The Eleven Month Perspective

Saturday, July 29, 2006, is exactly eleven months after Katrina. As various groups in the city plan their one-year commemoration of the Hurricane-that-changed-life-forever-in-New-Orleans, some are complaining that these events reek of celebrating, and why have a party to honor the storm that destroyed our city. In most cases, however, plans call for prayer meetings and worship services and for tributes to those who died.

This is wedding anniversary time in our family. Son Marty and wonderful daughter-in-law Misha in Charlotte celebrate number 17 today. Tuesday, August 1, son Neil and terrific daughter-in-law Julie in Metairie celebrate number 14. (Margaret and I are working on number 45 next April, and my parents go for number 73 next March. Just for perspective.)

Headline on Saturday’s front page: “Experts excoriate recovery leaders.” I looked up the word. “Excoriate: to denounce scathingly.” Leaders of the Urban Land Institute are coming down hard on the absence of real leadership from our mayor and city council. Scroll back to late last year on this website and you will read of the work of the ULI, a group of professional urban planners across America who were invited to study New Orleans and make recommendations for the rebuilding. As far as I can tell, not a single insight or suggestion from their report has been followed, and now the group is taking off the kid gloves.

“It’s virtually a city without a city administration and it’s worse than ever,” said John McIlwain of the ULI. “New Orleans needs Huey Long. You need a politician, a leader that is willing to make tough decisions and articulate to the people why these decisions are made, which means everyone is not going to be happy.”

ULI’s Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, said this city does not have a citywide plan and a single, powerful authority handling the rebuilding of homes and neighborhoods. “Given the extraordinary circumstances of what happened to your city, you cannot solve this incrementally.” Which is precisely how the city is coming back at this very moment–a street here, a house there, a store across the way. Piecemeal.

Murphy said, “You need to create an agency or an authority that has people who wake up every day and their job is simply to make development happen. You need to build on a scale that in the best of times most cities wouldn’t be able to do. You don’t need 200 houses a year. You need to do 10,000 houses a year.”

For perspective: First Baptist-New Orleans is nearing the 1,000th house gutted out. Disaster pastor Travis Scruggs who oversees church groups coming to assist has a list of every one helped and a long waiting list of those wanting houses cleaned out for rebuilding. Meanwhile, NAMB’s Operation NOAH Rebuild is shooting for 1,000 houses to be redone in the next two years. Since they will be mobilizing volunteers all across the country, I expect they’ll end up doing far more than that number.

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What Faithfulness Looks Like

The headline in Thursday morning’s Times-Picayune read: “Mayor finally breaks post-election silence.” Most of what he said in a two-hour press conference was variations of: “The city is moving forward. We’re on track.” In other cities, he has proudly proclaimed that we are ahead of schedule in rebuilding the city. Locals want to ask, “Who says we are? By what measurement? Ahead of what schedule?”

Sorry. I’m not as objective on this subject as I wish I were. Mayor Nagin is predicting the population of the city proper will be 300,000 by the end of the year. On what basis? Because he wants that to be the case.

The mayor explained his optimism: “We as New Orleanians are resilient people. We are proving it. We are creative people. We will not take no for an answer. And I don’t care what anybody says, on the limited resources that we have, we’re going to figure out a way to bring this city back bigger, better and stronger.”

Pardon my skepticism, but he reminds me of a Baptist Student Union president at a state university I once knew. He was a good-looking kid and in the times I spoke at the BSU center, I came to like him. One day, I bumped into his BSU director in an airport on the other side of the country. “We’re going to have to replace him,” he said, referring to the young president. “He’s all talk. He keeps saying, ‘We’re going to get right on that’ and ‘Yes sir, we’ll do that,’ but he never does anything.” It sounds so familiar.

A sign of the continued unsettled state of things in New Orleans is that every day of the year, the newspaper runs a full page of fine-print announcements on how to get in touch with important offices and departments. Fair housing, environmental concerns, FEMA, general resources, law enforcement, legal assistance, Louisiana Recovery Authority, missing people, missing records, municipal and parish governments, nonprofit groups, people with disabilities, post office, schools, SBA, social security, social services, tax assistance, transportation, and veterans affairs–these are some of the headings, with each one having half a dozen numbers and email addresses under it. Under FEMA, you can find numbers on how to get a trailer, how to get maintenance for your trailer, where to call to return a trailer, and a dozen other bits of information.

My wife is halfway through Doug Brinkley’s book on the New Orleans catastrophe, “The Great Deluge.” To her utter surprise, she is fascinated by the narrative and totally engrossed in it. “He has nothing good to say about Mayor Nagin,” she told me Thursday morning. “He faults Governor Blanco sometimes, then he’ll turn around and give her credit when she gets it right.”

In Thursday’s paper, the editor has this in tiny print at the bottom of the editorial page: “Douglas Brinkley took a couple of potshots at Louisiana in a USA Today story about Mississippi’s recovery efforts. The Tulane history professor said that morale about the future is higher in Mississippi. He praised that state’s ‘can-do spirit’ and said that it ‘transcends what you’ll find in New Orleans.’ He could improve morale here by canning the trash talk.”

Thursday night, the board of Global Maritime Ministries met at the new port ministry center on Tchoupitoulas Street in the warehouse district of New Orleans. We’ve spoken of this world-outreach ministry before on these pages, but I need to tell you about tonight’s meeting. They started with supper at 6:30, with perhaps 25 or 30 in attendance. Scott Smith of Highland Baptist Church chairs the board and Freddie Arnold chairs the building committee which is erecting this impressive structure. I’m not a board member, but am invited to the meetings in my role as director of missions for the local Baptist churches. I love these folks, believe in the work they are doing, and support them financially and other ways.

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Why Things Take So Long Around Here

(NOTE: I’m preaching this Sunday night, July 30 at 6 pm, at Calvary Baptist Church in Alexandria, LA. If you’re nearby, we’d love to have you worship with us. Pastor David Brooks asked me to update everyone on the New Orleans situation.)

We’re finding two groups of church volunteer teams coming to our city. The vast majority are dedicated, hard-working, and here to serve the Lord. But there’s another kind showing up in some of our churches.

“We had the church group from hell,” one of the pastors said. Everyone laughed at the obvious exaggeration, but he said, “I’m serious. They let the teenagers run wild, they knocked holes in the walls of the church, they were completely unrestrained.” He added, “I think someone told them it was all right to destroy things.” The 45 pastors and guests in Wednesday’s final meeting at Oak Park Baptist Church sat there stunned, until another pastor agreed with him.

“We did, too,” he said. He told how he walked into the sanctuary one night and found that the visiting youth group had taken over the sanctuary–a large one, too– and had turned on every light and opened up the sound board and were having a party. Teenagers were running wild throughout the building.

I had not heard any reports of this kind of behavior. Then, to my utter surprise, a third pastor admitted to having the same experience with undisciplined, uncontrolled youth groups.

“I think we need to have training for our people on how to host church groups,” a preacher said, “and possibly there ought to be training for groups coming here.” When several nodded in agreement, Jim Burton who heads volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board said, “We have that training available and can do it for you anytime you’re ready.” Not many people ask for it, he said, and mentioned that the NAMB website has a 65 page booklet available to be downloaded and printed and handed out any time we choose.

Jim said, “Can you ‘fire’ a church group? Absolutely, you can. In fact, I’ve terminated a couple of church groups in World Changers this summer. They knew what the rules were, they violated them, and we sent them home.” He looked out at the pastors and said, “You can, too.”

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Why We’re Staying

Suzy and Gary Lazarus are committed to New Orleans. He works in his family’s construction business and she’s earning a master’s in social work at Tulane University. During the hurricane-enforced evacuation of last fall, they spent two months in Baton Rouge. “Never once did (we) entertain the thought of not returning to New Orleans,” she says in Sunday’s paper.

Dr. Chris Hasney was elated when he received word in March that his residency will be at Tulane Medical Center. “I can get my education and contribute to the rebuilding of New Orleans.” He says, “New Orleans is home for me, and I felt that after Katrina, if (the local) people didn’t come back, no one else would.”

Triplets Sasha, Amonie, and Frederick Johnson moved from here five years ago when their parents were looking for work. They settled in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the three have just graduated from high school. They had their choices of colleges throughout the country, yet this fall they will all begin pre-med classes at UNO. Why are they returning? They missed many things, they said, especially, the “big three”–family, food, and the fun atmosphere of this city.

Miles Granderson is a 26-year-old who had just received his law degree at American University in Washington, D.C. and was planning to see the world when Katrina hit. He returned home to New Orleans to help his grandparents whose home was located near the ill-fated London Avenue Canal in Gentilly. He’s been here ever since. “I wanted to be a part of preserving the soul of New Orleans.” He adds, “I want to be a part of this new beginning.”

Sunday morning, in spite of the deluge which went on for hours, turning the parking lot into a wading pool, Riverside Church in River Ridge was packed. The day camp children had worked up a musical program called “American Ideal,” and were given the 10:30 worship hour. I pulled the huge black umbrella from the trunk of my car and spent 20 minutes doing my best deacon imitation, helping people out of their cars and into the buildings. Lightning was popping all around, and with my umbrella the highest object around, I felt vulnerable.

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For the Record

The U.S. Department of Education has announced that as of June 30, some 130,000 students from our part of the world are enrolling in schools in other places. Hurricane Katrina is primarily to blame, of course, and to a lesser degree, Hurricane Rita. The largest number of the relocated displaced students–47,862–are in other parts of our own state of Louisiana.

Texas–God bless ‘em!–has taken in 37,168 students, followed by Mississippi with 15,890 and Georgia with 7,691. Alabama shows 5,065 students, Florida shows 3,198, Tennessee 2,687, Arkansas 1,937, and North Carolina 1,040. After that, the numbers drop quickly. Several hundred each now reside in California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina. States with the fewest include West Virginia with 12, Montana 13, Idaho 7, and North Dakota 1. Hawaii shows zero. Even Alaska has 36 students.

A headline for the lengthy newspaper article covering this relocation reads: “Even some star N.O. pupils struggle elsewhere.” I think it’s safe to say there’s a whole lot of struggling going on, as school districts throughout the nation work to find ways to make room for our students. If it is indeed true that our schools were among the poorest in the nation, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize our students will have trouble adjusting in better districts.

Anyone who ever moved as a child and had to adjust to another school with all that implies–new teachers, subjects, books, classmates, neighborhoods, social structure–knows how difficult such a transition can be under the best of circumstances. Children are so vulnerable at these times, and other children can ease the pain or make it unbearable. When I was 7, we moved from rural Alabama to the coal fields of West Virginia, then four years later reversed the process. Each move was as traumatic as the other. My heart goes out to these children, and we extend our deep appreciation for teachers, principals, and school boards throughout the nation who are receiving these kids and trying to make this transition work.

The City of New Orleans is limping along with a partial staff. Five years ago, the Department of Public Works showed 346 employees; today, they have 86. At that time, the city had 129 street maintenance workers; today 14. The cost to repair the streets in this city today is pegged at $1.7 billion, of which only $60 million is available.

The lack of city income means fewer staff numbers in some very crucial areas. This week a panel of business leaders gave the city an ultimatum. Get more employees in the Departments for City Planning and Safety and Permits or risk losing some major construction projects. Donald Trump himself is planning a Poydras Street hotel and a condominium tower, yet it is being delayed as a result of understaffing in various city departments. Forty employees are required in the City Planning Commission, yet only nine work there now, down from 25 before Katrina. “At this rate, the city cannot be rebuilt,” said an architect. City Council members seem properly concerned and committed to solving the problem, yet are having difficulty finding money to fund the positions.

It’s the old “chicken versus the egg” question: which comes first? If we had the money, we could hire these workers and issue those permits and build those buildings. If we do, the money will come in. If we do not hire the workers and issue the permits, the construction will go away and we will never dig ourselves out of this hole.

In the wonderful old radio program of my childhood, whenever this kind of quandry appeared, Clark Kent would assess the situation, then muse out loud, “Hmmm. This looks like a case for Superman!” The music would pump up and the whishing sound of the man of steel cutting through the air would signal that all was about to be set straight. In our situation, New Orleans looks like a case for leadership. Mayor Nagin, where are you?

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One New Orleans Street Revisited

“Good news,” someone on the levee said this morning before sunup. “Today is July 21. That means one month of summer gone. Only six more left.” In New Orleans, that is only a slight exaggeration.

“We’re from Rayville, Louisiana,” Suzette said today in the seminary’s Hardin Student Center. “We’ve been gutting out houses, and we’re headed home in a few minutes.” I was waiting for my 2 o’clock appointment in the student lounge, so I invited the Rayvillians over and drew their pictures. “We’ll be praying for you all,” they assured us. The Lord alone knows all the church groups in this city at any given time. We are so blessed.

Freddie Arnold said, “Did you hear about our visitors? Some folks from the University of New Orleans came by. Wanted to buy our building.” Buy our building? “I told them it isn’t for sale. They’re trying to buy up property around here. In fact they bought the Lutheran headquarters next door, I understand. Going to use it to house people.”

Freddie was not on staff here a few years ago when UNO approached the association about purchasing our property then. They wanted to give us a building in another part of the city and a little cash. I was chairing the finance committee and took the negotiations a little further than DOM Fred Dyess, my immediate predecessor, wanted to go. When we told them we’d trade for no less than one million dollars, that ended the discussion. Today, having come through the hurricane high and dry, my guess is the building and location make it worth a lot more than that. But Freddie is right; it’s not on the market.

I drove the length of Elysian Fields Avenue today, retracing my route of some six months ago when I recorded here the conditions of life on this wide street that stretches from the Mississippi River behind the French Quarter to the lakefront, a block west of our offices.

At the northern end of Elysian Fields used to sit the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, a favorite spot for generations of families. In the late 60’s they tore it down and a research and development center now occupies the site. The only holdover from the old days is the Civil War-era lighthouse, now buried in the sand one-third of its height, as a result of the land-creation project of the 1920s which gave us the ground we now rest on. Just west of the R&D center is UNO, also a creation of the 1960s. From all appearances, the university is doing well. The buildings gleam, the grass is green, students come and go.

A few blocks south to Robert E. Lee Boulevard–the original shoreline for Lake Pontchartrain–everything is green and the houses lining Elysian Fields appear bright and lived in. This was an expensive neighborhood and seems to be still.

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A Theological Crisis in New Orleans

The medical doctor charged with euthanizing several critically ill patients at Memorial Hospital after Katrina is the lead story in all of today’s local news. Dr. Anna Pou, pronounced “poe,” is an ear-nose-throat doctor who specializes in cancer treatments. Her supporters are coming out of the woodwork. Thursday’s front page headline reads: “Doctor’s colleagues rush to her defense.” One local television station gave five minutes Thursday night to Pou’s sister and brother to defend her.

Supporters tell how Dr. Pou is so devoted to her patients she gives each one her cell phone number. A doctor tells how she was called in the middle of the night due to the hemorrhaging of a patient. She rushed to the hospital and called in a battery of specialists who worked for hours doing intricate surgery to staunch the blood flow and repair the damage. “That’s just the kind of doctor she is,” they say. A devout Catholic, “one of the greatest doctors I’ve ever worked with,” and “one of those rare people who has devoted her life to the care of her patients and the practice of medicine.”

Dr. Pou and two nurses, Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, were arrested Monday night and booked with four counts of second-degree murder. I don’t follow the legalities here very well, because the same reports state that the three women were released without being formally charged. From here, the attorney general gives his information to the Orleans Parish District Attorney, Eddie Jordan, who will presumably present this to a grand jury and they will decide whether to indict the medical workers.

The story is this. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Dr. Pou decided to stay at the hospital with the patients. We hear reports–I know nothing of this personally–of other doctors leaving. The area around the hospital flooded, shutting down the electrical power, the hospital’s emergency generator, and the sanitation system. Meanwhile, temperatures soared to 100 outside and to critical levels inside the closed buildings. In all 45 patients died at Memorial, including 34 who died during or just after the storm. Dr. Pou and the nurses seem to have been there all the way, going to extraordinary lengths to provide what comfort they could.

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Birthdays and Anniversary Upheavals

My mother asked me to thank everyone who sent birthday cards for her 90th, which we all celebrated last Friday. I think she ended up with 41 cards. She laughs at those of you who wrote that “you must be a wonderful person to have raised such a nice son.” She says, “I have four sons; which one do you think they mean?” A few weeks back after I put a note about her impending birthday in this blog and bragged on her a little, she teasingly said she was thinking of showing it to the other children and saying, “That’s what Joe says about me; what do you say?”

We do thank you very much. Wish you could have had one of the terrific fried pies she made for the occasion. Since my sister Patricia grows blueberries in the field across the road, Mom decided to vary the content of her turnovers from the traditional apples and make some with peaches and blueberries. Saturday morning, when I left to drive toward Knoxville, she sent four pies along. Before preaching Sunday morning, my breakfast was a Chilton County peach, a blueberry pie, and a cup of hotel-room coffee.

“Pastor, take a look at our parking lot.” Pastor Kwan Song of the First Korean Baptist Mission in Metairie called to tell me they are experiencing the strangest effects of Hurricane Katrina of any of our churches. The ground under their building and parking lot is sinking. Sure enough, it is. Cracks are appearing under the building and under the sidewalks and concrete parking area. The pastor is applying for some of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund money to correct the problem.

I asked Pastor Kwan if he had lost members due to the upheaval Katrina brought to our world. “Oh yes,” he said. “We had 36 last Sunday. Before Katrina, we were running 60 and 70. The weekly offerings have dropped by 50 percent.” A new Korean family has just joined their church. “But they’re construction people,” he said, “and probably will not be with us permanently.”

Freddie Arnold told me, “Gentilly Baptist still does not have electricity.” Which means the Arkansas volunteers sleeping in their educational building are still sweating through the nights. And the members of Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church, which has moved over to worship in Gentilly, is continuing to hold their services on the front sidewalk due to the heat. “Tourists stop to take their picture,” he said. “It’s a good witness.”

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What They’re Talking About in New Orleans

Monday, Frank Page came to town and made the front of Tuesday’s Times-Picayune. Frank, the pastor of Taylors, SC, First Baptist Church, is the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was invited to speak Monday night at FBC of Covington and then Tuesday morning to our pastors meeting at Oak Park Baptist Church. But Monday, they gave him a tour of the New Orleans he has only seen in the newsreels.

“The new leader of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention toured New Orleans’ vast flood zone Monday and, astonished at what he saw, promised to point more volunteers toward the region where tens of thousands of Baptist church members have toiled since the second day after Hurricane Katrina.”

“In a neighborhood off Elysian Fields Avenue, the Rev. Frank Page chatted with nearly two dozen sweat-soaked Missouri teens gutting a house along with a few adult chaperones. Later, he visited more than 200 volunteers helping build 40 homes in the Baptist Crossroads Project, a 9th Ward effort co-sponsored by local Southern Baptists and Habitat for Humanity.”

“Flanking those visits were tours of Lakeview and the Lower 9th Ward. ‘My reaction is…incredulity,’ Page said later. ‘It’s almost unbelievable. I’ve seen the pictures, but they cannot capture the widespread devastation. Mile after mile. It looks like something after a nuclear bomb.'”

Religion writer (and all-around good guy) Bruce Nolan explained to readers that the convention’s North American Mission Board estimated its volunteers have contributed more than 43,000 days of Katrina relief work this year. Bruce frequently attends our Wednesday pastors meeting–it met on Tuesday this week in order to accommodate Dr. Page’s schedule–and has a good understanding of who we are and what we’re about. That is a rarity in today’s media.

I missed Frank Page’s visit, unfortunately. Sunday, I spoke four times at the Central Baptist Church of Bearden in Knoxville, TN, and Monday night at Green Valley Baptist Church in Birmingham, then drove home Tuesday. Several people I talked to, however, gave glowing reports of Frank’s visit with the pastors. “We had about a hundred,” David Crosby said. He reported that Page brought a good Bible study to the group on our mission, then fielded questions for a half hour. David asked him why he had run for president of the SBC and what he hoped to accomplish.

He ran, he said, because he felt that the Cooperative Program needed to receive a greater focus in Southern Baptist life. And he hopes to enlarge the tent of cooperation, to include far more people in the work and decision-making role of this denomination.

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Eye Problems and I-Problems.

I’m normally the optimist, but today’s attendance at the Wednesday pastors meeting was a good 30 or 35 more than I had expected. We counted 125 present. Not all were pastors, of course. In addition to the staff members whom we generally refer to as pastors also, a number of ministers’ wives were in attendance along with lay leaders and collegians who are serving our churches as summer missionaries. Host Joe Kay had to order more fried chicken for lunch.

“We have boxes of free books up here,” Joe Kay said. The front pew was lined with cartons filled to capacity with volumes to beef up pastors’ libraries. Later, Brantley, the manager of Lifeway Christian Stores, brought more boxes. When we broke up at 11:35, many of the pastors were loading themselves down with the gifts of books.

Mike Canady from the Louisiana Baptist Convention introduced the subject that brought everyone out today. “We’re talking about how to revitalize and rebuild our churches, and how to put in place strategies to reach people. It’s not enough to build a house or rebuild a church. This is about people, the people in your neighborhood.”

In essence, the LBC and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) are working with our association (BAGNO) to divide the metropolitan area into 27 zones, each with one or more Southern Baptist church. Soon, Mike Canady and Wayne Jenkins will meet with their counterparts in the other state conventions and offer churches, associations, and state conventions the opportunity to partner with one of our 27 zones. A large church might take a zone by itself; in some cases, an entire state may be assigned one zone. What happens then is up to the churches and pastors in that zone and the entity (church/association/convention) that takes responsibility for it. Whether the task is gutting out and rebuilding homes and churches, or doing ministry and evangelism in the neighborhoods, or a hundred other approaches, will be strictly up to the participating churches.

If it was mentioned once today, it was said ten times: “Each church is autonomous. Self-governing. You decide what you will do, and what you want done in your neighborhood.” We were not giving anyone their work assignment. We work for the churches. That’s Southern Baptist polity. It’s not always the most efficient, but it’s our way and it has served us well for 160 years.

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