Since the hurricane, several people have offered to help our pastors and churches rebuild their libraries. The folks at Saddleback Church in California even went so far as to say if we would give them the names and contact information of pastors who lost their libraries, they would make arrangements for a shipment of books to each one. That was easily done on my part, and greatly appreciated by our ministers. The last offer we received, however, stood out from the others. This lady was determined.
“Some men from our church went down to New Orleans and came back telling us about your situation. When I told them I want to help rebuild the church libraries, they said that is low priority right now.” She was clearly offended, believing as all good librarians do, that reading is not only next to cleanliness and godliness, but probably a means to both. We e-mailed back and forth a few times, with me explaining that rebuilding the churches and gathering the dispersed congregations actually do take a higher priority. Finally I said, “Bring your husband down and see for yourself.” Today they did.
She and her husband are spending tonight in our Rachel Sims Mission Center in Uptown New Orleans, then attending our Wednesday pastors’ meeting at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace. I suggested she might want to talk to the pastors about their needs.
I picked the two of them up at their hotel Tuesday morning and gave them the grand tour. Lakeview, Gentilly, out to the associational office on the lakefront, Franklin Avenue, East New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Ninth Ward. All morning long, the sights seemed to get worse and worse. Soon, they got so caught up in gawking at the devastation–and this nearly 6 months after the hurricane–that the husband would forget to take pictures. They got out of the car and walked around inside Edgewater, Gentilly, and Arabi churches. “What’s so amazing,” he said, “is that it is mile after mile of this same misery.”
Clearly, the tour was sapping their spirits and overwhelming their comprehension. That’s why I was delighted to find Warren Jones standing in front of New Salem Baptist Church in the Upper 9th Ward. He smiled that grin that lights up entire neighborhoods and waved me down. We circled the block and parked and walked over to where he was conversing on the street corner with two men and a woman.
Charles Duplessis, pastor of a Lower 9th Ward church (not SBC), greeted us. He had lost his church and his home, and he and Warren Jones were being interviewed by the other couple. “We’re from an organization of several churches,” they said, mentioning the Mennonites and Presbyterians and others, all working with the National Council of Churches. “We’re arranging to help 26 Black churches in this area rebuild, and assigning 10 of our churches to each one for three years.” Evidently, they had chosen Pastor Duplessis’ church and New Salem among the number. I looked at Warren, not knowing whether he needed my blessing on this venture, and said, “We’ll take all the help we can get, won’t we, Warren!” He gave that belly laugh for which he’s famous in these parts and assured us we would indeed.
I introduced Pastor Warren to my librarian friend and her husband. He charmed them with his friendliness, told of the dynamic ministry of his church in this neighborhood, and gave us the tour of his empty buildings. When he learned of her desire to help with a library, he brightened up. “I have just the place,” he beamed, and led us across the street to a vacant dry cleaners building. “I’m asking God for this building,” he said. “The owner actually gave me the key. Wouldn’t this be a great place for a church library, right here on the street, hundreds of cars passing down Robertson every day.” He looked my way and said, “And Brother Joe, they’ve shut down the neighborhood library. We could fill that need.” I could sense that my librarian friend was deciding it was for Warren Jones and New Salem Baptist Church that she and her husband had driven hundreds of miles to New Orleans.
But we weren’t through.
A half mile from New Salem, in the same Upper 9th Ward, sits Grace Baptist Church on North Rampart Street. The doors were open and it was obvious work was in progress. We stepped into the fellowship hall and found a dozen volunteers enjoying lunch. Associate Pastor Charlie Dale gave me a welcome hug and I introduced him to my guests, then met his. Grace Church was being ministered to by Second Baptist Church of South Hadley, Massachusetts. They were laying tile in the sanctuary, hanging sheetrock in the pastorium, and painting. Their pastor–whose name I regret not remembering–had preached Sunday morning. Pastor Bill Rogers, who had shown up by then, said, “He is a wonderful preacher! For an American Baptist!” We all laughed. Bill said, “Joe, would you believe the American Baptist Convention sent our church $1,500!” I said, “Did you take it?” He said, “You better believe it!” and we laughed again.
I asked how in the world an American Baptist church from Massachusetts got connected with Grace. Bill Rogers said, “A girl from our church attends Holyoke School there. When the storm came, her folks evacuated up there, and went to church at South Hadley. And one thing led to another.” The pastor said, “We normally do a mission trip to Appalachia every summer, but felt God wanted us here.”
I had hoped my two guests would meet a pastor or two today, but this was even better than I’d prayed for. Bill Rogers is every bit the charmer Warren Jones is, and young Charlie Dale is, but on a quieter level. They are so committed to the Lord, to their churches, and to their neighborhoods, it’s an inspiration to be around them. I wish they were representative of all New Orleanians today.
They gave us a quick tour of the two parsonages next door to the church where the ministers are living. Still lots of work to be done, but they are getting great assistance. Charlie and Shannon’s two daughters, Moriah and Michaela, were in school today, so I drew them a cartoon on a cardboard and left it for them to color.
Charlie plans to make our pastors’ meeting Wednesday. They’ve been living “in exile” back home in Coker, Alabama, but we are so glad to have them here.
“Are people moving back into the neighborhood?” I asked. “Oh yes,” Bill Rogers said, “They’re everywhere.” Before we left, the librarian had a discussion with both pastors on where they intend to put a library and urged them to be praying about the three people needed to run it. “It’s a media center,” she corrected, “and you need at least three workers to do it right.”
Bill Rogers has pastored Grace 29 years and should get his doctorate in May from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. “They asked me to rewrite the fourth chapter of my paper,” he said, “and put in the Katrina story.” He’s 76 years young. Young in every sense of the word.
We finished our tour by a quick drive-by of the First Baptist Church and brought them back to the hotel. Linda Middlebrooks at the Rachel Sims Mission is hosting them for dinner this evening.
Finally, a “new” hurricane story…
Jeff Box, exiled pastor of Suburban Baptist Church, now living in Grenada, Mississippi, keeps up with his people by the internet, which a lot of our churches are doing. Tuesday morning he shared the story of church member Robert Ladmirault, who had decided to ride out the hurricane. “He spent 19 hours in his attic, 10 hours on his roof, 6 days at the New Orleans Convention Center (without food), was rushed onto an airplane, and told once he was airborne that he was headed to Salt Lake City, Utah. Upon arriving there, Robert fell and severely broke his ankle. Due to a lack of hospital rooms, he was placed in a nursing home for several weeks. He was finally reunited with his wife and has been in Utah since that time. I received a nice letter from Robert last week along with a T-shirt that said, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry. Tomorrow you might be in Utah!'” Jeff says, “It is good to see that Robert can find humor in his circumstance.”
We thank the Utah folks too. We’ll take all the help we can get.