Those People in the Stadium

Recently on these pages I wrote of how coaches and pastors are different animals. My concern was for shallow-thinking church members who want to trade pastors–always upgrading of course–in their endless search for the genius who can turn their church into winners. They’ve bought into the sports analogy for churches and have long since forgotten the blueprint the Lord Jesus Christ–the only Head Coach of this team–laid out.

There’s another aspect to this story. The people in the pews are vastly different from the fans in the stadium.

I grant that sometimes they’re the same people. Church members attend football games, too. They’ve even been known to wear their team’s jerseys to church. Pastors love to drop sports stories into their sermons. And of course, on high attendance day at church, a sports hero giving his testimony packs them in. Some of the biggest football fans in America are Christians.

So it’s easy to get the two entities confused and start thinking of the church the way we think of our team.

As I write this, the New Orleans Saints are preparing to play the Chicago Bears for the NFC championship tomorrow afternoon. The local paper is saturated with stories of fans–a word derived from fanatics–who have rooted for the Saints over 40 frustrating years and who are now giddy with excitement over this season and this playoff time, many of them die-hards who go into debt to buy expensive tickets in order to sit in frozen Soldier Field and cheer the team on. One family carried deceased Dad’s cremated ashes to the playoff game with Philadelphia last weekend. (There’s no indication they bought him a ticket.) The son said, “Our dad persevered through all those losing seasons, never giving up hope. We thought he would love to see this game.”

People are decorating their houses and cars and yards with Saints paraphernalia. I expect they’re doing the same up in Chicagoland.

It’s fun being a fan. When you’re winning.

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Sometimes the Minister Needs to Stay Out of It

Tuesday, several of us had lunch at the wonderful Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, one of my favorite spots. It’s a small restaurant, maybe a dozen tables, and their menu is all about “Creole Soul Food.” We ate chicken livers and breaded pork chops and baked chicken. On the side, crowder peas and limas and greens–collards, mustard, etc. Dessert is usually a slice of sweet potato pie with praline sauce.

After that meal, you’re good for a week.

Off to the side of the dining area, I noticed a stack of magazines I’d never seen before. The editors seem to have entered the market to boost the local economy and pride-in-the-city, and we’re not against that. Flipping through the issue, I noticed a half-page ad supporting a local citizen with the unlikely name of Pampy Barre’. This man and several colleagues are regularly being featured on the front page of our daily paper as the objects of an investigation by the in connection with corruption during the days when Marc Morial was mayor. C. Ray Nagin succeeded Morial who moved off to New York City to head up a civil rights organization. Morial was every bit as smooth as Nagin, and as one local columnist says, was as hands-on as Nagin is detached.

The investigation deals with a massive contract the city fathers signed just days before Morial left office, with a company called Johnson Controls. It was supposedly an energy-saving contract. For $81 million. That’s a lot of energy. A number of politically connected big shots around town–and that’s the only way to describe them–got their finger in that pie, refusing to let Johnson Controls get the contract unless they received kickbacks. Pampy Barre’ was in that number.

So, this priest at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church–also Mayor Nagin’s home parish–writes a big article in the local tableau defending Barre’. What a great guy he is. How generous he is to everyone who knows him. All he’s done for the community.

I never met the man. The priest may be right.

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The ‘Who Dat’ Nation

The editorial writer of our paper says the Saints are not our Savior, but are a lovely distraction.

Exactly 40 years ago this fall, just as the Saints were fielding their first team, I finished seminary and was soon called to pastor a church in Greenville, Mississippi. The first few games, we were still living in Louisiana and I would rush home after church each Sunday to listen on the radio. In those days, it was a rare game that was televised. We moved to the Mississippi Delta around the first of November and thereafter, it was almost impossible to hear the games. I would sit in my car and listen to WWL through the static and decipher what I could until the strain became too much and I gave it up in desperation.

At night I would sometimes sit in the car and tune in WWL and listen to the sportscasters interview coaches and talk about the team. I could not get to New Orleans and even if I were there, as a pastor I was tied up on Sundays and unable to attend the games, so I did what I could to soak up a little of this city’s love for this team.

Eventually, rooting for the Saints became an endurance trial. They would fall behind early and lose big, or pull out in front and then find a way to lose toward the end. The hapless Chicago Cubs have nothing on the New Orleans Saints.

This week, the city is higher than a kite, basking in the glow of beating the Eagles last Sunday and playing the Bears this Sunday for the NFC championship and a ticket to the Super Bowl. The very idea of playing in the Super Bowl is mind-boggling.

I believe the “who dat” business originated at Mississippi’s Alcorn A & M University years ago. It was something of a chant in dialect: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat them Braves? Who dat? Who dat?” Somehow or other it floated downriver to New Orleans, “Braves” morphed into “Saints,” and the chant caught on during the Jim Mora days when we actually began winning some games.

Recently they revived the “Who dat” business and it’s all you hear now. Then somebody started calling this the “Who Dat Nation.” WWL-Radio picked up on it and now bills itself as “The flagship station of the Who Dat Nation!”

Today a judge announced that a particular criminal trial slated to begin Monday will be postponed until Wednesday. His reasoning was that if the Saints win Sunday’s game in Chicago, he would not be able to get enough jurors together for a trial.

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What the Mayor Wants

I had forgotten this, but Richard Pearl of New Orleans did not. He writes in Tuesday morning’s newspaper that at some point following Katrina, Mayor Nagin said he wanted all the citizens back including the criminals. “Well,” writes Pearl, “He has his wish. The criminals are back. Soon that is all that will be left.”

The other thing the mayor wanted–against the best counsel of every planning commission and study committee–was to allow any citizen to rebuild anywhere in the city he wishes. Advisors kept warning him the result would be a jack-o-lantern effect, with a couple of lights on this block, no one living on that one, a few people on the next block. And that is precisely what we have.

I hope you like it, Mayor. This is your legacy, sir.

The displaced residents of the Saint Bernard Housing Development have been quiet for the past few months but they are back with a vengeance. Yesterday, Monday, they marched up and down in front of the locked-down projects, vowing their determination not to leave until they got inside. “This is our home,” they insisted.

There is no point in trying to reason with them that those are government-owned buildings, that you were living there either as a gift from the federal and state governments or receiving a substantial subsidy and those are not entitlements, and that no one should have to live in such sub-standard housing. They reason correctly that they have a right to go inside and salvage whatever they can, and that the upper apartments took no floodwaters and should still be intact.

There was not a lot of logic but plenty of rhetoric. They wanted inside.

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World Missions at our Front Door

I’ve never told you the full story about Global Maritime Ministries. Our friends who read this blog live literally all over the world and I think you will find this fascinating.

Forty-five years ago John Vandercook saw a need in New Orleans no one was addressing. Here we had one of the busiest ports in America, with hundreds of ships a year arriving from all over the world, bringing thousands of foreign workers who would spend a few hours in this country and leave without ever knowing the first thing about us. What an opportunity if someone were to meet them, befriend them, show them some hospitality, and if possible, tell them about the Savior. Many seafarers live in countries hostile to the Christian faith, nations that not only bar Christian missionaries but forbid their own people from converting to Christianity.

This could be an opportunity staring us in the faith, John thought.* If someone had the faith–and gumption–to begin the process. First, he would have to find out how to board the ships. He would have to be credentialed as a chaplain. Figure out a means to bridge the language gap. Secure a vehicle for driving the crewmembers into town or to a church service. Line up volunteers to help. Find the time for this. And the energy. And of course, the finances. (*That really was a typo. I meant to say “staring us in the face.” But “staring us in the faith” really says it, doesn’t it?)

The sheer scope of beginning such a ministry would have frightened away many a lesser person. But in 1963, Rev. John Vandercook organized the New Orleans Baptist Seamen’s Service in the downstairs of his home and began visiting ships’ crews on a regular basis. One year later, John went full-time in this ministry, a tremendous step of faith for a one-armed preacher with a wife and a full set of children.

When I arrived on campus at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1964 I heard stories of this man and his ministry. You’d have thought the work had been around for years. Seminary students spoke of driving church buses to pick up seamen at the docks and take to their worship services. Churches would welcome them and provide lunch. At times, the student volunteers would drive the visitors to a a mall or a grocery store just so they could see how blessed Americans are. As far as they were available, they gave Christian literature and sometimes Bibles in the person’s language. Occasionally, they engaged them in conversations about Jesus and even led some of the seafarers to know Jesus Christ.

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Putting the Goods on Display

I noticed something Sunday evening at Sojourn, the new startup church on Magazine Street in the Uptown area of New Orleans. The building which James Welch selected and rented for his new arts center/worship site was formerly a store and is situated in a block of stores, cafes, and banks. The front of each one is mainly huge glass windows. Turn the lights on inside, fill it with 40 young adults sitting around on folding chairs with soft drinks in their hands, stand some people down front strumming guitars and stroking the violin, and everyone passing down the narrow street will see what you’re doing.

A number of pedestrians stopped in front of the windows and gazed inside. No sign or lettering on the window indicates anything about what’s inside. The people on the sidewalk were just seeing people having fun and enjoying music. At least three opened the door and came inside without an invitation. A couple of them turned out to be druggie-types who talked too loud and seemed not to know what planet they were on, but the third stayed.

When was the last time people going past your church were sufficiently intrigued to stop and come inside without an invitation?

Churches are notorious for putting on great shows, having wonderful music, the members enjoying each other–but hiding their activities inside closed buildings, away from the eyes and ears of the community. The result is that no one has a clue what goes on inside and no one would dare walk up and push open a door just to see.

And yet, ask the church members and they would tell you outsiders are welcome and in fact, much of what they’re doing inside their buildings is directed toward the benefit of these very outsiders.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Two Churches at Opposite Extremes

I worshiped with the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse this morning at 10:30 and with Sojourn at 5 pm. As unalike as two Baptist churches on the planet.

Belle Chasse is a pleasant little community downriver from New Orleans, just inside Plaquemines Parish, and the host of a huge Naval Air Station where a large contingent of military people live and work. And worship. The FBC has always been blessed by military families.

The church has fine facilities and a large auditorium. In the summer of 2004, Pastor Freddie Williford resigned and moved to a church in North Louisiana and they’ve been pastorless ever since. Dr. Paul Hussey has been their interim for most of that time, but he has resigned effective next Sunday. Their only full-time staffer is Richard Strahan, the worship leader and devoted minister.

Paul Hussey is a counselor and adjunct professor at our seminary. He told the congregation that a local radio station had already asked him to be on call this morning in case the Saints lost last night’s game. They thought he might want to do some grief counseling over the air. Thankfully, it wasn’t needed.

Sojourn is located at 2130 Magazine Street in the Uptown section of New Orleans. Now, we have Valence Street Baptist Church further down Magazine. It’s the third oldest Baptist church in the city, I believe, but they’ve fallen onto difficult times in recent decades and have a tiny congregation trying to maintain some huge and lovely buildings. I noticed tonight that the west side of their bell tower which took a great blow from Katrina is still covered with the once-ubiquitous blue plastic tarp, evidence that it still has not been repaired. Cipriano Stephens is their longtime pastor.

Faith Baptist Church is also uptown, meeting presently in the chapel of Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church on St. Charles, not far away. Faith’s congregation was sliced in half–from 100 to around 50–by the Katrina effect (families relocating), and they are still without a permanent pastor or permanent location. Professor (and former missionary) Tim Searcy is their longtime interim.

Sojourn was meeting tonight for the first time in their Magazine Street location, which is actually a storefront. James and Amy Welch moved here from Louisville, Kentucky, where they worked with Crossings, another innovative congregation, to begin this church focused on the post-modernist generation. (If you have to ask what that means, you ain’t in it.) (smile)

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All Saints Day in N’Awlins


New Orleans and surrounding parts are all agog today. The Saints are playing the Philadelphia Eagles tonight for the NFL division championship. The winner goes to the NFC championship next weekend, and the winner of that to the Super Bowl in Miami on February 4.

You’d think we’ve never been here before.

We haven’t. Well, we’ve played in post-season playoff games. Four of them, to be exact, in 40 years of Saints football. And we’ve won exactly one. But this year figures to be different.

It feels different. The other times in previous years, honestly, we felt like impostors. Maybe the ball will bounce our way, anything can happen, we might luck up. This time, Saints fans feel like the team is honestly good enough to go all the way.

Today’s Times-Picayune splashed a headline across the front page: “All Saints Day!” It is indeed. Everywhere you look–and I put in 65 miles around this town today–people are wearing their Saints regalia. Even the doormen at swanky hotels. My son Neil took his three children to Academy Sports and let them buy Saints jerseys. Two opted for quarterback Drew Brees and the other for Reggie Bush’s shirts.

The paper ran a feature about Jackson, Mississippi, today, how the citizens are rooting for the Saints and buying up all the team’s caps and shirts they can find, a direct result of the team holding their training camp at Millsaps College last summer. Couple of funny stories….

Con Maloney owns an appliance store in Jackson. Last summer he ran a promotion to sell HDTV sets, and promised that if the Saints win the Super Bowl, he will refund the price of the set minus the sales tax. He sold a million dollars worth. At the time, of course, no one gave the Saints even a slim chance. They’re still a long way out, but it has become a distinct possibility.

Maloney confesses he has bought a half-million dollars of insurance in case he has to fork out those big bucks. He says the publicity will be worth the other $500,000 if it does indeed come to pass.

A bar owner in Jackson decided to buy a couple of season tickets for 2007-08 and run a promotional contest. The Saints ticket office said they’d have to put him on a waiting list. He’s number 2,600.

This has been a big day for us.

At 10 o’clock this morning, Global Maritime Ministries on Tchoupitoulas held their annual “board and friends” meeting, followed by a dedication of the new port ministry center at 1:30 pm. This big building is incredibly beautiful and well-furnished. As we gathered, you could see a number of foreign-looking men sitting before computers. “They’re off the Carnival cruise ship ‘Fantasy,'” Philip Vandercook told us. “Normally, they’ll have 25 crew members to drop by the center when they’re in town.”

Freddie Arnold chaired the building committee for Global Maritime, so had to be present at the afternoon dedication, while I drove to Chalmette for the 2 pm ground-breaking service for the “new” First Baptist Church. I would estimate 150-200 people gathered inside the gutted out sanctuary, many of them coming an hour early, just to dream about re-establishing their beloved church. Pastor John Jeffries has done a masterful job working with architects, Builders for Christ, and the Louisiana Baptist Builders.

By the time the nearly 2 hour service ended, Freddie Arnold had arrived and was able to address the crowd. Among the guests were several St. Bernard Parish leaders, Missouri Baptist leaders, and Dr. David Hankins, the executive director of Louisiana Baptists.

At one point, when they ran a video showing photos of the flooded sanctuary with its mildewed pews and ruined walls, as well as the destroyed educational building, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Someone might be tempted to say this were just so much lumber and material, but don’t tell them that. This was their church and it was precious to them.

Some of the members drove in a long way to be present. The hymn leader said, “This is my first time back.”

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Enough Already!

The last time I saw signs yelling “Enough!” was in the mid-1980s just below Charlotte, North Carolina. We had moved there to pastor a church and were taking our first tour of Heritage Village, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s personal Neverland. Everywhere you looked, signs and bumper stickers announced “Enough is enough,” a reference to the barrage of criticism they were taking from the media and other outsiders who suspected things were not as they should be in PTL-land. We know now who was right.

Thursday, at the downtown New Orleans march to protest the city’s alarming murder rate, “Enough” blared at you from many a sign and poster. People are tired of being shocked by the morning news that more murders occurred overnight. One sign read, “Silence is Violence.”

The official estimate is that 3,000 people of all colors and races were marching. They came from several directions and met in front of City Hall for a rally. The funny thing about it–we’ll say it’s funny but I doubt Mr. Nagin thought so–is that many of the speakers were railing at the mayor, wondering where he is, calling for his resignation, evidently without a clue that he was standing right behind them.

Pastor John Raphael, Jr., gets my vote for our next preacher-leader. He was the instigator of this march and has been rallying the city from the pulpit of his New Hope Baptist Church (presumably a National Baptist church). In fact, a dozen years ago signs popped up all over certain sections of the city calling out “Thou shalt not kill.” A large billboard with that message was erected at Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue. They were Pastor Raphael’s idea and paid for by New Hope Church.

These days, that same billboard has one word: “Enough!”

At the rally, Mr. Raphael, whom I do not know, said, “We have come to declare that a city that could not be drowned in waters of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens.” Great line. An important declaration.

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A Baptist Meeting, and a Tithing Story

Sojourn, the new start-up church directed toward post-moderns, holds its first worship service on Magazine Street this Sunday at 5 pm. James and Amy Welch came down from Louisville, Kentucky, some months ago to begin this ministry which is being sponsored by First Baptist of Kenner.

Saturday morning at 10 am, the board of Global Maritime Ministries on Tchoupitoulas Street is holding its annual meeting. That afternoon at 1:30, they’ll be dedicating their new Port Ministry Center. Everyone is invited. Check out their website.

And also that afternoon, at 2 pm, the First Baptist Church of Chalmette (St. Bernard Parish), will be holding ground-breaking and dedication services for its new buildings. Freddie Arnold will be at Global Maritime and I’ll be at Chalmette. Two grand occasions, long-awaited.

Steve Gahagan reports that since Operation NOAH Rebuild (the North American Mission Board’s presence in our city) has been in operation, they have hosted 5,997 church volunteers from across America. They have 1,293 homes on their list still to be worked on. The volunteers have reported 123 professions of faith.

On a similar note, our Arkansas Baptist friends working out of Gentilly Baptist Church headquarters report having completed 52 houses with 1420 volunteers, who report 82 professions of faith.

Those figures–123 and 82 professions of faith–are wonderful, each one precious to the Lord and to us, but only a small fraction of the total number. Several of our churches have had extensive evangelistic outreaches over the 16 months since Katrina, with many hundreds of people indicating they prayed to receive Christ.

The total number as always is: God knows. And rest assured, He does. He alone knows.

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