“I CAME TO SEE WHAT GOD HAD DONE”
The city is allowing residents of the Lower 9th Ward–that most devastated portion of New Orleans–to return only by bus. Gray Line Tours has regularly scheduled runs in and out of that portion of the city. The hourlong tours leave each 30 minutes, from 8 am to 4 pm, ending on Sunday. The area is so dangerous, authorities are not allowing riders to get off and walk around to investigate their destroyed homes or neighborhood. The media says they are still finding dead bodies in houses, two or three a day.
Friday’s Times-Picayunes recorded some of the comments of those seeing the area for the first time. “This used to be a park.” “Houses sitting on top of cars. Fridges on houses. I’m hoping and praying there was some lives saved.” “Nothing there. Like there was never nothing there.” “I came to see what God had done.”
God has done a lot of things here, and He’s still at work.
Greg Hand, pastor of the Vieux Carre Baptist Church on Dauphine Street, one block over from Bourbon, called me Friday. “You need to come see our place,” he said. The Louisiana Baptist Builders have torn out the termite-infested wood throughout much of his building and rebuilt it. “They moved our kitchen into a larger room, and are laying tile. It’s just gorgeous.” The builders are preparing the small church’s facilities to host church groups coming to witness and minister in the Quarter.
Greg said, “Oh, and on the third floor, the workers uncovered a lot of baking pans. We knew that this used to be a bakery in the late 1800s and here is the evidence.” I asked him to hang on to them; I want to see them.
The owner of the bar down the street invited Greg to attend the poetry reading the evening before. What was that like? “Honestly, I’m not sure,” Greg laughed. “Poetry in a bar is not my thing. The owner introduced me to the twenty customers and said if anyone had a problem, I was a good one to talk with. A lady came over and said she needs help in cleaning out her place, so we have a team that’s going over to help her. This may be a breakthrough.” Pray for Greg and Vieux Carre Baptist Church.
Friday, I decided to check out three of our mission ministry points in Kenner. If you are a regular reader of this article, you’re familiar with Dixieland Trailer Park where Mitch and Traci Mares have served the last 3 or 4 years. Mitch is a seminary student, he met Traci and married her in the First Baptist Church of Kenner, and they have built an incredible ministry in this bottom-of-the-food-chain trailer park. The people accepted them so much, the lady who ran the park provided them a trailer, and then space for a double-wide which the association and the church bought, as a chapel and residence for this fine young couple. The Kenner church rightly counted this one of their strongest ministry outreaches. Until Katrina. The hurricane scattered the hundred residents all over the country and downed a massive tree across one end of the chapel trailer.
Wherever those individuals are now, the former residents of Dixieland, there is one thing we may say about them for now and for all time. They know they have been loved. And for these, the poorest of the poor, that is a rarity. Mitch will have to write “finished” on this chapter of his life, but God will see that the fruit remains. In Heaven, they will be coming to Mitch and Traci and those who worked with them, blessing them for their faithfulness.
“The insurance company totaled the trailer,” said Ron Moskau, custodian for the church. “Mitch and Traci are living in Columbus, Georgia, now, while he finishes his seminary on-line.” What about the trailer park? “It’s changed. The fellow who owns it raised the rent from $150 a month to $800. I think he’s turning it into some kind of RV park.” When the owner demanded that the church get the damaged double-wide out, Ron said, “We will, just as soon as you get your tree out of the living room.”
Perhaps as defense for his rudeness, the owner explained, “I’m under a lot of stress.” Let me make a note of that. The owner of the trailer park is raising his rent from 150 to 800 and he’s under stress.
What about Casa de Oracione, the House of Prayer mission, where Luis Orellano pastored? They met in the Kenner church’s youth building which was fairly ruined by the storm, and none have been heard from since. “I think the little congregation is scattered everywhere,” said David Arthur, the church’s student minister. And Bright Star Mission where Carlton Morris pastored? They met in a little building behind the Kenner church’s educational offices. “The building had some damage. They’ve not met either.”
When we speak of the damage to our churches, most of us think in terms of the great Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, brought low by several feet of water in the sanctuary for weeks, and historic churches like Gentilly and Lakeview and Edgewater, dramatically out of commission probably forever. But let us not forget there are many like Bright Star and House of Prayer and Dixieland that are shut down also, victims of the wrath of a storm.
Not an act of God, to be sure. The act of God is all the ministry and compassion and hospitality and love the people are receiving wherever they landed. Insurance companies to the contrary, storms and floods and earthquakes are acts of nature, not of God. Wherever you see people loving the unlovely, helping the helpless, blessing the cursed, there are acts of God. The ministry group I met Thursday from Vallejo, California, their work is an act of God. The group from central Florida, also at Riverside Church in River Ridge, are works of God too.
God is mightily at work in these days. Let us praise Him for His goodness.
DEALING WITH STRESS AND KEEPING ONE’S SANITY
I asked the pastors at a recent Wednesday gathering, “How are you keeping your sanity? What do you do?” It’s all about stress management, you understand.
What stresses? I’m glad you asked.
Even the pastors whose churches had no damage have the pressures of a) a smaller congregation, since they lost members to the evacuation, people who have taken jobs or retired in other cities and are not returning; b) members who suffered loss of their homes and/or jobs; c) clogged streets due to the heavy traffic of construction and DR trucks; d) your favorite stores being closed; e)hosting out of town church groups coming to work in the city, and f) seeing every time you drive two miles from your home devastation which it will take years to erase. The wounds on your soul may heal but the scars will remain the rest of the way home.
And one more big pain-giver: you have pastor friends who lost everything–homes, church buildings, and even their congregations. (How do you lose a congregation? The members lost their homes and jobs and schools, and find little reason to return to this city. Even those who plan to return and rebuild will not be permanent residents here for a long time to come.)
Granted, everyone is dealing with stress, even those who appear to have it all together. How is one to cope successfully?
Whether a hurricane wrecks your life or you live a thousand miles from the coast, always the three deadly enemies of your peace are hurry, crowds, and noise. The remedy is also threefold: stillness, solitude, and silence. Every day of your life, you have to carve out for yourself some quietness and stillness, otherwise you’re not going to make it.
“Laughter,” said one. “Go check out of the library some of Dave Barry’s books. He’s great. The Bible says a merry heart does good like a medicine.” So true. No one bothered to point out that our libraries are still closed.
“Go to a movie,” said another. “Two hours of escape can do wonders for your outlook.” Two theaters are all that are open in the entire metropolitan area of New Orleans.
“Take a long walk every day,” said one. He added, “I walk a four-mile route every morning and talk to the Lord about what’s going on. It has saved my sanity many a time. In my church when I’m having trouble making a decision, someone will say, ‘The pastor hasn’t walked on it yet.'”
Stillness. “Be still and know that I am God.” Solitude. “Come ye apart and rest awhile,” Jesus told the disciples. Silence. “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
When the pastor announced he was taking a vacation, someone piped up, “The devil never takes a vacation!” The minister said, “No, and he’s not my role model, either.”
Not in any particular order, here are some more suggestions…
Sleep helps. Children do wonders for me, particularly my grandchildren. An old black-and-white movie from the 30s or 40s. Ice cream. Chocolate. (Hey, they don’t call it ‘comfort food’ for nothing.) Music. Singing. Worship. Prayer. Dinner with good friends, where you eat something good and talk about interesting things that have nothing to do with hurricanes and rebuilding. A game with people you like.
Laughter. We already said that, but perhaps it needs repeating. Here’s a little exercise I have found to be effective. You’re in the car by yourself, traveling down a highway, no one watching you. Laugh. Laugh out loud over nothing in particular. Just make yourself laugh. It is amazing what a tension-reliever that is. Do it for 45 seconds or even a couple of minutes and you’ll feel like a new person. Turns out laughter is not “like” a medicine, but “is” medicine. Those who study such things tell us that in deep laughter, the brain releases endorphins into the blood stream, giving you a natural high. Endorphins are called “nature’s healers.” And you don’t have to pay big money to get them. The Father who made you equipped you with them. You just have to release them.
Sounds like faith, doesn’t it.
And tears. Crying helps. After nearly 10 days of uninterrupted busy-ness, I found myself tear-ing up and becoming weepy. Being a man, I looked for the reason. “I’m okay,” I said. “So why am I crying?” I decided two things. One, I’m tired, inside and out. And two, I don’t have to have a reason that makes sense. Just let it out. Ten minutes later, the tension gone, I felt great. I recommend tears.
The One who is our real Role Model was not afraid to cry, and we shouldn’t either.
WE’RE MAKING DISCOVERIES ON EVERY HAND
The headline in our paper read, “Demolition can drop homes’ value.” I’ll bet that’s right. Tear it down and it won’t be worth near as much.
A couple in Kenner were wondering about the red stuff leaking from their ceiling onto the kitchen floor. Climbing into the attic, the husband discovered a sack of money from a bank robbery 26 years ago. The red dye had tainted the money and Katrina’s rain had soaked it, causing the dye to drip. The neighbors said, “Yeah, that’s where the bank robber used to live.” Jorge Arevalo had been caught and pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released in 1985 when he was pardoned by–who else?–Governor Edwin Edwards, now residing in a federal pen himself.
Camper cities are everywhere. On my way home from church (okay, churches; I went to four again), I noticed the golf driving range on Airline Highway has been taken over by a hundred FEMA trailers. They left a long green space down the middle of the lines of campers; wonder if that’s the fairway.
Sunday, I ran by Rio Vista Baptist Church where Andy Wiggins is serving as interim pastor. They were meeting in the back of the pastorium while the church is being repaired. Andy and Kelly and their beautiful children lived in seminary housing before. “We were upstairs, though, so we managed to save our stuff.” Where are you living now? “In this house.”
The folks at Bridge City Baptist Church were just beginning to gather as I arrived. Pastor Gene Lee works a construction crew and had done repairs to their church himself. How I envy pastors who can do that.
At the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse, disaster relief trucks have taken over the parking lots and much of their educational space. “How many of you are here for the first time since the storm?” asked the worship leader. Hands went up. They gave me a couple of minutes to thank the church for their faithful service. Everyone applauded when we singled out the yellow-shirted DR volunteers from other states sitting prominently in the center. The bulletin announced chain saw crews, meals served daily, and many other ways of getting help and being of assistance. This church is on the front lines. They are pastorless, but staffer Richard Strahan is on duty.
West St. Charles Baptist Church in Boutte, where Chuck Lowman serves, is gearing up for their second stage of ministry. Earlier, they spent 7 weeks hosting various kinds of crews from all over helping the area get through difficult days. Now, they are training to go into the neighborhoods, from door to door, ministering in the name of Jesus. Pastor Chuck preached on “breaking up the fallow ground,” from Hosea 10. It would appear God has done just that, taken a deep turning plow to our entire area.
I sat down last week and wrote a letter to all our Baptist churches in this association and hand addressed the envelopes. Omitting the churches that were out of business due to the storm, I ended up with only 35 letters. Pre-K, we would have sent out seventy-five.
Oh, I have to add another discovery on how to handle stress. Saturday evening I ran by the Comeback Inn in Metairie to pick up some catfish po-boys. The little restaurant was crowded but nothing unusual about that. My ticket indicated that the order was placed at 5:26 pm. Thirty minutes later, I’m wondering if they’ve forgotten me. “No,” said the bus boy, “they’re just running slow on sandwiches.” I moved off to one side where others were waiting for their orders and we started to deal with our stress in a favorite method of church members I have known through the years. And I found it very effective.
We griped. “I can’t believe how long it’s taking.” “I ought to ask for my money back and leave.” “Yeah, but where would you get supper? It’s this way everywhere.” “They ought to tell you when you order that it’s going to be a half hour or more.” On and on.
Forty-five minutes after placing the order, they called my number. As I drove off, I thought, “I feel fine. No frustration at all.” What had done that? It wasn’t prayer or worship, not laughter or a movie or a walk. It was getting with like-minded people and complaining. Griping really did work.
My deacons have known that for years. Being a preacher, I was never in on the secret until now.
I intend to be careful about recommending it, though. Seems to me God had some unkind things to say about murmuring in the Old Testament.
In truth, nothing demoralizes workers like complaining. You do your best under difficult circumstances and those sitting off to the side doing nothing feel compelled and qualified to sit in judgment. Everything inside you wants to quit.
I remind our people to show grace to one another, to cut each other some slack. Because everyone is having a difficult time; everyone is living with stress. And it’s not going away anytime soon either.
The task given to us is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. We’re here for the long haul. And we are so grateful for our friends from everywhere who are committed to stay with us until that distant day when we are put back together.
“Be not weary in well doing,” the Word says. “For in due time we shall reap, if we don’t quit.”