About Our Mother — Part II

On June 24, I penned (okay, typed) an article here (“About Our Mother”) on the demise of our mother church, Coliseum Place Baptist Church of New Orleans, and the upcoming 90th birthday of my terrific mother, Lois Kilgore McKeever. As I am wont to do, I gave her address for anyone who would like to send her a birthday note. July 14 is her big day. Anyway…

In that article, I was paying tribute to Mom’s humor. I mentioned that she had told me a joke the day before, but I could not recall what it was. My sister Carolyn printed out the article and took it to her, so the next time we talked, Mom said, “All right, I’ll tell you the joke again.” (It’s so easy to forget who is the elder and who is the ‘youngster’ in this conversation.)

“This woman received a prescription from her doctor. The handwriting was so awful, she couldn’t make out what it said. She gave it to her pharmacist and asked him to read to her what the doctor had written. He read, ‘I’ve got all I can get out of her, now see how much you can get.'”

Mom said, “I was standing in the line at the drug store the other day. A man was in front of me and I told him that story. He laughed so hard, I thought he was going to lose it right there.”

Most definitely, not your typical 90 year old. Wednesday morning, when I called her, she said, “I’m making fried pies.” For her children. The ones who live close enough to drive over for lunch, not me. “I’ve made 15,” she said, “and have several more to go.” You would call them turnovers. They melt in your mouth.

My wife wonders why I start conversations with complete strangers. It’s a family tradition.

God’s People are Building This City

I’m directing traffic these days.

“Can you tell me how to arrange for housing for our group that will be coming to work in New Orleans?” I put them in touch with Operation NOAH Rebuild, which is about to open space for 500 people nightly at the World Trade Center in downtown New Orleans. No more sleeping on the hard floors of fellowship halls, or worse, in tents on an Algiers playground.

“We have some money to help a church have a vacation Bible school.” I directed the caller to Jennifer Smith, our VBS director and wife of the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Metairie. If anyone knows a church needing that assistance, she will.

A check arrived in the mail yesterday, about 600 dollars. The note said, “To help some damaged church.” We deposited the check and wrote another just like it to Port Sulphur Baptist Church where Pastor Rodrigue is working out of a tent, giving groceries to 500 families a day, and trying to rebuild a ministry in the most devastated area of Louisiana.

A pastor called. “I’m still working on my application for the Bush-Clinton Katrina money and need some help.” I invited him to come over to the associational office. That’s why we’re here.

The lead story in Tuesday’s paper indicated that as the August 29 deadline draws near, the one year anniversary of Katrina and the cut-off for repairing your home or having it demolished by the city, the mayor and his staff expect lawsuits from citizens in order to stop the process. “We will respect property rights,” leaders say, and emphasize special allowances will be made for senior citizens and others. In all honesty, the city which is running on a skeletal staff is not suddenly going to show up with armies of workers ready to begin tearing down houses.

Other stories in Tuesday’s news tell how Mayor Nagin will be revamping his City Hall team, but with no details as to what he will actually do, how the city has cut a deal on picking up the mountains of debris and household trash that is accumulating on sidewalks and curbs throughout the area, and how the police department tripled the number of arrests last weekend, thanks to the presence of the National Guard patroling the more deserted sections of town, which freed up the NOPD to get after the bad guys (they hauled in 34).

On the other hand, Wednesday morning’s news was that four people were gunned down in a trailer park just outside Slidell last night. Police have no clue why.

Tuesday morning for the first time, the area underneath the interstate at Elysian Fields Avenue was cleared of flooded and ruined automobiles. This site has been a graveyard for probably 200 cars for many months now, but workers were cutting the grass yesterday and raking up the trash. One more good sign of life here.

The American Library Association has been holding its weeklong annual convention in the city, the first large convention to meet here post-Katrina. Estimates range from 16,000 to 18,000 delegates are meeting in the Morial Convention Center at the riverfront. This is the convention center made infamous in the days following the hurricane, and now renovated. In appreciation for their investment and encouragement, the local media has been generous in covering the activities of these visitors. They even downplayed the rowdiness and drunkenness of a few delegates in a downtown hotel that made it necessary for the cops to be called. A columnist found this funny–the vision of drunken librarians just not working in his imagination–and finally decided it must be convention hangers-on who attend these meetings, sales staffs from publishers and the like. Convention delegates have given money and donated time and books to many local libraries put out of business by the hurricane and the subsequent flooding. Laura Bush, the nation’s premier librarian, spoke on Monday.

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Churches of Stone

Early Saturday afternoon, I more or less coerced my 12-year-old grandson to go downtown with me. “I want to see the church that burned and that they’ve knocked down.” Grant was intrigued, but neither of us was prepared to see the walls of Coliseum Place Baptist Church standing in place just as the fire had left them Thursday morning. The newspaper had indicated the walls were gone.

Yellow “crime scene” tape stretched in every direction, a block away from the church in some places but then at times veering uncomfortably close to the front. A large crane held a wrecking ball on a cable, swinging it threateningly toward the huge brick bell tower, occasionally crumbling loose a section. Kenner deacon Ed Waller stood under a nearby shade tree, along with Sherrie and their son Graham, and our mutual friends Clyde and Vickie Etheridge. At least 25 people were milling around in the park, all eyes on the remains of the building as it was gradually coming down. A few cameramen were on duty, one or two from local television stations. “That guy is from Fox-8,” Ed said. “I used to work with him.”

Ed Waller loved this church. “My mother used to be the church secretary. In fact, this was my home church from my conception until I was 19. Even then–in the early 70’s–it had become a non-resident church. People had moved away from the neighborhood and were driving in on Sundays.” Ed used to climb into the bell tower while Mrs. Waller toiled in the church office. I asked, “How high would you say that tower is?” The one the swinging ball was now in the process of demolishing. We agreed it was 50 or 60 feet high. “But that’s only the base of the tower,” Ed said. “In 1965, Hurricane Betsy toppled the 75 foot extension that sat on this base.” He told how someone had parked his automobile up against the tower as the storm approached, thinking it would be sheltered there. “When the tower fell, it pancaked his car. From the roof to the pavement was maybe 12 inches.”

The daughters of Rev. John Curtis came by the burned church yesterday, Ed said, and carried away the cornerstone, the one that said “1854,” the year the sanctuary was built.

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About Our Mother

“Cops Start to Swarm City’s At-Risk Areas” read the headline on Friday’s paper. While the National Guard patrols the largely deserted eastern section of New Orleans, watching for suspicious characters and on the alert for looters, NOPD patrols are being freed up to focus on areas like Central City where the five teenagers were shot down a week ago. A debate rages on the editorial page as citizens express their thanks for the assistance or their convictions that the presence of more cops is not a deterrent to crime.

Page 1 of Section B carries a color photo of the remaining walls of Coliseum Place Baptist Church after Thursday morning’s fire. “An early-morning fire tore through the historic Coliseum Place Baptist Church in the Lower Garden District on Thursday, destroying a 152-year-old mother church for local Baptist congregations and landing a fresh emotional blow in a neighborhood where the old Coliseum Theater burned in early February. ‘The more vacant land we have in the historic districts, the less historic it’s going to be, and it’s happening now with major buildings,’ said Banks McClintock, a writer and Coliseum Square Association board member.”

According to the paper, CPBC’s building was designed by architect John Barnett, and is believed to have organized Christian worship services for African slaves long before the Civil War. “It was used as a staging point for Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. In 1917, it became the meeting place for Baptists organizing a training institute that would later become the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Gentilly.” The writer points out that while neighbors have noticed vagrants breaking into and sleeping in the “mostly idle” church at 1376 Camp Street, firefighters have not determined the likely cause of the fire.

According to the article, church leaders had asked the N.O. Historic District Landmarks Commission for permission to tear down the imposing brick building. Church leader J. T. Curtis, son of longtime pastor Rev. John Curtis, is quoted as saying an engineering firm had determined the building was in danger of collapsing. That commission, however, disagreed and required the congregation, now numbering only 75, to file a formal demolition application and face a review by a landmarks board. Curtis said, “What we were having to do was go through a long, tedious period of having to contact all of the people in that area, to notify them that we were going to apply for a demolition permit to get the structure torn down.” As anyone who lives in a historic district will tell you, it’s a mixed blessing. As to the danger of the building’s collapse before the fire, all one had to do was take one look at the cracked building. You felt vulnerable even standing on the sidewalk in front.

Records of the landmarks agency do not show the church applying for such a permit application, but instead reflects concerns of city inspectors that the church was engaged in a policy of “demolition by neglect” because it did not repair broken windows, replace missing gutters, or fix shifting masonry. McClintock says the church was left open to vagrants, and that he ran people out, finding their bedrolls inside. J.T.Curtis admitted that break-ins were a problem, but that they had indeed tried to protect the church building, using padlocks and fencing and boarding up openings. My own two-cents-worth to this controversy is that all over this historic city one will find small groups of valiant members struggling to keep up ancient church buildings, but losing the battle due to a lack of finances and the aging demographics of the members and the neighborhood. Having a grand, imposing, old church structure is a mixed blessing. Ask anyone.

We pause here to thank God for one of our mother congregations, the wonderful Coliseum Place Baptist Church. Well done, dear friend. Our heartfelt thanks.

(Saturday morning post script. A showdown of sorts took place Friday as the demolition team arrived with their machines and preservationists stood in the way with their lawyers. Apparently, they felt that even the standing walls could be preserved some way and incorporated into any future structure. Engineers for both sides verbally sparred and disagreed, and at one point Banks McClintock, mentioned above, ran into the building, such as it was, in order to obstruct the machines. “That man…who is refurbishing a Coliseum Park house with his girlfriend, was removed from the church without incident.” Eventually, engineers who believed the church was unsafe, particularly in a hurricane-prone city, prevailed and the walls were knocked down. “McClintock said he was pleased to see that, for all the talk about how unsound the surviving structure was, the sides held up pretty well under the assault by heavy machinery.” He pointed out that it took massive blows to get the walls down, “with a touch of admiration for the brick.” The fight ended when the building was down, but as parties began to disperse, someone pointed out that the next fight would be against the condominium tower some developer would no doubt be planning for that site.)

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God’s Rebuilding Plan

Sad news. Coliseum Place Baptist Church burned last night. Police indicated that they ran a vagrant out of the building a few days ago–he was apparently living there at night–and they assume he returned and set the place afire. Built in 1854, this imposing brick structure was our oldest Baptist building. Only the walls of the sanctuary were standing today, but the educational building was saved.

Mike Melon has been serving as the latest pastor of the church, taking over from John Curtis, founder of the Christian School here in River Ridge that bears his name, who pastored that church for some 30 years. In recent years, a huge crack had occurred in the structure and engineers had installed massive hydraulic jacks and beams to prop up the building from the inside. You could walk around inside and sense the imposing presence it once presented, but the small congregation wisely decided to meet in the educational building in recent years. Estimates were that two million dollars would be required to restore the sanctuary to usefulness, money no one had. Being listed on the Historic Register added a layer of hurdles that had to be surmounted in order to restore the building.

Much of the early history of Baptist work in New Orleans involves Coliseum Place Church. While the First Baptist Church dates its beginnings some years earlier than 1854, in actuality they went out of existence a couple of times and when they resumed, they met in the Coliseum Place for a period. Mike Melon will show you the doors the church installed during the Civil War to keep Union soldiers from riding their horses into the fellowship hall.

There’s no longer a debate or quandry on what to do with the sanctuary. The fire ended that discussion. We hope we can salvage some of the bricks for memorial purposes once they decide to tear down the walls.

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Thirty Minutes Overtime Wednesday

A few weeks ago, we cut our weekly pastors meeting an hour, back to 90 minutes. Today, we took a full two hours and didn’t want to quit then. Forty-two were present, twice as many as last week when some of us were in NC for the SBC’s annual meeting.

My opening words to the pastors are below, under the heading “Choosing Who Nominates You.” As the men and ladies trickled in (we started with perhaps a dozen present), Jim Burton of the North American Mission Board introduced Mickey Cason and Mike Carlisle from his team. Mickey has been on the ground here for 3 months assisting in the rebuilding, while Mike has just come to NAMB as V-P for missions mobilization. “This is on-the-job-training for Mike,” said Jim. He went on to say, “We’re trying to learn how to maximize our experience in the rebuilding of New Orleans, how to ride the wave of this momentum. We want to do more than gut out houses and pick up litter. We want to learn how to start churches and do evangelism in this city, to establish Southern Baptists better than ever in New Orleans.” For that reason, he said, he and his team came to listen to the pastors.

Mickey Cason said, “We are all in a fight for the soul of New Orleans.” Referring to the National Guardsmen coming to keep the streets safe, he urged everyone to tell their friends that New Orleans is secure and that it’s okay to come help.

Freddie Arnold had told me he would miss the first part of the meeting because he had to go downtown and get a demolition permit to take down a house owned by Gentilly Baptist Church. Yet, he walked in just as we were beginning. “It was a miracle,” he said. “Anytime you can get into the permit office and out in an hour, you know the Lord was there.” What had happened was that some bureaucrat talked with him and turned him away, saying he should come back next week. But a woman in the office recognized him and came over and hugged him. “I didn’t recognize her,” Freddie said, “but she did me. One of our pastors and I were in that office last year and we chatted with her, and led her to the Lord. She joined that pastor’s church and is still active. She said to me, ‘What do you need?’ And took care of me right there on the spot.”

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The Start of a Long Hot Summer

The mayor asked the governor and the governor is sending in the National Guard and the Highway Patrol to attempt to take back the streets of New Orleans from the current crime wave. Up to 300 Guardsmen and 60 State Police will be mobilized to patrol the streets. “We’re not going to take it anymore,” said Mayor Nagin about the mounting crime statistics. After weeks of gang fights and murders and shootings of several police officers, the killing of five teenagers Saturday morning was the final straw.

The regular session of the Louisiana Legislature ended Monday with most observers giving the lawmakers high marks. In addition to the Katrina-related aspects of their work (they endorsed Gov. Blanco’s plan on how to spend the billions for rebuilding coming from the federal government), the legislature gave our schoolteachers a pay raise of $1500. They voted to give voters the opportunity to consolidate the seven tax assessors of New Orleans into one, as well as to combine the civil and criminal courts and several other agencies which duplicate each other’s work. These will be on the ballot this fall. Local bureaucrats are yelling to high heaven. Oh, and they did something else as a result of Katrina. From now on, when a resident is missing for two years after a hurricane, he can be declared legally dead, a change from the present law which prescribes a wait of five years.

One of the quietest acts of the legislature may have been the most forward-thinking. Starting January 1, no restaurant or public building in the state will allow smoking. Exceptions are casinos and bars. Our kids are too young to appreciate this the way some of us can. I recall when people smoked anywhere and everywhere, including on planes and buses and in hotel rooms, without the least consideration to whether anyone was offended or harmed. And because we smelled cigarette smoke everywhere, we never knew what it was like to not have to breathe it. Now, walk into a hospital or public building past where smokers congregate to get their fix and hours later, the dead butts on the sidewalks are still stinking and making you sick. In the early 1990s, Ochsner Hospital here in town was the first medical center to my knowledge to be a non-smoking institution. We thought that was so radical. Nowadays, it’s commonplace. The funny thing is that Ochsners has a place for smokers to gather and puff away–an enclosed pen in one corner of the parking garage!

Poor smokers. It’s not about you. I know you want to quit. Please keep trying. We want to keep you around to a ripe old age. You want to see your grandchildren and watch them grow up. Take care of yourself.

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High Time to Pray

Wherever I go, I hear people saying they’re praying for us in New Orleans. I thank them and then gently suggest how they pray. “Pray big,” I say, and sometimes hand them a little business card we’ve printed up with a suggested prayer: “Father, you love this city. Jesus died for this city. You have many people here. Satan has held it too long, Lord. Take it back. Do a new thing in New Orleans, Lord. A God thing. A big thing.”

Routine praying for this troubled city is not going to do the job. Case in point.

“Five teenagers shot dead in Central City” was the headline on Sunday morning’s front page. Subtitle: “Violence is almost beyond explaining.” Three 19-year-old boys, one 16, and one 17 were gunned down Saturday around 4 a.m. No clues, no suspects. The sheer carnage makes police believe it was drug-related.

A few paragraphs from the story:

“Up and down nearby streets, where most houses still bear the telltale spray-painted X’s left by rescue workers after the Aug. 29 storm, neighbors gathered on porches and discussed the gruesome crime and the recklessness of adults who, they said, should have been minding the victims.”

“‘How could you let a 16-year-old go out at that time of the morning?’ said James Williams, 26. ‘And for (the perpetrators) to do something like this to the children is a shame.'”

“Sitting on a stoop across Danneel Street from the spot where the SUVslid to a halt, Clarence Joseph peered at a patch of bloodstained asphalt and evoked religious prophecy to describe the early-morning carnage.”

“‘The Bible said that if you don’t teach them at home, the world is going to get them,’ he said. ‘And that’s what happening.'”

“Even Bryson, an officer with 26 years at the New Orleans Police Department, choked back emotion as he detailed the crime for reporters at a late morning news conference. ‘I’m a father, and I couldn’t imagine getting this news today, the day before Father’s Day,’ Bryson said.”

Friday, a sheriff’s deputy was killed in nearby LaPlace, and several police officers have been shot in the surrounding communities in recent days.

What we have here is a full-fledged crime wave. All the violence from only half the population.

I wonder. Did we think the devil would go quietly? That he would turn loose his iron grip on this city without a murmur? That he would give up so easily what he won over so many years? We know differently now. Bible students will recall that sometimes when God’s man ordered the demon to leave its victim, it obeyed, but only with loud screaming and resistance.

I hope you will take this as our personal request for more prayer, deeper prayer, more intense prayer–for this city and its leaders, for the people and their protectors, for the churches and their ministers, and for the rebuilders and the volunteers who are always here in large numbers.

My wife suggested I share with you something on prayer I posted on our website a couple of years ago. It was the gist of a summertime of Wednesday night prayer lessons I did at the First Baptist Church of Kenner. Please feel free to pass it along or reprint it or to use in any Christ-honoring way.

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While You Were Out

Okay, while I was out. Attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC this week. More about that below. But first, catching up on the local New Orleans happenings.

Out in the eastern section of New Orleans, the area almost totally underwater in the days following Katrina, 13 percent of our local electrical company’s customers now have power. Some 4,500 sites in that portion of our city are back in their well-lit, fully-powered homes. Businesses make up 140 of those 4500 customers. Not much, but 100% better than it was; it’s a good start.

A drought continues locally. That, plus the stifling heat, makes life miserable for residents, employees, and volunteers who are gutting out and restoring houses and businesses. One leader of a church team of volunteers told me they get to work as early in the morning as possible, and knock off shortly after noon and call it a day. The heat gets worse as the day wears on. While New Orleans was suffering temps of 95 or so this week, Greensboro’s highs were in the 70’s if you can believe it, due mainly to the rain. Beautiful, wet, lovely, refreshing rain. I used an umbrella most of the time but my spirit was buoyed by everything about this falling water and even enjoyed the couple of times I was drenched running from the parking lot into the hotel.

Tax collections in Jefferson Parish–the Metairie/Kenner/Marrero/Gretna portion of metro New Orleans–are soaring above the same time period in pre-Katrina 2005. These days, Jefferson Parish basically has a monopoly on retail sales in the area since so many businesses in N.O. proper are still closed down.

In Congress, the Democrats voted Thursday to strip our congressman William Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Friday, the full House in a voice vote, ratified that action. Jefferson vows he will prove his innocence of the charges against him and maintains there is no precedent and no House rule for the action being taken against him. He was staying on in this key position, he declared, because New Orleans needs his influence and his vote on that influential committee. Nevertheless, most of the voices I hear around here, including the editor of the Times-Picayune, have called for him to step down. I am not his judge and do not presume to condemn him, but the evidence against him is certainly overwhelming and if he beats these charges, you will know you have seen a modern-day miracle. The one thing New Orleans does not need is one more corrupt politician. We’ve had enough of those to last the next millennium. Mr. Jefferson announces he is a candidate for re-election this November.

Skip this part if you are familiar with the charges against Jefferson. Briefly, the government says it video-taped him receiving a briefcase with $100,000 in $100 bills. On audio tapes recorded with a cooperating witness, Jefferson allegedly said the money was to bribe the vice-president of the African nation they were trying to do business with. Later, he said in a phone call he had given all the money to that official. However, when the FBI raided his house the next day, they found $90,000 of the money–the bills were marked, so this is not guesswork–inside a freezer in convenient foil-wrapped packages. Two of Jefferson’s aids have pleaded guilty to crimes associated with this venture, and they testify that the congressman’s family controls businesses which received more than $400,000 and stock certificates in return for his help in the African ventures.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority has released a survey which indicates that 57% of the displaced New Orleanians would like to return home but are skeptical or ignorant of the plans and programs available to make it possible. Those living inside the state were more likely to plan to return, the percentage being sixty-three. Only 39% living outside the area think they are likely to return.

Almost every day this week, the national news has announced charges of massive fraud connected with FEMA’s distribution of Katrina money. Anyone who knows anything about human nature is not surprised by this, but Louisianians especially groan over such abuses. A number of people who did not live in the area at all or who used to live here but had moved away, claimed hurricane damage and received their $2,000 checks. Prisoners in various penitentiaries across the country pulled the same stunt. One newscast said an address on one application for funds turned out to be a cemetery plot. It’s wrong, it’s to be expected, and it must be dealt with, but unfortunately it also reinforces what some people think about the corruption in Louisiana. As though we had a monopoly on sin.

This week the secretary of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced his plan for the public housing projects the department oversees in our city. HUD intends to have 1,000 units open for tenants by summer’s end. However, the heart of the federal plan is the demolition of several housing developments, including the notorious St. Bernard development in Gentilly, C.J.Peete in Central City, B. W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte near the Faubourg Treme. The plan is to turn these areas into mixed-income communities. This, I might add, is what some of our people who live in or near these developments have longed to hear. Others, however, are decrying the plan and wanting to return to the projects just as they left them. HUD has a three-year timetable, which newspaper columnist Lolis Eric Elie says guarantees that many of our former residents will never return.

Here’s a bit of trivia: what individual grave in the United States draws the most people to its site each year, second only to Elvis Presley? Answer: the burial place of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Marie who? This patron saint of local voodooism was buried in 1881–some say on June 15–in St. Louis Cemetery No.1 on Basin Street. So on that day each year people flock to her tomb and offer up their prayers. One has to wonder what possible benefit worshipers expect to derive from praying to a dead person. Christians rejoice that Jesus Christ is their “living hope” (I Peter 1:3). A dead hope is surely an oxymoron.

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An Uncertain Future–That’s for Certain

Susan Howell is a professor at the University of New Orleans and a pollster often seen on television sounding forth on local politics. Throughout March and April, she and her staff made 470 telephone interviews of residents of our area and this week released their findings. Discovery: people down here have trouble sleeping. More than 2/3 say they are worried about what might happen in the next five years, and some 40% say they have trouble sleeping at night. One-fifth said they feel tired, irritable, and sad, that everything is an effort, and that they have difficulty concentrating.

Howell says 70% of the residents in Jefferson Parish (Metairie, Kenner, my neighbors) are satisfied with life in general, whereas the percentage drops to 48 in Orleans Parish. The same percent in each parish worry about the future. Both groups are frustrated with the mail service, getting homes repaired, buying groceries, and inadequate medical care.

You see the problem with this poll already, I’ll wager. They “telephoned” the respondents, using land lines. What about the thousands of FEMA trailer dwellers who have no phones or cell phones. Surely the numbers for New Orleans would have been far worse if these people had been factored in.

Brings to mind the presidential preference polls of 1936 which showed Republican Alf Landon besting FDR handily, and then being swamped by Roosevelt in the November election. It turns out the pollsters were telephoning voters and using that to inform them on the probable outcome of the election. In 1936–the Depression was in full force–the poor people, who tended to vote Democratic, had no phones. Most of the people who did tended to be Republicans.

At the risk of sounding like a teacher here (I am), it’s always helpful to get details on how polls were conducted before being swayed in one way or the other by their findings.

A pastor called me one day this week about church business. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked, “How are you doing personally?” Long pause. Then, “I can’t sleep. And I’m irritable. Short of patience.” I said, “Have you read this morning’s paper?” No. “You might want to. They just took a poll that shows most of the people down here have the same problem. You have lots of company.” I didn’t tell him I’m not sleeping at night either.

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