That Special Touch

Eva Wilson works with the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists. In an e-mail Thursday, she informed us that they are once again sending another team of volunteers into New Orleans to help with the rebuilding of the city. The group of 50 should arrive at Gentilly Baptist Church Saturday night, October 21. Their leader is Elijah “Touch” Touchton from Trinity Baptist Church in Pittsburg, Kansas. “Touch,” known to his team-members as “the Boss,” is an electrical contractor by trade and has been involved in full-time volunteer missions for more than a dozen years.

Eva sends her regrets that she’ll not be along this time nor will she make the November trip due to all the associational and convention meetings Southern Baptists tend to group together this time of the year. She expects to make the December trip.

Prior to Katrina and her ugly sister Rita’s visit to our part of the world in ’05, the Kansas-Nebraska Baptists had a working partnership with the much larger Arkansas Baptist State Convention, but working together in Katrina-land has taken their partnership to a higher level. Eva writes, “I often hear of ‘synergy,’ but this is one time I have truly experienced it.”

Over this year that our good friends from Kansas-Nebraska have been coming down, 116 volunteers have put in 5,000 hours here. They have rewired 10 houses, which saved the homeowners from $100,000 to $150,000. They’ve sheetrocked 3 homes and finished several others. They’ve insulated two homes, hung the sheetrock and installed the outside siding at Global Maritime’s new port ministry center, and poured the wonderful sidewalk outside our BAGNO associational center. They have done electrical work and painting at Gentilly Baptist Church where they and the Arkansans have created a headquarters and where they all stay. In addition to all this, they have handed out 900 flyers to local residents, given away 500 gift bags, 200 care bears, and 18 backpacks.

Eva Wilson writes, “It is a privilege for our small convention to join God’s work there.”

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We Had Faith and Love. Then Hope Appeared.

“Like drinking from a fire hydrant” best summarizes our pastors’ meeting this Wednesday morning at Good Shepherd Baptist Church of Metairie. The program was so jam-packed, some of it took place in the dining hall in the middle of our meal.

We promoted the October 30 Fall meeting of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans–our first meeting since Katrina–which will be held at Ames Boulevard Baptist Church of Marrero at 7 pm. This one will not be business as usual but will feature several representatives of state Baptist conventions around the country that have been so present and so helpful since the Katrina event. We will have a feature about Operation NOAH Rebuild and the 27 Zone Ministry in which state conventions or associations adopt a portion of this city for ministry and evangelism. The administrative committee asked me to bring a short “Bible treasure” to close out that meeting. (Please help us get the word out. Everyone is invited. This is NOT just for ministers and professional clergy. This meeting is for the laypeople. Everybody!)

We promoted “The Best Library Conference in America” to be held November 3-4 at FBC of Marrero. Hope Ferguson, the instigator/brains/organizer/spirit behind this event, arrived from Natchitoches in time to address everyone in the middle of lunch. She passed around a signup sheet asking pastors how many people they’re planning to bring. (I’m suggesting every church bring 6 people.)

Hope has 25 conference leaders coming from 6 states to lead this event, and we’re going to do everything we can to get our people there. It kicks off on Friday evening, November 3, at 5 pm with registration, then supper at 5:30 pm. Then the meeting gets underway with a full schedule. Next morning, Saturday, they’re serving breakfast at 8 am and going forward with a full day’s events.

“You are getting two meals and two snacks and a lot of door prizes and special gifts,” Hope said, “and it won’t cost you a dime!” What a bargain. I’m doing everything I know how to convince our church leaders that now is the time and this is the place to either get your library jump started or to put new life and vision into your old library. Anyone coming needs only to call our associational office to let us know. 504/282-1428. (You do NOT have to be local; in fact, you do not even have to be Baptist!)

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Somebody’s Praying You Through

Tuesday at 6 o’clock, my son Neil called. “Sorry to wait til the last minute to tell you, but our choir and the children and I are singing at the seminary tonight. We’re doing the musical ‘Somebody’s Praying For You.'” I told him his children had already told me and I would be there.

The choir was a blend of seminarians and choir/orchestra members from a number of local churches and someone said, even from FBC Summit, MS. The musical is a wonderful, moving reminder of the importance of prayer. Early in the program, Neil stepped to the microphone and sang with a small group of children–including his twins Abby and Erin–a song called, “Pray for Me.” The picture is of children asking adults to pray for them.

When Dr. Ken Gabrielse, chairman of the seminary’s music department and conductor of the program, asked me to come to the front and say a few words about the role of prayer in our rebuilding of New Orleans and our churches, all I could summon at the moment was my oft-repeated one-minute speech that goes like this: “Wherever I go, people say they’re praying for us. I thank them and say, ‘May I tell you how to pray? Pray big. We have a massive task before us, one that will not be completed for another ten years. We need big prayer. Perhaps you could pray like this: ‘Father, you love this city. Jesus died for this city. You have many people here. Satan has held it long enough, Lord. Take it back. Do a new thing here, Lord. Do a big thing. Do a God thing.’

“John Newton, who wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’ had this to say about this kind of praying: ‘Thou art coming to a King; Large petitions with thee bring; For His grace and power are such, None can ever ask too much.” Pray big.

You know how it is, I’ll betcha. I sat back down on the front row as the choir resumed singing about how someone is praying for you, and only then did I think of something Ken Watkins had e-mailed me this very day. Ken spent most of his career as director of Baptist Campus Ministry at Mississippi State University, and built one of the most wonderful programs anywhere. These days, he pastors a small church in upper New York State and works as a chaplain at a retirement home. Tuesday he sent an email asking how I was doing. His wife–whom I have not met; they’re relatively newlywed–has a co-worker named Glenn who had been praying for me and wondered how I was doing.

Give that a little thought. A colleague of the wife of a friend was praying for me, and I didn’t know it. Later Tuesday night, Dr. Chuck Kelley and I walked out of the chapel talking about this very thing, how we are the beneficiaries of unknown friends everywhere lifting us to the Father. How truly blessed we are. And who are these unnamed friends praying for us? God alone knows.

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The Spirit of New Orleans

Those of you who receive this article twice a week via e-mail–and there are 1200 or more of you–would miss the following which was posted on our website today at the end of the article “Get the Bad News Over With.” It’s from Pat Blackman who grew up in the New Orleans area and whose wonderful mother Alice Blackman, now in Heaven, was one of those precious saints who made pastoring the First Baptist Church of Kenner so pleasurable for me for nearly 14 years. Pat’s terrific sister Leanna Mohr still worships at Kenner. Pat himself now lives in Texas. Here’s his note….

“I just returned from a week in New Orleans attending the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) convention. I have to say I’m proud of the SEG for staying with New Orleans when several other conventions pulled out. My SEG contacts told me they were not about to cancel for two reasons: one, there are a lot of SEG members in N.O., and two, they felt the city needed the support.

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I Recommend Laughter

When New Orleanians ask about dealing with stress, I often recommend laughter. It’s such a stress reliever that I’ve come close to tweaking scripture from where it reads, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” to “A merry heart IS medicine.” I’ve mentioned in this website before that I frequently am invited to address groups on laughter. One of the exercises we perform is to make ourselves laugh for two minutes at a time.

Right. Make yourself laugh. You can do this. It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. It feels fake at first–after all, you’re forcing it–but the effect is past in a moment. You start feeling so silly that the very act of laughing makes you laugh. At the end of two minutes, you’re glowing. It’s like you have had a tonic.

Now comes reports of others, professionals, doing the same thing. An article in the Sunday, October 8, Times-Picayune, a reprint from The Washington Post, tells of laughter therapy classes in the George Washington University Center for Integrative Medicine.

According to reporter Anita Huslin, research from the University of Maryland shows that laughter opens your arteries. A scientist at Loma Linda University says it boosts the immune system, relieves stress, and teaches you how to breathe like a baby.

The leader of the GWU class, Siddharth Shah, a physician and psychotherapist, has worked with disaster relief workers who respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist acts. He knows the healing power of laughter and teaches his students that they should dose themselves every day on this miracle drug. He admits to laughing in the shower every morning as he begins his day. And in the classroom, he teaches participants various techniques to infuse their daily lives with laughter.

Walk around with a cell phone to your ear, he suggests. It’s not on, but you’re the only one who knows that. Now, laugh out loud. Giggle, like you’re talking to someone. Not one soul in a crowded room thinks you’re weird, certainly not the way they would if you were not holding the phone.

Dr. Shah teaches the lion laugh, where participants lift their arms like paws and roar. The lawnmower laugh has a couple of crank-up laughs followed by deep belly-laughs.

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Taking What God Has Given

I wish you could have heard Rudy French preach at FBC Norco Sunday morning. This Canadian brother is quiet and unassuming in person, but strong and forceful in the pulpit. I took notes from his message on Numbers 13, the “Kadesh-Barnea incident” where Moses sends 12 spies into Canaan to check out the conditions. Of the 12, only two believed God could win the victory over such an impressive enemy. Following are some of my notes.

“What do you see here?” Rudy asked two young people he brought up to the front. It appeared to be nothing but a sheet of white poster paper. The youth stared at it and noticed the small sticker on the back. “I see a bar code,” the girl said. The boy read the numbers under it. Then they sat down.

Rudy French said, “This piece of poster paper contains 1232 square inches of space on the front and the back. Yet, the young people saw only a one inch bar code. They did not notice the other 1231 square inches. That’s us today. We are missing the other 1231 square inches.” I wondered where he was going with this.

“When Katrina devastated New Orleans, I was working in Canada with a new church start. I saw on television what was happening here, and the Lord spoke to me: ‘This is a great opportunity for evangelism.’ The people in New Orleans had been praying for revival, and here was the opportunity.”

“I told my wife God wants us to go to New Orleans. She had many questions. What will we do there? Where will we stay? How can we support ourselves? I did not know. I only knew God was leading. Rose had just taken a new job in a pharmacy that paid well, and now we would be leaving.”

“We came in October of last year, and I started telling people the good news of Christ. People were interested in hearing of the love of God. They responded. I did not need to use any of the techniques I had learned over the years to convince people. They were ready.”

Rudy explained the story of Numbers 13. God had given Israel the land of Canaan. It was theirs. All they had to do was go in and take it. Yet, they put their eyes on the obstacles–the giants and walled cities and standing armies–and did not believe God.

“God gave them the land, yet they were afraid to take it. I am fearful that God may have given us New Orleans and we have not taken it. Like Israel, we’re afraid to go in and claim what God has given.”

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Get the Bad News Over With

At Friday’s vision tour, involving a number of out-of-state pastors and local guys, someone said, “I heard a businessman in another state say you’d have to be crazy to invest in New Orleans right now.” Not what we want to hear.

Saturday’s newspaper announces more bad news. Microsoft was scheduled to hold three large meetings in our city, and has moved them all elsewhere due to the lack of sufficient airline service. Two of the gatherings would have brought 14,000 each to the city and the third 2,000. “We’ve made a very difficult decision to hold three of our annual conventions…in other places,” said spokeswoman Robyn Kratzer.

And yet, next month we’re scheduled to host the National Association of Realtors–bringing 25,000 conventioners–and they’re not canceling. Those in the know say the lack of enough air service is only one factor in cancellations, others being the high crime rate and the cost of insurance to cover event cancellation.

The murder rate in shrunken New Orleans is now over 100 for the year, whereas Boston, with several times the population, has only 75. Not good.

A wreck on Interstate 12–the east-west link connecting Slidell with Baton Rouge–has shocked everyone on Thursday of this week. When a 20-foot aluminum ladder fell off a truck, an 18-wheeler swerved to miss it. The driver lost control and side-swiped several vehicles before his truck plummeted across the median into the path of a lovely little Lexus carrying three women. The photo is a sight to behold. Two women were crushed to death and the driver was seriously injured. A highway patrolman said five people have been killed on Northshore highways since Katrina as a result of storm debris or construction equipment falling onto the highways.

This week the owners of a St. Bernard Parish nursing home where 35 residents drowned following Katrina had their day in court. Salvador and Mabel Mangano are (were?) owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home downriver near Poydras. While family members of victims held signs and posters outside the Chalmette courthouse, the Manganos entered accompanied by their lawyer and surrounded by deputies. Inside, they pleaded innocent to 35 counts of negligent homicide charges and 64 counts of cruelty to the infirm for failing to evacuate their facility as the hurricane approached.

Another Katrina legal situation this week involved the former clerk of criminal court, Kimberly Williamson-Butler. This lady’s history in this city is short-lived but a comedy of errors and misjudgments and bizarre statements. It was all good news for her this week, however: the district attorney failed to convince a grand jury to indict her for misappropriation of funds. She’s free to go. Earlier this year she ran for mayor and received perhaps a hundred votes, and has been largely absent since. I would not be surprised to see her reappear now that she can claim to have been exonerated. This young lady delights in wearing the badge of a martyr.

If the traffic seems worse, there’s good reason. On the Causeway that spans Lake Pontchartrain from Metairie to Mandeville, traffic is up by 10 to 28 percent over the same months a year ago. Much of it may be New Orleanians who moved to the Northshore but are back and forth working on their flooded homes. Or workers commuting into the city for construction jobs.

Visitors who take our 30 dollar tour of the devastated areas ask, “What’s keeping the city from tearing those buildings down and hauling them off? They’re eyesores.” I explain that they have to contact the owners, file legal papers, give owners time to respond, that sort of thing. Thursday, New Orleans began reinspecting more than 3,000 of the worst properties. Owners have previously been warned that these structures are public nuisances and need to be cleared away or cleaned up. Workers will post notices on buildings where nothing has been done, and owners will receive certified letters giving the dates of administrative hearings if they wish to protest the actions. The hearings will begin in November. So many legal hurdles to clear before you can demolish someone’s private property. That’s good, of course. We’re a nation of laws. But it’s slow and cumbersome.

On a similar note, Jefferson Parish has hired a company to tag offending property and notify homeowners that unless something is done, they will be fined and/or their building demolished. A special court has been established to deal with nothing but these cases, with hearings to begin this month. Using the tell-on-your-neighbor policy, more than 700 complaints have come in, reporting blighted yards and ruined houses where nothing is being done.

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What Leaders Do

Two letters in Thursday’s Times-Picayune comment on the St. Bernard Parish Council’s decision prohibiting homeowners from renting to anyone except relatives. The second letter is wonderful.

Frank Buffone of Lacombe is confident the ordinance will be overturned by the courts. “However, the reasoning behind it is sound.” Outside speculators will want to come in and buy properties and get rich off rentals. We must not let that happen, he says. Chalmette used to be a tight-knit community with the kind of values we need today.

Then the second letter, verbatim: “SBF w/small children seeks SWM homeowner in St. Bernard Parish for lunch and movies followed by marriage and rental of your property. Willing to bear child if necessary to qualify as ‘blood relative’ if marriage is not sufficient for me to enter parish as a resident. Prenuptial agreement no problem. Strictly business!” Gloria Young of New Orleans.

Confidential to my mom in Nauvoo: She doesn’t mean it, mom. It’s tongue-in-cheek stuff to make a point.

New population figures for Orleans Parish has come up with numbers far lower than any of the guesstimates various groups have posited. Couple of months ago, Entergy, the power company, took the actual number of hookups in the parish and multiplied it times two-point-something and came up with a figure of 225,000. But the number announced this week is based on actual door-to-door surveys made by college students hired by the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Precisely 187,525 residents now live in Orleans Parish, they said. That’s a decline from pre-Katrina days of 59 percent.

Mayor Nagin is not buying that for an instant. “It’s at least 250,000,” he says. He points out that the margin of error for this survey is 11.5 percent, much higher than in most polls. He has been predicting a population of 300,000 by year end.

The surveyors insist they followed the methodology of the U.S. Census Bureau, and that these are not estimates. They did it the old fashioned way: a door to door survey of specific neighborhoods. Interestingly, they announced that Plaquemines Parish has a population of only 20,024, down some 8,900 from pre-K levels. However, those numbers have a whopping 36.3 percent margin of error.

Which, for my money, means: you may ignore this poll altogether.

The other bit of front-page news Friday morning is that the mayor has endorsed William Jefferson for re-election to Congress. My first thought was that he did it out of fear, fear that Jefferson will be chosen once again by the electorate and he doesn’t want to be on the short end of that stick. But Nagin had a worse explanation than that. “He endorsed me when I ran for mayor, so I’m returning the favor.” That’s it.

One supposes that if David Duke had endorsed him for mayor, Nagin would be backing his candidacy for Congress. (Not that Duke is running. He has a full-time job in some prison somewhere, I think.)

I wish you could have sat in the gym of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge Thursday night and heard the testimonies from our new church planters in the Southeast Louisiana. A young man–I think his name is Jason–who is on the staff of FBC Baton Rouge spoke of ministering to post-modern young adults downtown. He said, “I’m the only preacher you know who used to be a hairstylist.” Jose Mathews raised his hand. “I was.” “Were you a barber or a hairstylist?” “Hairstylist.”

The young preacher went on to speak of the homosexual community where he was focusing so much of his work. “My brother is one of them,” he said, “so I have a special reason for being down there.” Jason broke the group up when he said, “Help me reach the gays for our congregation and I’ll keep them out of your churches!”

James Welch has pulled together 25 people in the Magazine Section of New Orleans for “Sojourn,” the new church plant here. James gets teased about his wild hair which pokes in every direction. “I know what you’re thinking,” he began, “and yes, Jason is my hair stylist.”

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God’s Way, God’s Time

I’ve been giving our Wednesday pastors meetings a lot of thought lately–particularly since we started talking about cutting back from weekly gatherings to the first Wednesday of each month. We had 52 people present today, including one first-timer–Carl Hubbert of Harahan’s FBC–and some rarely seen pastors such as David Rodriguez of Horeb (Spanish) Baptist Mission. And we had Rudy and Rose French, our Canadian MSC missionaries, back. We had three from Bear Creek Baptist Church in Houston, an IMB missionary from Cote d’Ivoire, Africa, Joe and Linda Williams (our NAMB-appointed counselors), and a large contingent of local ministers who are on the cutting edge of rebuilding this city.

I tell you the honest truth: if we cut back to monthly meetings, I will have withdrawal pains. I love these weekly sessions, and can tell they are the high points of the week for a lot of the fellows. That’s why, after announcing that we would continue meeting here at Good Shepherd Spanish Baptist Church through October and at the New Orleans Chinese Baptist Church for the first three Wednesdays of November, I said, “Thereafter, we’ll meet the first Wednesday of each month at the associational Baptist Center, unless. Unless ten of you come to me and say you want to continue meeting weekly.” We’ll see.

Linda Williams said, “If you cut out the weekly meetings, a lot of people around the country will miss reading about what’s happening locally in your blog.” One more reason I’ll miss having them weekly.

In November, Rudy French is having a heart procedure done in Canada and we’re already praying for him and Rose. Today was their first visit back with us in several months. They had an unusual announcement to make. Rudy is going to become the pastor–not the interim pastor and not a supply pastor, but THE man–of one of our churches. I’ll wait until it happens to name the congregation, but you’ll be interested in what brought it to this point.

Some weeks ago, Rose e-mailed me that Rudy could never pastor. “Pastoring a church bores him,” she said. I laughed at that. So, when that church’s pastor search committee kept telling him they believed God wants him to become their pastor, he resisted. Finally, they said the magic words. “What would it take for you to come as our pastor?” Rudy said, “I’ve studied your history. You’ve had pastors, one after another, for a couple of years each and they move on. You do business as usual and you never grow. Your budget is the same it’s been for years. I would want you to go out of business as just another church and become a mission center.” What would that involve, they asked. “Put in permanent shower fixtures, fix up the place to host church mission teams coming to help rebuild the city and do evangelism in the neighborhoods. Scrap everything and start fresh. Become an evangelism and mission center.” A lady in that church has already donated a large sum of money to get the transformation started, and the church has put people to work on it. My understanding is that Rudy will officially begin as the new pastor on December 1.

I’ve abbreviated Rudy’s account of how this all came to pass. My wife commented that it took an outsider to see what the church needs to do and to convince them to do it.

It’s God’s own way.

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Racism is Not Humorous. But It’s Funny.

A funny thing: those most afflicted by the scourge of racism don’t have a clue.

The governing council of St. Bernard Parish has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Recently they voted 5-2 to limit a homeowner’s ability to rent out his single-family dwelling. He can let it only to someone he’s related to. The aim, the authorities said, is to preserve the integrity of the neighborhoods and maintain the same culture they had before. There will be no jokes here about “what culture?” in this parish which has long depicted itself as the poor relation of New Orleans.

Predictably, citizens inside and outside the parish are yelling “racism”. Having lived in the Deep South since the age of 11, and after watching local and state governments go through all kinds of legal maneuvering and verbal contortions in order to keep down racial minorities, I have to say that what St. Bernard Parish is doing looks mighty suspicious.

Letters to the editor in Wednesday’s paper take both sides on this issue. (I think I’ll spare you, if that’s all right.)

Parish councilman Craig Taffaro, who authored this regulation, said to a reporter, “What a tremendous burden it must be to believe that everything is motivated by race. Our motivation is simply to do what’s best for our recovery and to restore and maintain our pre-Katrina way of life.”

Hmm…let’s see…what was that expression we used to hear in Alabama throughout the 1950s…the “Southern way of life.” Elect this candidate because he wants to preserve it; oppose that guy because he wants to destroy it. As I recall, no one ever defined the term. It was just “understood.” By whites and blacks alike, I’ll wager.

As a pastor for over four decades, I suppose I’ve committed every social and etiquetical (is that a word?) breach there is. I’ve offended the handicapped, teased the hurting, and joked about the pain some walking wounded were experiencing. I’ve done all this and more, but never maliciously. I didn’t “mean” to hurt them. But I did.

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