The Christmas Sign

The annual Christmas dinner for the ministers and spouses of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans was held at the Ormond Plantation on Tuesday night, December 12, 2006. We had told the hostess for this wonderful ancient facility we anticipated having 150 present. On Friday before the big event, we called to ask them to increase that figure to 200. In post-Katrina New Orleans, our ministers and their families are hungry for fellowship with each other and for an excuse to get out of their homes–in many cases, a FEMA trailer–and celebrate.

As the director of missions for the association and responsible for the evening, I arrived early to make certain everything was in order. Even though I have driven River Road in Destrehan hundreds of times over the last 16 years, I was not certain precisely where Ormond Plantation was and ended up driving past the entrance and having to turn around and go back. Darkness had come early to our part of the Deep South and the heavy fog was complicating matters.

Since this plantation and several others in the area faces the Mississippi River, separated from that body of water only by River Road and the levee, fog is always a problem in the winter. Tuesday night, it was as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

A large sign announcing “Ormond Plantation” sits perpendicular to the two-lane highway and in the daytime can be read easily. However the darkness, the fog, and the lack of any kind of night-time illumination meant most of the invited guests would drive right past their destination.

I pulled into the parking lot, got out my flashlight, and walked through the heavy mist to the sign by the road. Then I had a decision to make.

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New Orleans is Not Forgotten

At our weekly Wednesday meeting of the Baptist pastors of New Orleans, Oscar Williams (Good News Baptist Church) shared their plans for next Saturday’s neighborhood ministry. They’ll be going door to door in the Destrehan area where their displaced church is meeting these days, looking for anyone needing groceries. They have 300 food baskets to give away. And that’s not all.

They’ll be asking for information on the children in these homes–how many, what ages, boy or girl. Then, they will have a drawing. Lots of drawings, in fact. Seventy drawings for seventy bicycles. Bikes of all sizes, brand new, a gift from Wal-Mart.

Oscar missed our Ministers’ Christmas dinner Tuesday night because his brother-in-law called at the last minute to say the truck with the bicycles had arrived and they needed a place to store them. “We’ve got them all over my house, throughout the First Baptist Church of Destrehan (where Good News is worshiping temporarily), and in my brother-in-law’s home.”

We all wanted to know, “How did you get Wal-Mart to give you seventy bicycles?” “We asked them,” Oscar said. “What a novel concept,” some wit remarked.

Wal-Mart remembers New Orleans.

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At the end of our Tuesday night Christmas dinner for all our ministers and their spouses, I drove home through the heavy fog giving thanks to God.

Thanks for the 200 or more who attended. In the old days (pre-Katrina), we might have a hundred show up, and we had to create gimmicks to get them to mix and meet. Tuesday night, the decibel level was off the scale as they visited and laughed and hugged. The dinner had ended and it was time to begin the program, but I hated to call a halt to the fellowship. The joy in that place was palpable.

Thanks for the gifts of God’s people that paid the tab. Get 200 people into a plantation house for a Christmas dinner and the tab easily runs into the thousands of dollars. One of our churches provided child care, but we paid for the workers. Jim Chester–evangelist, funnyman, storyteller, and magician–provided a fascinating program and kept us laughing. God’s people gave us the money to pay him a nice honorarium.

Thanks for our special guests. Gibbie McMillan represented the Louisiana Baptist Convention so well, reminding everyone of the special feature of our denomination called the Cooperative Program by which a person gives his offering into his church and touches the entire world. Pastor Keith Manuel promoted the Louisiana Baptist Evangelism Conference coming up January 22-23 at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. Our wonderful servant leaders from Operation NOAH Rebuild and Global Maritime Ministries were present and blessed us, as always.

Thankful for the joy. I don’t know how else to say it. Recently, on this page, I left the Sam Shoemaker story of the man who knocked at his door late one night and said, “I just feel I need to thank Someone.” I know the feeling. I’m grateful for the pastors of the big churches who came to the Christmas dinner because their presence sets a good example and encourages everyone else. I’m grateful for the Spanish pastors who attended, because they actually did their own dinner a week ago in downtown New Orleans and could have chosen to skip this one. And I’m particularly grateful for the pastors of the bivocational churches who came at great inconvenience, because they have to rise early and be at work while some of us are just stirring.

Thank you, Father. What an honor to be Yours and to be used by Thee.

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New Orleans: Characters Welcome

My wife’s favorite television channel is the USA Network. Their slogan is: “Characters Welcome.”

Someone ought to erect signs with those words at every entrance to New Orleans. If there ever was a city of characters in America, this is the one.

In 1990, when we told my parents we were moving to New Orleans from North Carolina, my dad said, “Well good. It’ll be good to get you back down South.” I said, “Dad, there’s something you need to know. The people of North Carolina are just exactly like the people of Alabama and Mississippi. But the people of New Orleans are strange.” Or I might have said “weird.” And I did not mean it as a putdown.

Over these years, I’ve moderated in my views of the folks down here. Most are normal in every way, just exactly like your neighbors in any city in America, even if they do have unusual and foreign-sounding last names like Bourgeois (pronounced boor-zwha) and Melancon (pronounced muh-lah-sah with a nasal ring). They’re great folks.

But characters, that’s what we have down here. And honestly, it may be the best thing about living in New Orleans. Now, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Kenner, which ain’t New Orleans exactly (or at all), but it’s part of the city and people who run New Orleans live all over Kenner and Metairie and it may as well be.

All of this is leading up to saying that we lost a real character last week. Marshall Sehorn died. We had a little service at the Lake Lawn Crematorium early Saturday morning. His ashes will be divided, half taken to Concord, North Carolina, where he grew up, and the other half buried here in Metairie. We’ll be having a real memorial service sometime after the first of the year.

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Who’s in Charge?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m being too hard on our mayor and his team. Then I read something like the following, which appeared in Saturday’s “Money” section of the local newspaper….

Under the headline, “Developers Castigate City Hall,” writer Greg Thomas reports on a 3 day tour of Katrina-land by a group of investors and developers brought together by the Urban Land Institute. They finished their excursion at the 17th Street Canal, the dividing line separating Jefferson and Orleans Parishes, and then had lunch in the Quarter at the Monteleone Hotel. Afterward, they met with reporters.

Rufus Lusk, a realtor from Baltimore, expressed amazement that the City Planning Commission had so few planners and that it has just recently been approved to hire more. “There are planners from cities that would volunteer to come and help,” he insisted. The American Planners Association would be the place to start to find such helpers. Lusk says the last thing a developer needs to hear when he’s looking at making an investment here is that it will take months to have development plans reviewed and placed on an agenda to be approved or modified.

“Who’s in charge?” Lusk asked. Who indeed.

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So Far to Go; So Blessed

How not to take a poll.

The East Jefferson neighborhood section of Thursday’s Times-Picayune posts a question each week and gives out a phone number to register your answer. Last week, the question was whether Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee’s proposal to install surveillance cameras in high crime areas is a good idea. Only 7 callers said ‘no,’ and 363 said ‘yes.’

The question Thursday was based on something we reported here last week, that a University of New Orleans survey found that one-third of the residents say they are “likely” or “somewhat likely” to move away from this area in the next couple of years. So the question is: “What is the likelihood of your leaving?” The phone number is listed, and then these instructions: “Likely–Press 1.” “Somewhat likely–Press 2.” And that’s it.

There is no way for one to register that you have no desire to leave. The assumption is that you are planning to leave, and the only question is how eager you are to vamoose. Not a good way to take a poll, unless one figures into his computations that every resident who does not phone that number is planning to stay. In that case, you might end up with numbers such as: “Likely: 263,” “Somewhat Likely: 472,” and “Planning to stay: 134,547.”

Whatever numbers their little poll produces will be meaningless.

The ubiquitous FEMA trailers…240 life-saving square feet of cramped misery…must leave Jefferson Parish before April 1, according to the Parish Council. They will allow appeals for exemptions to this ordinance, but otherwise homeowners must have them gone by the last of March.

From the beginning, my understanding is that FEMA has said the 60,000 or more trailers in the metro area were meant to stay for 18 months and no longer. If they insist on holding to that deadline, expect howls and protests like nothing you’ve ever heard. Sunday while driving through St. Bernard Parish on the way downriver to Poydras, I found myself in the world’s largest trailer park. Block after block, trailers in every driveway. Lots of activity, as people were working on houses and in yards and hauling building materials up and down streets. But there is no way Orleans, St. Bernard, and Plaquemine parishes will be finished with FEMA trailers for another five years.

Dr. Edward Blakely, the city’s new recovery chief, is confident New Orleans can emerge from this crisis as a transformed city. “It’s my business,” he said. “It’s what cities around the world pay me to do.” Fine, professor. That’s what we want. Tell us what to do.

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Confession Time

Last week, an editor with Rick Warren’s internet magazine for pastors asked me to write an article for them. He had seen something I wrote perhaps 3 years ago about how I had started taking care of my body, lost some weight, and got serious about exercise. “Tell us what you are doing and let’s encourage pastors to do the same,” was the general thrust of the assignment.

Well, somewhere in the body of that article I commented on the benefits of my program. Years ago, I used to have colds a couple of weeks every winter and from time to time experienced lower back pain. “I no longer have colds and it’s been years since my lower back has given me trouble,” I said. That was last Friday.

Monday morning I woke up with lower back pain. Spent the day on a heating pad and taking muscle relaxers. Tuesday was a little better; Wednesday a lot better.

I know what did it. Sunday afternoon, I had slouched on my recliner and watched the Saints’ football game, then spent a couple of hours at the computer typing the day’s blog. The computer chair is canvas, which means absolutely no back support at all. Tuesday, I threw it out and bought a real chair at Office Depot.

Nothing like a dose of humility to get the week started off right.

Wednesday morning, we began our weekly pastors meeting with a brief “associational executive committee” meeting. This group is made up of the pastor of each church and one elected layperson. Instead of meeting quarterly as formerly, we’ve decided to meet the first Wednesday of each month in order to stay on top of developments.

The administrative committee reported that although our associational receipts (the monthly gifts from our churches) are running about 70 percent of normal, we are spending much less than normal also, so we’re doing fine. They announced we are signing a contract with PayCheck to handle our payroll, primarily for the security they offer against errors in handling taxes. One of our churches ran into such problems not long ago and they are learning the hard way how difficult the IRS can be in these situations.

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Thanking Someone

“As you know, this has been a difficult year for our city,” the letter began. “We have all had to make sacrifices we never thought we would be faced with, which has brought me to this difficult decision my family and I have had to make.”

The letter from our family doctor continues, “I regrettably have to inform you that as of December 29, 2006 I will be leaving my practice and moving to Houston, Texas.”

Dr. Irma Pfister is an excellent young doctor who was recommended to us by our E-N-T doctor and has treated both Margaret and me for the past couple of years. My other internist–I’m at the age where we have lots of medical people in our lives–Dr. Kathleen Wilson, moved to Florida earlier this year. Same kind of letter, same reasons.

It’s like an epidemic around here, doctors moving out. Perhaps they have lost so many clients and with a smaller population base, they are unable to earn the kind of income they need. Just as likely, it’s a matter of not wanting to live in such a depressing environment, particularly when a partnership is available in a modern, clean, progressive city where the issues facing New Orleans are all left behind.

We understand, but it truly hurts.

I bumped into a seminary classmate today on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where he and I sat through three years of classes together in the mid-1960s. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about the challenge we’re facing in this city, with the rebuilding of our neighborhoods and churches. My friend is president of one of our Southern Baptist seminaries and as prominent a personage as our denomination has. As we parted, he said, “I almost envy you.”

Almost. Not quite, I imagine.

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Sunday Champions

Two of our senior champions are honored in Sunday’s Times-Picayune.

In the section where they run old photos each week–sort of, “Do you remember this?”–Bob Vetter’s 1945 high school picture shows him in his football uniform. He was a star for Holy Cross High School as they won all kinds of championships. Bob attended LSU, then worked for his grandfather’s lumber company in St. Bernard Parish, and then in 1949, joined the Marines and fought in Korea where he was awarded the Purple Heart. Here’s the account, as told by his daughter, Lisa….

“My dad was a forward observer for a heavy mortar company. He had to go beyond the front lines and radio back to the Marines where the enemy was set up. He had to carry a 45 pound radio and his gear, which weighed 60 pounds. A Korean soldier spotted him and shot him in the back. He started rolling down a hill and landed in a foxhole, which actually saved his life. His fellow Marines found him and took him back to the base where they (medical personnel) operated on him in a tent that had a mud floor.”

He survived and came home and now owns and runs Vetter Lumber Company. He is also–and this is why I’m telling the story–the associate pastor of Poydras Baptist Church and one super nice guy. Still as handsome at 78 years as he was as a teenager.

Bill Rogers has half a page devoted just to him in the paper. The absolutely lovely photo has him standing, hands in pockets, grinning big, looking this way. “Peoples Health” is sponsoring the selection of a senior adult from time to time as their Champion. Here’s the ad….

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Expert Advice is Where You Find It

I mentioned Wednesday that a couple of our African-American pastors are supporting the plans to demolish New Orleans’ public housing projects and replace them with multi-income planned developments. I should mention that Pastor Marshall Truehill of First United Baptist on Jeff Davis Parkway is vocal in his opposition to those plans. Friday’s Times-Picayune quotes Marshall, who was attending a meeting which HUD officials called to give information and take questions on the issue. He asked if the former residents of those projects had bonafide rental contracts prior to Katrina and if so, did the lease have a clause that one could be evicted because of a natural disaster. Columnist Lolis Eric Elie calls that “an important question.” Apparently, those attending the meeting came away feeling this is a done deal and their dissent is meaningless.

Thursday, en route to Natchitoches to speak to the Baptist association’s annual Christmas dinner for ministers and spouses, I ran by Fellowship Baptist Church at Prairieville where a large group from several churches in Idaho and Utah are constructing the new sanctuary. The rain was coming down, but they were hard at work inside the roofed and enclosed building. David Vise, student minister from Calvary Baptist Church of Idaho Falls, ID, called everyone together and let me address them. David told how one day back in 1974 he walked into my office at the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, and we prayed together and he gave his life to Christ. He finished seminary at Southwestern in Fort Worth and is one of those young men we preachers look to with pride.

I thanked the group for their involvement in our area and urged them to make the drive into New Orleans while they’re this close. We’d like to have them take more mission trip down this way to help us build housing for New Orleanians.

That night, I tried my best to thank the Natchitoches Baptist Association and the First Baptist Church of that city for their work in our area. These are the good folks who took the lead and bore the costs for the Church Library Conference held at Marrero a month ago. Lee Dickson is the director of missions there, and if the Lord has a finer servant, I’d like to meet him. Of course, Hope and Dr. Jerry Ferguson spearheaded everything. People involved in church media work all over this country will recognize the name of Hope Winter Ferguson who has published books and articles and other materials to help churches establish libraries and do it right. In addition to being committed to this work, they are incredible friends and hosted me overnight.

In Friday’s letters column, one writer wants the city to open the public housing developments and let the displaced New Orleanians come home. Just below, another writes, “All public housing should be demolished and townhouses built in their place, with the residents of public housing given the opportunity to buy…with federally backed, low-interest loans.” The debate continues. Meanwhile, plans for the demolition apparently go forward.

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