And What Are You Doing This Memorial Day Weekend?

New Orleanians are now receiving reactions in the letters column of the newspaper to the re-election of Ray Nagin as mayor. The sentiment from those outside our area is: “I can’t believe you did that; you deserve what you get.”

The paper says Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco have made up, more or less. The governor says the mayor says all these inflammatory things, but when they meet is all contrition and humility, and that both are willing to try again to stand united in getting this city and the region the help we have to receive.

The Democratic congressional leadership is pressuring local U.S.Representative William Jefferson to step down from membership on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He refuses, saying he has not been indicted of any crime and that New Orleans needs his representation on this committee to help in the rebuilding of the city.

A Two-Part Diversion:

Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas died this week. Our paper ran a short bio, mentioning the one incident everyone remembers, his famous 1988 putdown of Dan Quayle in the vice-presidential debates. In response to Quayle’s invoking comparisons with himself and President Kennedy, Bentsen said, “I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was my friend; Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” I came out of my chair in perfect unison with an uproar from the live audience hearing the debate. It was the perfect putdown, no matter whose side you were on, and one that Mr. Quayle will never outlive.

What the newspaper did not say was that in 1976 Senator Bentsen ran for the democratic nomination for president, the year Jimmy Carter won. I have a personal reason for not forgetting that event.

Sometime in the early summer of 1976, someone from the Secret Service called the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, where I was in my third year as pastor. “Senator and Mrs. Bentsen want to come by your church this afternoon,” the voice said. “Our agents will be by shortly to check out the buildings.” I said, “We’ll be glad to have them, but why would they want to come here?” It turns out they were married in our church in 1943, and this would be their first visit back since that time. I ran home and got my 13 year old son Neil–sorry, Marty and Carla, I have no idea where you were–and we waited around the church until the party arrived. We spent perhaps 30 minutes walking around the plant with them, and the senator told the story of the day they were married.

Mrs. Bentsen (I forget her name; it’s a lovely, unusual first name; Beril? something like that) rode the bus from Texas to Columbus, where young Lloyd was a student pilot at the local Army Air Base. He met her downtown at the bus station and they walked two blocks to the church where Dr. Jesse Dee Franks was pastor. It was a short ceremony, but memorable for another reason. “I had a bad toothache,” Sen. Bentsen said, “and stepped outside and got a pebble and bit down on it the whole service.” I said, “You’re not the first groom who has gotten married with clenched teeth.” Quickly, they were gone, Jimmy Carter won the nomination, and Mr. Bentsen returned to the U.S.Senate. I was glad to see him emerge as the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party 12 years later. Many people felt he would have made a stronger presidential candidate than Michael Dukakis, the star of that duo that went down to dramatic defeat. He was a class act in every way.

Dr. Franks, pastor of the Columbus church from 1921 to 1946 and my predecessor once removed, with Dr. S. R. Woodson serving from 1947 to 1972, had one son, J.D., Jr., known to one and all as “Red.” He was fondly remembered in the community, had started to the Baptist seminary in Louisville, then joined the war against Hitler as a bombardier. In August of 1943, if I have my dates correct, the Allies mounted a massive bombing raid over the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania. The casualty rate was horrific, and Red’s plane went down in flames. He was dead before he hit the ground. Problem is the Allies did not know where Red’s body was, and with officialdom being as it was and still is, Dr. Franks felt he was receiving the runaround. Finally, a year after the war ended, he resigned the church and traveled to Europe to locate Red’s grave. Eventually, he did, and remained overseas to direct relief work for the SBC Foreign Mission Board, then sought out a site for and helped to begin the International Baptist Seminary at Ruschlikon, Switzerland.

Last year, someone wrote a book about Dr. Franks’ search for his son’s body. I read it two months ago, and found it most depressing, as it went into detail about the military’s task after wartime of locating, disinterring, and transporting home the bodies of fallen heroes. That book is in my house and hiding from me at the moment, to my utter frustration. I’ll give the title and author here when the book decides to reappear.

Wednesday’s Pastors’ Meeting

We must have registered our highest attendance yet, with perhaps 70 present. Professor Ken Taylor had brought by his urban missions class to sit in on the meeting. We handed them the microphone and let them introduce themselves and give their reactions to seeing the city. Some are still in shock. Ken announces that his Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church plans to rebuild, and will be moving their worship services into the educational building of Gentilly Baptist Church on Franklin Avenue, with the second Sunday of June their first service.

I told the group on my way to this morning’s meeting, Lynn Rodrigue of the Port Sulphur church, called. His 6 year old son Micah is in West Jefferson Hospital. “He was bit by something,” Lynn said. With the hurricane debris and tall grass everywhere down in Lower Plaquemines, I don’t doubt it. (I’ve told you how Lynn and Nicole are living there with their 4 children in the tiny FEMA trailer.) The bite festered and grew worse, and today, the doctors did minor surgery to open it up and disinfect it. When I went by early after lunch, Micah was smiling and eating a big lunch. I suggested to Lynn that the next group of church volunteers who head his way would be glad to clean up a large area around his church and trailer.

We prayed for young Micah today and for Carolyn Cowan, wife of veteran minister of music Harry, who has just had brain surgery. We’re told it was malignant. All prayers will be welcome.

(Speaking of Port Sulphur, Freddie Arnold from our office, drove a truck to Alexandria yesterday to pick up donated supplies, then delivered them this morning. They will be distributed from Lynn’s church to hundreds of neighbors up and down the river.)

Missouri’s Danny Decker told the group they feel like his extended family and he cannot wait to get back down here. The folks from his state have been working non-stop in St. Bernard Parish. Danny commented at how open people seem to be to the gospel down here these days.

Danny was followed by Steve Gahagan of NAMB’s “Operation NOAH Rebuild,” the unified SBC plan for restoring hundreds of homes and 20 churches through the synchronized work of church volunteers across the nation. He told of visiting one man who had received “only” 13 feet of water in his home. The insurance money was only enough to replace his roof. Steve said, “We will find some sheetrock for your house; don’t worry about that.” The man just wanted help in hanging it; he said he would find the money to buy it himself. When Steve assured him we were going to help him with more than this, the man said other people needed help more than he. The man’s great attitude left a lasting impression on Gahagan.

Steve said, “My wife and I feel so blessed to be able to serve here at this time.” The hardest thing he has to do, he said, is tell people their house is crippled beyond repair and the best thing would be to bulldoze it and start over.

Steve picked up on Danny Decker’s comment about the openness to the gospel and said, “I am from South Carolina. Sometimes a peach is so ripe and so ready that you walk out under the tree and just put the palm of your hand underneath it, and it falls to you.” That’s how people here are, he said. Ready to hear the good news and respond.

Joe and Linda Williams continue to minister to the pastors and their wives with their Ministry Fatigue Workshops. Jill Glover gave a glowing report on the retreat for minister’s wives at Williams Boulevard Church recently.

David Crosby of the FBC of New Orleans reported that 539 houses have been gutted out with volunteer teams working through their church.

David encouraged pastors and youth workers to attend a breakfast meeting at his church tomorrow at 9 am to plan a citywide youth event. Someone who heard of the effort has already contributed $10,000 toward such a cause. David thinks it will take five times that to reach the youth all across the city.

He’s also pulling together a group on June 7 at 9 am to discuss the homeless situation in New Orleans. Everyone interested in these two events is welcome to attend.

David has on his heart that Southern Baptists should hold their annual convention in this city in June of 2008. Problem is, the SBC has already signed a contract to hold it in Indianapolis, where we met in the summer of ’04. “There is no better time to evangelize this city than right now,” he said, “and we will never get this kind of opportunity again.” My understanding is it will cost the SBC something like $200,000 to cancel the contracts we signed with Indianapolis, if it were to happen. That would take a vote of the messengers attending the SBC in Greensboro, North Carolina, next month. At this point, David plans to make the motion.

David seems fully aware of the obstacles to be overcome if the convention made such a radical decision, but said, “Turning a train around is a big job. But we need to be more flexible on these things; we need to learn how to turn this train around quicker.”

Yesterday, the local paper announced that the NBA will hold its championship game in New Orleans in 2008. It might even be at the same time as the Southern Baptist Convention meeting. We have the New Orleans Arena, the Louisiana Superdome, and the Convention Center, and with the smaller attendance we’re running at these events these days, either one would work for us.

First Baptist of Arabi is due to be demolished today. Craig Ratliff has been working with everyone from mayors to congressmen to get this done so Celebration Church can erect a new building there and they can get started with some kind of ministry. St. Bernard Parish is abuzz with activity, so there is no lack of people to minister to.

I wanted the seminary students to hear Thomas Glover’s testimony today. He gave it to us Tuesday during a 3 hour drive to Alexandria, and then was interviewed by Karen Willoughby, managing editor of our state Baptist paper, the Baptist Message, so he ought to have it down pat by now. Thirty years ago, he said, he and one of his brothers headed down to a certain street corner on Mardi Gras day. They would join the “Indians” parade, an African-American krewe dressed in elaborate Indian headdresses and costumes, as they had done for years. A friend was bringing the wine. They would not return home that night until the police ran them off the streets.

To their surprise, they saw a man from their church on a street corner preparing to preach. As they turned to leave, he spotted them and called them over. “Stand behind me while I speak,” he said. In a bit, he called on Thomas to pray and the brother to read the scripture. All Thomas knew was the “Our Father,” what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” But God got hold of him that day. When the preaching ended, the two brothers decided what they wanted most to do was to go home. The family was stunned to see them walking in the door and moreso to learn they had been witnessing. “They thought I had lost my mind,” he said. Thomas pointed out several other ministers in our group, now pastoring local churches, whom he and others in his group had led to Christ. “The chain goes on and on,” he said.

Next Wednesday’s pastors meeting will be different.

Wednesday, May 31, beginning at 10:00 am sharp, Donna Long will give an abbreviated form of a seminary she presents everywhere on the various foundations that have money to help pastors rebuild their churches and how to access it. After lunch, all church leaders interested in applying for the Bush-Clinton-Katrina money will be led step by step through the application process. It’s free, thanks to her volunteering her time and the Louisiana Baptist Convention picking up the tab for her expenses.

This Memorial Day weekend, my family will be meeting for its bi-annual “Cousins Reunion” on our grandfather’s old houseplace five miles outside Nauvoo, Alabama. Grandpa died in 1949 and Granny in 1963 and no one has lived there since. Yet, all the buildings still stand, just as Grandpa built them nearly a hundred years ago. The old-fashioned house, the barn, the blacksmith shop, and the garage where he kept his ’48 Packard. (And no, the car is no longer there.)

Family members will drive in from every direction, we will set up tables and chairs borrowed from the wonderful New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, spread lunch together, catch up on old times, meet the newest members of the clan who have been born or married since we met two years ago, and do a lot of neck-hugging and laughing. There’s no electricity, so at dark, we’ll build a bonfire and roast weiners and marshmallows and tell the family’s stories, embellishing them here and there. Next morning, I’ll be preaching in my sister Carolyn’s church, the lovely little Zion United Methodist Church in Jasper (10:50 am). You’re invited, if you’re in the area. Then, like much of America, we’ll be returning home on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day. A time to remember the Red Franks and Lloyd Bentsens and millions more who served this country, did their jobs well, and reported in to the Heavenly Father.

Tuesday in Alexandria, Adam Beach introduced himself and told how he and his wife evacuated New Orleans just in front of Katrina. “We got to LaFayette just as she was going into labor,” he said. They had reached the home of Bert Langley, my counterpart (director of missions) in that area of the state. A few days later at the First Baptist Church, new pastor Steve Horn said people were coming up to him and asking, “What is our church doing about helping the evacuees and New Orleans?” Steve said, “The answer to that question is: ‘What are you doing?’ Because you are the church, and what you are doing is what the church is doing.” Adam said, “I could not get away from that question, ‘What are you doing?'” Finally, Adam sensed God was calling him to pastor churches. He said ‘yes’ and is presently serving a congregation in the Morgan City area of the state.

We celebrate those who have done their jobs well and left us. We applaud those who are doing their jobs well and are with us–the Danny Deckers and Steve Gahagans, the Lynn Rodrigues and Thomas Glovers and Linda Williams, and you.

“What are you doing?”

1 thought on “And What Are You Doing This Memorial Day Weekend?

  1. Brother Joe–

    Mother says Mrs. Bentsen’s name is Beryl Ann and that she goes by “B. A.”

    Mother saw Mr. Bentsen’s funeral on TV and said it was “very evangelistic”. She said the

    Bentsens’ pastor commented about their faithful attendance at church each week even after

    Senator Bentsen could no longer get around on his own and had to use a wheelchair. Their pastor

    said they would always be in their place–B. A. on one of the front pews with the senator at her side

    in his wheelchair. The pastor said he always walked over and greeted them each Sunday morning

    before going to the pulpit to preach.

    Sherrie W.

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