Two Men and New Orleans

John McDonogh Senior High School on historic Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans was in all the news last fall, as the scene of a number of serious fights between students and between students and faculty. One of our pastors, Lionel Roberts of St. Bernard Baptist Mission, is on staff there, handling disciplinary problems, and he agreed to give Pastor Thomas Glover and me the grand tour this morning.

That’s how we ended up in a meeting with Bill Cosby.

We arrived at 10 am and waded through several layers of security guards. They seemed to be everywhere, mainly standing around and looking people over, not checking IDs or passing people through scanners. Their presence is as a leavening agent, I suppose. Lionel pointed out they were not armed. “Most of these kids respect only law enforcement people with a gun on their hip.”

I said, “Who was John McDonogh? There are schools all over New Orleans named for this man.” Thomas Glover attended this school–he calls it “John Mac”–and said, “Some rich guy a long time ago who endowed a lot of schools in this city. When I was a student here, every year on his birthday, the schools would let out and we would all convene at his tombstone. It was a big deal.” The phone directory lists a half dozen “McDonogh” schools, including three “senior high schools” with his name. This one was listed simply as John McDonogh Senior High School, but the other two have numbers, like “McDonogh 28 High School.” I had no idea. Bet this is really confusing. (see post script at the end for more on McDonogh.)

That must have been some man. Thomas said, “There used to be more schools named for him, but they’ve changed the names of some.”

“This school was built in the 1920s,” said Lionel Roberts. I said, “It looks great. Fresh coat of paint everywhere.” The result of post-Katrina volunteers, he said.

We met the principal, Mr. Jackson, an impressive-looking young man who was trying to juggle several things at the same time, so we swapped business cards and told him we are praying for him. He was very personable and you immediately felt a respect for him.

“Are all the students Black?” I asked. “We have a few Hispanic,” said Lionel. “No whites.”

I had brought along my sketch pad, so I said, “Does this school have art classes? Let’s go there.” Art teachers are always glad when a cartoonist drops in. Gives them a break from teaching and the kids love to get drawn and they might actually pick up a pointer in the process.

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Active Churches

Saturday evening the First Baptist Church of LaPlace held its 50th anniversary celebration at the Shrine Auditorium in Destrehan, and hundreds came for the occasion. Pastor Bobby Burt welcomed his predecessor, longtime pastor Major Speights, who now lives in Texas. (In the 1990s, people would mistake Major and me for each other. That is one handsome dude.) Former staffers were recognized, and present and former members filled the place. I presented two plaques, one from the state convention and one from our association, thanking this terrific church for a half-century of faithfulness.

I told them, “On behalf of all the people in this room with the same color hair as mine, I want you to know: 50 years is not so long! I recall sitting on the front porch swing with my girl friend and saying, ‘Next year will be 1957! That has such a futuristic ring to it.’ Now it sounds like the Stone Age. But it wasn’t so long ago, 1957, when some good people did a great thing and started this church.”

Sunday morning, the “new” Christ Baptist Church of Harvey held its dedication services. Formerly the Woodmere Baptist Church of the same New Orleans suburb, they bought the entire campus of the House of Prayer Lutheran Church–a congregation that went out of business as a result of Katrina–and relocated to the lovely site at 3000 Manhattan Boulevard. They sold their old facility to their mission church, New Covenant Baptist Mission, at a bargain price. Dr. Harold Mosley–professor at the seminary–is the new pastor of Christ Church. Sunday he welcomed back the founding pastor (and a seminary classmate of mine from the 1960s) Art Edwards. In addition to these men, speakers included New Covenant’s Thomas Glover and Randy Capote, most recent pastor of Woodmere.

In his printed remarks, Harold Mosley said, “It’s true not everything is in its place yet, and we still have projects to complete but oh, what a glorious day to praise the Lord for what He has provided!” He continued, “We have plans in the works for new ministries to reach out to our new neighbors, build a new playground, modify the nursery area, acquire a permanent sign, start an Awana program, and the list goes on.”

We congratulate FBC LaPlace as it gets its second wind and Christ Baptist as it makes a new start in a new neighborhood.

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Iva Jewel Tucker, Cancer Survivor, Genuine Character

We’ve never actually met, but Iva Jewel Tucker is a dear friend of mine. She put in a full career at the Alabama Baptist, the weekly newspaper for our denomination in my home state, and worked alongside other friends, Editor Hudson Baggett and his secretary, our precious friend Lee Alys Orr. So we sort of feel we have a long history.

Iva Jewel is retired now and staying active. She once sent me a newspaper clipping showing her and a buddy riding their motor scooters around Birmingham. She must have told me her age, but as a gentleman, I promptly forgot it. She is, as we say, “of a certain age.”

Now she has cancer.

Here is the story, exactly as she passed it on to me. I expect you to come away thinking what my wife did when she read this: “What a delightful person. We have to meet her.” And let us note, Iva Jewel gave permission for us to write this and to use her name.

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What We Learned From a Hurricane

Friday night inside the central dining hall of Alexandria’s Louisiana Baptist Building, over 200 men and women attending the “Disaster Relief Roundtable” were feted with a banquet at which presentations were made to a number of dedicated volunteers.

If you’ll allow me to say so, the best award was ours.

A special award to celebrate a long history of disaster relief work has been created and named, most appropriately, “The Freddie Arnold Lifetime Achievement Award”. The first one went to–again, most appropriately–Freddie Arnold himself. I have no idea how it feels to receive an award which is named “for” oneself, but each year hereafter, other faithful DR workers will be receiving the Freddie Arnold Award.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, or one more deserving.

“Was Freddie surprised?” my wife wanted to know. I expect he was clued in when he picked up the program and saw printed: “Presentation of Freddie Arnold Lifetime Achievement” by Dr. David Hankins, Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director.

What most surprised him was looking up and seeing his entire family walk in just prior to the dinner: wife Elaine, daughter Julie Johnston and son Zac, and son Kerney with Jacob and Katie. I picked up my notebook and moved over to their table to share in the joy of the occasion.

Waylon and Martha Bailey of Covington’s First Baptist Church were the featured speakers. This incredible couple are heroes for many of us in a hundred ways. Martha gave a brief testimony about their church’s heavy involvement in disaster relief in the first few days and weeks following Katrina’s blow-through in late August, 2005. Time and again, she said, when their workers needed certain supplies a truck would pull up loaded with that very thing. It was a time of miracles.

Waylon began: “On August 29, 2005, the person in this room who knew the least about SBC disaster relief is the one standing before you. I had no idea what it was or how it functioned. I was given a crash course, however.”

Waylon shared “10 Things I Learned on the Way to a Hurricane,” and like a good pastor, passed out fill-in-the-blank sheets so everyone could take notes.

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It Takes a Professional

We now know who opened the locked fence at the St. Bernard Housing Development and let in the protestors.

Garelle Smith, age 25, was arrested for tearing down part of the fence erected by the Housing Authority of New Orleans. That’s when police made another discovery. The breaking-and-entering charge is the least of Smith’s worries.

This man was wanted for murder. Police say last August 4, Garelle Smith gunned down Mandell Duplessis, 24, outside a FEMA trailer in Gentilly. The newspaper report is confusing, but it appears that Smith happened upon a group of robbers who had taken the residents of the trailer hostage and were looking for drugs and money. He started blasting and Duplessis was dead. It seems that Duplessis was not a robber, but an innocent party who happened to knock on the door of the trailer without a clue what was going on inside.

Okay, now.

Turns out Mr. Smith has quite the history. November 26, 2003, a local rapper called Soulja Slim–but whose mama named him James Tapp–was killed while walking across the front lawn of his Gentilly home. Police say Garelle Smith earned $10,000 in that killing-for-hire.

While police were investigating that case, Smith was sitting in jail booked with another murder, that of a recording artist called Funk, but actually Spencer Smith, Jr., who died in front of the St. Bernard Housing Project, riddled with bullets. (Apparently Garelle Smith had a thing against local rappers.)

Thursday’s Times-Picayune: “Garelle Smith was charged with second-degree murder in Spencer Smith’s killing, but the case disintegrated in court.” Whatever that means.

Anyway, the cops have him now, all because he tore down a fence.

In Ron Dunn’s book “Don’t Just Stand There, Pray Something,” he tells a delightful little story that comes to mind here.

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God is Doing a Great Work

I wish you could have heard Lynn Rodrigue today. This pastor of Port Sulphur Baptist Church–get your map; it’s way down the Mississippi River!–told of the rebuilding work God is doing in his area through church volunteer teams coming to help.

A team from Oklahoma arrived and went to work on the new church building. “The average age of those folks was 72,” Lynn said. “You should have seen those women climbing around on the scaffolding! They were amazing.”

A group from Virginia–the primary sponsors of this work–was down, and while they were there, they shot a video of the area and the work they were accomplishing. When they showed it back at home, an older gentleman who rarely came to church got under conviction and wrote a check for $10,000 to help Plaquemines Parish residents. Lynn said, “I had more fun going down the highway looking for people to help with that money.”

“The strain between Catholics and Baptists is probably pronounced everywhere in South Louisiana,” he said, “but nowhere more than where we live. The Catholic priest will not even look me in the eye, he has disliked us so much.” Then something happened.

The Catholic church down there needed to be wired for electricity and they couldn’t find anyone. A woman from the church asked Pastor Lynn. “We just happened to have a group in that day helping us, and they had an eletrician with them. He spent two full days wiring the church. When he finished, the priest was crying. He told the worker, ‘Tell the Baptists anything they need, just ask and it’s theirs.'”

Lynn said, “The people where we live do not want to hear the gospel. They want to see it.”

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Making Sense of the Nonsense

In peaceful suburban Kenner, the violence is rising, just as throughout metro New Orleans. Four murders in 2005 and nine in ’06. Aggravated assault climbed from 162 to 231. Auto theft is way up, although some crimes decreased in number. Law enforcement people say part of the crime was bad guys preying on migrant workers, unthinkably cruel, if you ask me. Police chief Carraway says the spike in aggravated assaults is attributable to large numbers of people living in cramped quarters such as FEMA trailers and overcrowded apartments. Yep, that would do it.

Locals are griping about the president’s failure to even mention New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuilding last night in his State of the Union message. I don’t live in a trailer and my house wasn’t flooded, so I’m not typical on this and might be a lot more upset if I did, but personally, I don’t see a lot of value in having your cause given honorable mention in that annual laundry list of American problems. Possibly more importantly, the new congress seems to have the rebuilding of this part of the world on its agenda.

We had a small convention in town this past week, and as the 2,600 members of the Meeting Planners International–who knew they had an organization of people who plan meetings? and what did they do in our city? plan meetings?–said good things about the city as they departed. The hospitality was “flawless,” said a spokeswoman for the group. “I have heard only amazing comments from our attendees.”

Many attending that convention said they were surprised they found nothing to complain about. “It seems normal,” said one.

Bear in mind they are talking about a) the Morial Convention Center, b) the restaurants and attractions and the French Quarter, and c) the downtown shops. All of that is back to speed, and if you stay in the downtown area, you’ll see nothing out of place. Even street cars are running up and down Canal Street. Not the long St. Charles Avenue line, however, not for a long time.

But we’re glad they found the city ready to host visitors and we hope other conventions, particularly those that canceled after Katrina, will be heading back. This economy was built around the concept of us having lots of company. Last summer, the Southern Baptist Convention opted out of the possibility of our hosting that annual meeting for 2008, out of fear the city could not handle that many visitors at once (anywhere from 10,000 up). However, the American Librarians Association met here 18,000 strong last summer and we pulled that off.

We’re ready for company. Y’all come.

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The Morning After

One of those weekends. The funeral on Saturday, two blogs early Sunday morning, Sunday morning worship at First Baptist Church, New Orleans, Sunday afternoon parked in front of the television cheering the Saints on, Sunday night moderating a church business meeting, trying to help them over a particularly bumpy time, and late that night, picking up one of our guests flying in to speak at the Louisiana Baptist evangelism conference going on Monday and Tuesday at FBC-NO.

Missed my Sunday afternoon nap. My team lost. Two good excuses for being a little grouchy.

Margaret used to laugh at me when my team would lose. Years ago, it would be Alabama in one of their rare losses, and in recent years, it’s LSU. This year, the Saints–it’s always been the Saints except this year they decided to start a winning tradition after the biblical 40 years in the wilderness.

What she would laugh at is how I became philosophical after a loss. “Well, it was good for the other team to win this one. Our guys were getting too full of themselves. A loss can teach you more than a win. In the long run, this loss may be meaningless.”

But I will confess flat out that the game Sunday for the NFC championship in Chicago meant more to me personally than all the other times I’ve cheered on “my” teams. I wanted this one so bad. What the Saints would have done in Miami for the Super Bowl really would not have mattered. Just getting there would have been the achievement we’ve all hoped for, for so long.

Monday morning’s front page headline: “Thank you, boys.” That’s a play on “Bless you, boys,” a sign on thousands of posters you see on game day. Probably originated from a nun who roots for this team. We have plenty of them. I won’t bore you with it here, but Sunday morning’s paper chronicled stories of priests and nuns who make no apology for their complete absorption in this team and who pray in church for it to win, wear Saints logos on their vestments, etc. I’ve not gone that far. Yesterday morning, walking on the levee and praying, the most I could do was pray for the well-being for everyone and for the Lord to be glorified by the outcome.

Forgive the repetition, but Yogi Berra said it for me. When a batter stepped up to the plate and squared off toward the pitcher and made the sign of the cross, Yogi, squatting in the catcher’s position, said, “Hey buddy–why don’t we just let the Almighty enjoy the game.”

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“RISING AGAIN” in St. Bernard Parish

Bruce Nolan is the religion writer (editor maybe) for the Times-Picayune and a friend to all our churches. In Sunday’s paper, he focuses on the churches of St. Bernard Parish and the First Baptist Church of Chalmette in particular. Here’s the article.

The excavator’s heavy mechanical bucket pulled down a huge chunk of wall in what was once First Baptist Church of Chalmette’s educational building. A shower of broken drywall, bricks an flailing electrical wiring tumbled to the ground as the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Dee Jeffries, looked on from across the street. Soon a new church complex will rise on the same lot.

“So, is this a good sight or a sad sight?” someone asked him recently.

Jeffries, 58, considered for a moment. “Bittersweet,” he said. “Bittersweet. Now, months ago, when they had to chain saw the pews into pieces to haul them out of the church. That was bad.”

He paused again. “I’d prayed over those pews. Before services on that Sunday, before the people came, I’d put my hand on one and pray to God to bless the people who were coming and who’d be sitting there.”

“So, yeah, that was bad.”

But now it appears that Jeffries and his current flock, down to 75 from 350, have turned a corner in a long, rugged road.

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Saturday’s Send-Off

“About five years ago, when I was still pastoring this church, I was up here preaching about something, I forget the exact point I was making. Maybe it was about not judging people by the clothes they wear. Anyway, I looked down at the tie I was wearing, a bright purple. I said, ‘Now, take this tie. This is one ugly tie. I hate this tie.’ At that very second, as my eyes scanned the congregation, they landed on Marshall and Barbara Sehorn and I had one of those moments. I stood there in quiet shock, then said to the congregation, ‘I just remembered who gave me this tie.'”

“The people fell in the floor laughing. When the laughter died down, I stood there for a bit, then said, ‘I love this tie.'”

The redeeming thing about that incident for me the preacher, the culprit, the loudmouth who speaks before engaging brain, is that no one was laughing harder than Marshall and Barbara.

I told that at the beginning of our memorial service for Marshall Estus Sehorn Saturday afternoon at 2 pm in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Kenner. At the end of the little story, I said to Barbara on the front row, “I looked for that tie to wear today, but couldn’t find it. I must have given it away.” They all laughed again, she harder than any of them.

It takes a big man to get two funeral services. If you want to call them that. We cremated Marshall–well, Lake Lawn Funeral people did–over a month ago, following his December 6 death. Marshall had a bad respiratory problem all his life that escalated and worsened in the last few years. He suffered something horribly and was able to speak only with great difficulty. But today, he’s doing just fine, thank you.

The earlier service was December 30 in his hometown of Concord, North Carolina. Half his ashes are being interred there, the other half at a cemetery in Metairie.

Stephanie Screen played her violin before and during the service Saturday. She’s about to get her master’s from Loyola and grew up in our church. The last few years, she would drive over to the Sehorns and play for them. For him, mostly, and Barbara understands. It was about Marshall and everyone’s special love for this precious man.

Ken Gabrielse, our minister of music since 1992, led us in “Amazing Grace” with Allen Toussaint on the piano, and what a special thing that was. Then Ken sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Later, Ken said, “I can go on to Heaven now. I’ve sung Amazing Grace with Allen Toussaint!”

Marshall Sehorn and Barbara Darcey married in the late 1960’s. “She was the love of his life,” said Allen Toussaint, the Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Famer. “You ought to have seen him when they fell in love. He was something.”

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