleans carried flood insurance, a figure higher than any other flood-prone coastal area in America, with the exception of the Coral Gables, Florida, community where the percentage is 68. The politician’s putdown was either slander or ignorance. Take your pick.

Local politics down to their usual standard? Last October, the head of a salvage company (K & L Auto Crushers of Tyler, TX) offered to the mayor of New Orleans that he would haul off all the abandoned & flooded vehicles littering the streets, and pay the city $100 per car. At the time, there were 50,000 cars on the streets, in driveways, and under the interstates. A good deal by anyone’s standards. You’re not going to believe what is happening.

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Missing parts of the puzzle

One of the most exciting aspects of post-Katrina ministry in our area will take place Saturday, April 8, at the New Orleans Arena when we honor the first-responders. (First responders: those military/law enforcement/firefighter/medical and other people who served this city during the weeks New Orleans was flooded and locked down.) The Baptists of Greater New Orleans & Louisiana will be heading up an all-day affair in the arena for every First-Responder-and-his/her-family we can locate. From 10 am to 4 pm that day, we will have food and games, giveaways, gift bags with Bibles and other goodies, counseling, massages, you name it. Churches are setting up booths manned by their members doing anything they wish, from face-painting the children to giving food, but mainly being a presence to say a hearty ‘thank you’ to these to whom we owe so much. And we’re giving away cars.

Cherry Blackwell is heading up the entire project. What a choice lady she is. Cherry and Ben are locals, Ben being a schoolteacher and part-time minister of music (FBC Norco, right now), and they are Mission Service Corps volunteers. Which is another way of saying they are missionaries responsible for raising their own support. The state convention believes in them so much that Ben and Cherry have been made state-wide directors of the MSC program. When we needed the right person to lead the First-Responders-Event, someone thought of Cherry and everyone instantly agreed. Tuesday afternoon, Cherry’s steering committee met in the conference room of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner.

“We have a new car to give away,” she told the group. “Ronnie Lamarque is giving us one, and he has given me permission to use his name in urging other car dealers to give one, too.” The plan at the moment is to have a drawing at the April 8 event, along about 3:30 pm, and some First-Responder will drive home in a new car. If we have two or more cars, we’ll have more drawings earlier.

Anyone wishing to get in on this plan to honor our First-Responders (and all FRers who read this are invited!) may call Cherry at 504 451 9333. Your admission into the Arena that day is by showing your identification badge, whatever identifies you as law enforcement, military, firefighter, or medical emergency worker.

Another missing piece of the post-Katrina puzzle has been found.

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What the Methodists are doing

The state conference of the United Methodist Church has divided 38 churches in the New Orleans area into seven clusters, most with one or more disabled churches unable to hold services or open on a limited basis. The idea is for the Methodists in those areas to get together and do a self-study, have meetings and forums, then make the tough decisions on the future of their churches.

This will require new strategies, according to Bishop William Hutchinson, and that may require a fresh infusion of new pastors into the area. “We’re not declaring any church abandoned…(or) closed,” he said. What they’re trying to do, he says, is put those key decisions into the hands of the members.

This is a different approach from the Catholic churches in the area, where the Archbishop made the decisions and handed them down. Several churches with long traditions have been shuttered, the congregations merged with others, and a lot of people are unhappy about it. Someone wrote the newspaper the other day demanding that Archbishop Hughes tell people why he did what he did. I’m a Southern Baptist and not in on the doings of the Catholics, but I can answer that question. It’s economics. If you have no people living in the neighborhood, you can’t afford to keep up all those churches. And anyone who has driven this city knows there are no small Catholic churches here. All seem to be huge and elaborate. My guess is it costs a small fortune to keep them cleaned and staffed and in full operation.

This is also a different approach, some are saying, from the top-down executive type decision which usually characterizes the United Methodist Church. In this case, they’re really asking the members what they want to do.

Even with this reasonable, “bottom-up” approach by the United Methodists, a lot of members are feeling insecure right now, afraid their favorite church will be lost. Reverend Lekisha Reed of the Boynton UMC in Gretna said this week, “I’m picking up on the fear of the unknown. You don’t know what the future is going to look like.”

One resident said, “I’ve lost everything else. Don’t take my church away from me.” As palpable as his pain is, all that gentleman has to do is look around and he’ll find thousands of neighbors in the same boat with him.

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Waiting for one reason or another

“What’s taking so long for the city to rebuild?” everyone wants to know. “We were here months ago and it looks the same.”

The short answer is everyone’s waiting.

The residents are waiting for their insurance. Waiting for their FEMA trailer. Waiting for it to be hooked up. Waiting for the power to be restored. Waiting for the government to tell them what the requirements for rebuilding will be. Waiting for the other residents to return. Waiting for stores in their area to open. Waiting for employers to hire again. Waiting for volunteers to help gut out their houses and rebuild them.

The governments are waiting for other governments to take the lead. The mayor waits for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers and the governor’s office. The mayor and governors’ offices are waiting for the check to arrive from Congress. Waiting for congressional leaders to come down and see for themselves. Waiting for the White House to return their calls.

The businesses are waiting for the residents to return. Waiting for the power to be restored. Waiting for their SBA loan to be approved. Waiting for their kids’ schools to reopen. Waiting for the neighborhood to return.

The churches are waiting for their insurance checks. Waiting for the neighborhood to be restored. Waiting for the pastors to return. Waiting for a word from Heaven on what they should do.

Everyone is waiting on something or someone.

I’m not sure how many years ago Rob Boyd wrote the following, but it had to have been nearly a decade ago. He was pastoring the First Baptist Church of Clinton, Mississippi, and I clipped his column from their weekly bulletin and kept it in my Bible ever since. Here it is in its entirety.

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Making discoveries in New Orleans

The front page of the Saturday, March 18, Times-Picayune announces, “The LRA wants to know why FEMA is spending $75,000 on trailers when these cottages cost less than $60,000.” Each 23 to 28 foot trailer, small fragile cheap-looking boxes, is costing the Federal Emergency Management Agency $75,000 to deliver and set up in the yards and driveways of damaged homes. But a “Katrina cottage,” a 400 to 750 square foot prefab house that sleeps four can be built in days and can be expanded into a permanent home, for only $60,000, according to the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The best selling point for the pre-fab home may be that it is made of concrete and steel. If another hurricane targets our area, it would survive the storm better than these cracker box trailers parked in driveways all over the city.

Poor FEMA. I suppose they’re doing the best they can. But nothing they do is ever right or enough.

The best item in Saturday’s paper was a discovery made by one of our collegiate groups gutting out a house in St. Bernard Parish. Trista Wright, who attends Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, pulled a rake through a dusty pile of moldly sheetrock and noticed an old piece of green paper jutting out. “It looked like play money,” she said. It was a hundred dollar bill. Stacks of them.

The college kids called the St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s office who sent a cop over, who in turn contacted the lady who owned the house. She verified that the house had been in their family for generations and that her father had never trusted banks. Best they can figure, the money had been stashed in an air-conditioning vent in the 1960s. They estimate the stack contained $30,000. Aaron Arledge, our associate BCM director who was overseeing the group’s New Orleans work, was quoted: “I had my suspicions at first, but once I met the family and talked to the woman, I have no doubt she’s telling the truth. She said her faither grew up in the Depression and must not have told anyone in the family about it before he died.”

(Note to preachers: There’s your sermon illustration. A father has a treasure which he hides from his family. He dies and they never benefit from his wealth. Know any dad who believes in Christ but never tells the family?)

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Potpourri: A little extra

The annual bill for our home’s flood insurance came Tuesday and I paid it without a thought. This time last year I decided to cancel it. After all, where we live is high ground, outside the official flood zone, so why throw away good money, I reasoned. I said to Margaret, “After all, if we get flooded, New Orleans is gone, and what’s the chance of that.” That started our little husband-and-wife conversation.

“I would feel bad not having flood insurance,” she said. “Honey, it’s two hundred and sixty bucks down the drain. It’s not a lot of money, granted, but why buy it if we’re not ever going to need it.” “Just the same,” she said, “I’d feel safer with it.”

“Tell you what I’ll do,” I said. “I’ll call Bob Swanson down the street. He’s an agent for the company that insures our house. Let’s see what he’s doing.” Bob, the nicest guy on the planet and a fine Christian men (is that redundant?), said, “We had the same conversation. Kay wants us to carry flood insurance and I wanted to cancel it. I decided it’s worth that little amount for her to have peace of mind.” “I’d about decided the same thing myself,” I told him and wrote the check. Margaret gave me a hug.

We did not need the flood insurance. The elevation out here in this western suburb of metro New Orleans is–you ready for this?–thirteen. We had the typical wind damage–stripping the shingles off the roof, water leaking into the house, mold, etc.–but no floodwater. We were indeed blessed.

A lot of people in our area of the world had canceled their flood insurance because the authorities told them they were outside the flood zone and safe. They saved that $260 or so. And lost everything. How does that ancient line go–pennywise and pound foolish. But how could they have known.

On the other hand….

Nearly two years ago when I went to work for our association, our administrative assistant told me about the cancer insurance they carry on the employees. “Want it?” she said. And in one of the stupidest, most flippant answers ever, I said, “No. I don’t plan to have cancer.” Which I did before the year was out. In the words of the noted philosopher Gomer Pyle, “Dumb, dumb, dumb.”

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A Taxing Time Of The Year

Thursday, I was having lunch with IMB Missionary Tom Hearon at “New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood” in Metairie when we noticed my friend Larry just inside the front door, waiting in a crowded line to give his lunch order. Larry is a great guy and I wanted Tom to know him, so I called to him. He’s a CPA, our church treasurer, has helped our association with financial matters, and does my personal taxes. He pulled a chair up to our table and told Tom of my leading him to the Lord, baptizing him, and performing his wedding to Peggy. Giving me credit for what the Lord did and what I got in on only at the last. After a bit, our talk turned to taxes.

I said, “Larry, I noticed the government is allowing us in this part of the world to have until August to file our taxes.” “Yes,” he said, “One of the few blessings to come out of Katrina. But I’m telling my clients to act as if April 15 is still the deadline and get their stuff in.” “I’m working on it,” I assured him. Which was the truth.

Working on it. But not enjoying it. Filling out tax forms, even the kind I complete only to hand to Larry who does the real work, even that kind is one of my least favorite activities.

For years I thought about admitting to being a procrastinator about taxes, but kept putting it off.

Now, I’m not that way about everything. Ask me to speak at your meeting and I’ll show up prepared. Call me about writing an article for your magazine or drawing a cartoon for your book and I’ll beat your deadline. Last Spring, I wrote five devotionals for our state mission offering scheduled for September. My deadline was April 1 and I e-mailed the articles on March 23. I don’t procrastinate on everything. Just one thing. One big thing. Income taxes.

I don’t just dread income tax time. I hate it. Despise, abhor, detest. Loathe, dislike, execrate, scorn. Shrink from, have an aversion to, abominate. (Thanks for the help, Mr. Roget.)

Now, to be honest, it’s not all that hard to do my taxes any more. I keep good records and have everything handy. I pay enough throughout the year that I actually get refunds. This was a long time coming, though.

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