Blessed, Brightened Days

After Dale Pierce went through the devastated regions of our city recently, he penned a poem to express his feelings. I asked for a copy to share with you.

Title: Blessed is Each New Day

by Dale T. Pierce

As I walked through Saint Bernard,

I scanned the woe and loss.

I pondered Great Katrina,

And added up the cost.

The buildings all were damaged,

And some were rubble piles.

I knew it would be many days,

‘Fore home they’d come from miles.

Alone I walked through Saint Bernard,

The silence struck me dumb.

The cost and loss beyond compare,

How could such wreckage come?

Now a year has come and gone,

And help still comes and goes.

The hands of God came through His men,

And women, Heaven knows.

We praise the Lord for all He’s done,

We count now praises due.

We thank our God for blessings come,

And hearts He has renewed.

So thank you all for coming,

To help us build our homes.

We thank you for your sacrifice,

For Father’s love you’ve shown.

Our churches still are meeting,

In homes and sheds and more.

We’re praising God for healing,

His Church of ‘us’ restored.

When you go home our one request

Is pray, and pray, and pray.

For Father’s hand is great to bless,

And blessed is each new day.

(I’m certain you have Dale’s permission to reprint it.)

David Crosby of the FBC of NO sent an email this week which we in turn forwarded to all our pastors, announcing the Second Katrina Anniversary Prayer Rally. The date, of course, is Wednesday, August 29, 2007, 7 pm, at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, 5290 Canal Boulevard.

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Changing Gears

“My biggest problem is going from being a disaster pastor,” one of our men said, “to simply being the pastor of the church.” He was voicing the difficulty a number of ministers in this part of the world are dealing with these days: how to transition from the crisis mode their church has functioned in for the past 21 months since Katrina to the normal routine of pastoring a church.

He went on to explain, “When you are gutting out a house or rebuilding a church, you can see the progress each day. But in the typical day of pastoring a church, it’s another story. You deal with people having problems, you plan church programs, you visit the hospitals, you prepare sermons. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see what you got accomplished. The switch is hard on some of us.”

While some of our pastors are dealing with this problem, some wish they were. Jerry Darby is still driving over from Alvin, Texas, near Houston each week. He attends our Wednesday morning pastors’ gathering, then rounds up as many of the scattered members of his One Faith Church as he can locate, and they have church in someone’s home that evening. Next day, he drives back to Texas and pastors New Life Baptist Church there. He admitted, “My Texas members live in fear that we will move back to New Orleans.” But even if that happens–and Jerry’s wife, a native New Orleanian, is ready in a heartbeat–it’s not likely anytime soon. Too few members and no location. Since they are meeting in various homes, some wag suggested their church can be labeled “One Faith, Many Locations.”

Thomas Glover wants his New Covenant Mission in Harvey to transition into a more diverse congregation. “Before Katrina, we were running 20 in attendance, and now we have 40. But, other than Bethany Hales, our “Unlimited Partnership” minister, we’re all African-American.” Thomas got a laugh when he told of someone asking Bethany if New Covenant is a diverse congregation. “Well,” she said, “I’m the only diverse one right now.”

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What are Churches to Do?

I preached Sunday morning at the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse. This good church is announcing that Pastor Sam Gentry of Ironton, Missouri, has received a unanimous call as their next pastor and will begin the first Sunday of July. They are so excited. The sign in front of the church said, “Welcome to new pastor Sam Gentry.” I wondered if anyone reading that would assume he was starting today. They did.

After the service I met a fine young couple who said they are church-looking and when they saw this congregation had a new pastor, decided to visit. “We’re glad we came,” the man said. “Your message was just for us.” I was happy to see a deacon’s wife greeting them and getting their contact information. The husband had said he and his wife were from different religious backgrounds and even though they’ve been married several years, they’re still trying to find common ground. I gently probed about their relationship to Christ, and got their address to send some information.

A young man stationed at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station responded to the invitation to say he was not a Christian, but wanted to be. I enjoyed leading him in what we call the sinner’s prayer, inviting the Lord into his life and committing himself to Christ. The congregation burst into applause when he was presented at the conclusion of the service. A deacon told me later, “During Sunday School this morning, we made a special point to pray that people would be saved here today.”

“I’m not comfortable in church,” a young woman told me Saturday. “I’ve never found any church where I feel at home, like I belong there.”

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When the Next Hurricane Hits

The hospitals of the metro area plan to be ready for the next big one. Some have dug wells and bought satellite phones and erected their own antennas, and have stockpiled food and medicine in advance of the next hurricane to hit this city.

The lead front-page article in Sunday’s Times-Picayune focuses on steps the various medical centers have taken to make sure that the chaotic situation that developed after Katrina’s winds and the subsequent flooding will not occur again. Previously, even though all hospitals had disaster drills, no one thought such a catastrophe could really happen.

There are no unbelievers this time.

Some hospital administrators say they have not ruled out evacuation, but most still plan to stay open to some degree. Elective surgeries will be cancelled the moment a hurricane even hints at choosing our city, and patients such as intensive-care babies and high-risk pregnant mothers will be moved northward.

In the 21 months since Katrina, hospitals have had their people busy reinforcing their buildings against wind and water. West Jefferson Medical Center on the West Bank has raised its generators 20 feet above sea level, and has dug two wells to supply drinking water in the event the parish water system fails. On the North Shore, St. Tammany Parish Hospital installed windows guaranteed to take winds up to 145 mph. Tulane Hospital and Clinic in Downtown New Orleans spent truckloads of money flood-proofing facilities where the emergency generators are stored. Tulane bought a rooftop antenna that can be removed prior to a storm and set up afterwards.

Touro Infirmary in the Uptown area has built a command center equipped with satellite phones and radios where leaders can plan strategy in the wake of a disaster.

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Hurricane Season Begins June 1

This time last year, the very idea of June 1 arriving and bringing with it the onset of the feared hurricane season was a frightening prospect. But since that six-month period turned out to be uneventful, for which we are still giving thanks, we now find ourselves a tad more confident this time around.

The headline in last Wednesday’s paper announced: “Five major hurricanes are forecast.” The federal entity known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center put out its annual and official forecast, calling for a strong possibility of an active season. This means somewhere between 13 and 17 “named” storms, of which 7 to 10 could become hurricanes. From 3 to 5 of those should become category 3 or higher.

Oddly enough, when they displayed a map of the Gulf region with the likelihood of a hurricane landing in each section, the lucky winner was Terrebonne Parish down Southwest of New Orleans. This area which includes the city of Houma has a 21.2 percent possibility of hosting a hurricane, compared to 10-15 percent for the New Orleans area.

Various weather experts are saying that due to global warming and other factors, it’s a virtual certainty that Gulf storms will disrupt the production of oil and gas. This means we may expect further increases in fuel costs.

Now, I am not complaining that the prognosticators from last year–who predicted a busy season with major hurricanes–were wrong. We’re delighted they were wrong. My simple question is: when were they ever right? I cannot recall a time. In fact, after one blown call when they had everyone in this area scared for no reason, we put on the church sign this little dig at the meterologists: “My son is a weather forecaster. Pray he will find honest work.”

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Before You Quit

The best laugh I’ve had in a while came from one of our pastors who wanted to resign and the Lord put a stop to it. He sat in my office this week and told us what happened.

Under the stress of the church situation–every church has its situation–the pastor felt he had taken all he could stand. So, he sat down and wrote a letter to every member of his congregation. He didn’t exactly resign, but came close to it. “Perhaps my work here is finished,” he confessed.

He printed out the letter and, against her better judgement, his wife helped him stuff the envelopes and apply the stamps. He dropped them off at the post office and drove home.

Now, we old-timers could have told him not to act rashly, that these things often look different after a good night’s sleep, and that at the very least he should have let that letter “set” overnight and read it more dispassionately the next morning. But, he had done it and that was that.

Or so he thought.

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Samaritan’s Purse is shutting down their operations in our city. We’re pleased to have had their good people here for these 21 months since Katrina. We sincerely thank Franklin Graham and his team for their faithful service to God and this community.

Operation NOAH Rebuild–the ministry of the SBC North American Mission Board in our city–is committed to stay with us through August of 2008, and they have a full schedule planned for this summer. However, with the sale of the World Trade Center where NOAH’s Volunteer Village is housed, we’ll soon be going forward on a month-by-month basis there.

In a report Tuesday, NOAH’s David Maxwell announced that to date, this ministry has hosted 10,338 volunteers from 671 church or school teams, all of them here to help rebuild the homes and churches of New Orleans. The Volunteer Village staff served 62,702 meals and provided 27,293 “bed nights.” The NOAH office mailed out information packets to 1779 individuals, churches, or schools.

These teams have cleaned out 598 homes and have rebuilt 30 and have 126 under construction. Another 1,529 homes are still on the list to be rebuilt. They’ve cleaned out 3 churches, have rebuilt 4, have 11 under construction, and another 16 on the waiting list.

Okay, so far, so good. Those numbers are solid and fairly easy to find.

After that, the statistics get a little murkier. For instance, NOAH’s records show 509 gospel presentations by those 10,000 volunteers, resulting in 203 professions of faith.

In a meeting Tuesday with some of the NOAH and NAMB people, we suggested that in posting these numbers, they need an explanation concerning the last line, something to the effect that “this is only what was reported.” The actual numbers, we’re convinced, were far higher.

Consider these two aspects:

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Five Churches Sunday Morning

Evangelistic Baptist Church, north of downtown and just south of the Interstate on Elysian Fields Avenue, was begun by Anthony Pierce a quarter-century ago. These days, Anthony and his wife life in Lafayette, and at this point, it appears they will not be moving back this way. Nevertheless, he still tries to pastor the small congregation that has managed to re-assemble in this sad post-Katrina neighborhood.

“Yesterday, we had a clothing giveaway,” Anthony said. “We must have had a hundred people show up. It was great. And we ran out of food. Nice problem.”

They had a supply preacher today, as Anthony has taken a job in retail sales and had to work. A lady said to me, “We want to thank all the churches that have helped us rebuild. It’s so lovely when the people of God come together in the unity of the Lord.”

Gentilly Baptist Church is a lot of things these days. It’s officially “Gentilly/Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church” due to the merger with the remnants of the two congregations. Ken Taylor is pastoring the merged group which might have numbered 60 today, which includes a number of Arkansas friends here to help with the rebuilding of the city. This church building is the headquarters of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Jackie and Linda James live on the premises and host church teams from that state and their partner-state-convention, Kansas-Nebraska.

Associate Pastor (and seminary professor) Dennis Cole said, “Arkansas Baptists have just affirmed that they are going to stay with us until November of this year at least. They’re sending lots of church teams this way. Some weeks we’ll have a hundred staying in this building.”

One Saturday soon, Dennis announced, a nursery in the Alexandria area is sending 3,000 yard plants down to Gentilly church. “We’ll be sending teams into people’s yards all over the neighborhood planting these. If you want one,” he said to the congregation, “get on the list.” He added, “We’ve worked to rebuild the neighborhood, now we’re working to re-beautify it.”

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Getting a Head Start on Sunday

Around here, they throw the heavier half of the Sunday newspaper on Saturday evening, so I get to discard the sale papers and ads and delve into the Sunday crossword puzzle early. But I always save the funnies to read with my cereal the next morning.

Son Marty and family are driving back to Charlotte from the beach. I ran over to Gulf Shores (Alabama) Wednesday and spent the night with them. While he was fishing and Misha and her mom Peggy were soaking up sun, I had quality time with Darilyn, 9, and Jack, 5. We told stories and I drew sketches of them and colored the pictures, which turned out pretty good. I’m still smiling at Darilyn’s comment as she gazed at the finished drawing with appreciation: “This is what comes from looking good and having a grandpa who is a cartoonist.” No false humility around this place!

Marty caught lots of fish, including a redfish weighing–he estimated–30 pounds. He has the photo to prove it. Did he weigh it? Oh, no. He’s learned from his dad: a fish will be heavier if you don’t weigh it. It’s like in church: we’ll have more people if you don’t count them.

“Are you losing a lot of pastors?” Lonnie Wascom asked Friday. He and I had met for lunch at Middendorf’s at Manchac between LaPlace and Hammond, and while putting away plates of their special (paper-thin fried catfish), we caught each other up on our work. Lonnie become director of missions for the Northshore Associations (comprised of the long strip of civilization from Hammond to Covington to Slidell) only a few months before I did less than 4 years ago.

Quite a few, I told him. But there’s no way to tell if it’s a normal attrition rate such as we would have had without a Katrina. In the last few days, Jeff Box has left Suburban for Georgia, Tony Merida has left Kenner for the seminary, and Bobby Burt just left FBC LaPlace for Alabama. Some of our major churches are pastorless, the three afore-mentioned plus Oak Park, Belle Chasse, West St. Charles, Calvary, Gretna, Lakeview, and Marrero. Some, like Faith, have had interim pastors for so long, they’ve probably forgotten any other way.

The five parishes that make up metro New Orleans have put their heads together and devised a plan to issue official passes for three levels of citizens which will enable them to get back into the area early in case of a storm evacuation. First responders get priority, as do utility workers and other emergency relief suppliers. The second tier includes humanitarian relief agencies, and the third group is for businesses critical to restarting life in the city (food, gas, financial).

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Getting to the Point

Theirs was a small church from another state. The pastor had contacted Rudy French about coming down to FBC Norco to help them and to stay in their mission center. “We have nine in our team,” he said. Rudy said, “Come on. We’ll be glad to have you.”

Rudy told our Wednesday pastors group what happened. “They worked hard all week,” he said, “on our playground. I mean they put in 15 hours a day, and it looks beautiful. Toward the end of the week, I told the pastor we want them to have a better experience than just working on our facility. I told him, ‘We’re about evangelism.'”

The pastor asked what Rudy had in mind. “We will buy some plastic laundry baskets,” Rudy said, “for a dollar each. And we’ll fill them with detergents and toiletries and cookies, and go door to door down in St. Bernard Parish and tell people about Jesus.” The pastor said, “We have 300 dollars. How far will that go?”

They bought 18 baskets of goodies to give away. Then Rudy said, “But we’re not just out here giving away supplies. We could knock on their door and set it on the stoop and give away a hundred a day. We want to help these people know the Lord.”

So, Rudy talked to the little church group and gave them training in how to witness. “Every door we go to,” he said, “we’re there to tell them about Jesus.” Intentional evangelism, he calls it.

Saturday, the church group drove to lower St. Bernard Parish and knocked on the doors of 18 homes and talked to the residents and handed out the baskets. The next morning, Rudy preached and the visiting pastor was scheduled to preach that evening. Rudy said, “Your people have worked hard all week. Maybe they’d like to go to Riverwalk or the French Quarter this afternoon so they will feel that they’ve seen New Orleans.”

The pastor said, “No, we have other things we have to do. We’re going back to St. Bernard.” Rudy said, “We don’t have any more baskets to give out.” The pastor said, “We don’t need any more. We’re going to the same homes we visited yesterday.”

Then, Sunday night, the pastor told the congregation what had happened.

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