Before We Give Thanks

We need to apologize to a church in Memphis.

Members of the Deliverance Temple Church of God in Christ bought a $75,000 house in Memphis for a New Orleans couple displaced by Katrina. The couple–Joshua and Delores Thompson–never even moved into the house, but sold it and pocketed $88,000, then returned to New Orleans. Got a problem with that? “Take it up with God,” Joshua Thompson told a TV reporter who confronted him.

We are outraged and I expect the people of Memphis are, too. There is a time for anger and this is it.

According to Wednesday’s Times-Picayune, the couple came to Memphis literally begging for a new home. The church had decided it would do something special for a Katrina-displaced family, in addition to its other ministries to evacuees. They established a committee which interviewed a number of applicants, and chose the Thompsons. According to Delores, they were in great need. She had lost her job as a nurse and Joshua lost his in the import-export business. Their home and possessions had been destroyed, and their two children–a 14 year old girl and a 16 year old son–were eager to get back in school. They would be so honored to resettle in Memphis.

They took possession of the house in February and sold it in September.

Questions have arisen as to whether the Thompsons were truthful. Property transfer records for the resale of the Memphis house list Delores as unmarried; papers from the original sale show her as married. She claimed they were living in a FEMA-provided apartment in Memphis, but no one ever saw it. The realtor–a member of the Deliverance Temple church–says, “She didn’t want me coming over there. She’d say, ‘I’ll meet you.'” No one has verified the past history of this family, whether they actually held jobs in this city or for that matter, whether they owned a house down here and if so, if it was destroyed.

I’ll tell you this. People like this did not start taking advantage of others only after a hurricane. Check into it and you will find that such calloused people have a long record of this kind of shenanigans. The Memphis church says it has not discussed legal action, but I hope the District Attorney there will get involved. Fraud is a crime whether the church initiates a lawsuit or not.

On the subject of their selling that house at an instant profit….

When Habitat for Humanity signs over a house to its new owners, they give them two mortgages. The first is for the agreed-upon amount, say $75,000, and the second mortgage is for a lesser amount, perhaps $10,000, to bring the mortgages up to the actual market value of the house. The family pays off only the first mortgage with their monthly checks. The face amount of the second mortgage decreases so much each year, say 10 percent, so that after the family has lived there ten years, it disappears and goes away. This is for no other reason than as a safeguard to make sure Habitat doesn’t get scammed by someone moving in today, then selling the house for a clear profit tomorrow. Let them live there ten years, then they can do what they please with the dwelling.

I recall how my dear friend Inez Long of Charlotte, now in Heaven and away from this kind of foolishness, saw the house next door going up for sale. She called her niece in Tennessee and asked, “If I buy that house and give it to you, would you and your family move here?” She agreed and it was done. A few weeks later, Inez noticed a ‘for sale’ sign in the yard. “Oh, we decided to move back to Tennessee,” the niece said. Helpless to do anything about it but knowing she had just been taken advantage of, Inez said, “If I’d known you were going to do that, I’d never have bought it for you in the first place.” Later, she said, “I guarantee you, that’s the only inheritance she’ll get from me.”

I’ll keep readers posted of any further developments in the Joshua & Delores Thompson scam. Take it up with God? Brother.

Some New Orleans news…

Several schools in the city shut down this week due to the extreme cold temperatures and lack of heat in the buildings.

Freddie Arnold and I met this week with a community leader who said, “Fully half of the houses in New Orleans that have been gutted will end up having to be demolished.” Termites and the infection of the wood make them unusable for habitation. I grieve to think of so much wasted efforts of church volunteers from all over the country.

I’ve mentioned here the controversy within the Catholic community over Gentilly’s St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on Paris Avenue. Holy Cross School has received permission from the diocese to take over the shuttered property and demolish the buildings, then erect a new campus. Lovers of the unusual architecture are coming out of the woodwork to protest. Recently, some FEMA official gave another reason not to take the sanctuary building down. It’s of great historical value, even though the edifice was only erected in the early 1960s. The openness of the sanctuary was designed to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which removes many of the physical and spiritual barriers between clergy and laity, a FEMA official said. (Purists would quibble that the building was begun two years prior to Vatican II.)

I thought that pronouncement was rather strange, coming from a federal official. In Wednesday’s letters column, The Reverend Ronald J. Wasowski, C.S.C., writes: “As a Holy Cross priest longing for the rebirth of (our school), all I can say is ‘I love it, love it, love it!’ In its announcement about St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, we now have FEMA interpreting the intent of the Second Vatican Council as expressed in a pre-Vatican II structure!”

A phone call came Wednesday morning from Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Palotta, formerly our neighbors in River Ridge and since Katrina, residents of Baton Rouge. “We love it up here,” Joseph said. He has established his psychiatry office on Essen Lane, and he and Martha Lee are team-teaching a co-ed adult Sunday School class at the wonderful Istrouma Baptist Church. They had successfully taught the auditorium Bible class at First Baptist-Kenner for a number of years and apparently their reputation went along with them. Several former residents of Metairie-Kenner are also members of that church and in their Sunday School class as well. Our loss, Baton Rouge’s gain.

An expert on such things told me Monday that the best-guess projections for New Orleans is that the population will not hit 400,000 until ten years from now.

The news throughout metro New Orleans is mixed, if not mostly negative. The “Whole Foods” store on Esplanade Avenue which re-opened with a flourish earlier this year is now closed. Not enough business. Crime is rampant. Jefferson Parish’s Sheriff Harry Lee, who can infuriate you one minute and excite you the next, and who was rebuffed recently with his plans to stop and question clusters of young Black men on street corners in dangerous neighborhoods in the middle of the night–when they ought to be home and in bed–has spoken out again in the wake of the new eruption of black-on-black crime. He says, “I fully understand that the things I have to do are not going to be universally accepted, but I don’t give a damn.” (Excuse me, Mom.) I think he’s right.

The original plans for the Baptist Crossroads Project in the Ninth Ward called for the forty homes to have been built and completed by this past August. “We’ve completed only 30 of them,” said Mike Flores, the executive chairman of the BCP and a deacon at FBC-New Orleans. “What we need are volunteers and lots of them.” He’s especially looking for skilled men and women who know what they are doing, but will take anyone with a willing spirit and a strong back. (Call the First Baptist Church of New Orleans: 504/482-5775.)

Mike and his team are going forward with plans to build hundreds more Habitat homes in the 9th Ward over the next few years. “Gutting out houses is not going to get this city rebuilt,” he says. “We need to build new houses.” The partnership of the BCP with Habitat and the Baptist Community Ministries is one of the most exciting aspects of the rebuilding of this city. It’s a fact that there is almost no other group planning and building large numbers of new homes anywhere in the city. “It’s all piecemeal, one house here, one there,” Mike says. “And that is not going to get the job done.” They have the money to erect the homes; what they need is workers.

A friend from Delaware called Tuesday. He’s bringing a work crew of 23 from his church and they need a place to stay. I sent him to my website and told him to click on the picture of the house on the right side of the page. It has a list of places where volunteers can stay while working down here. The biggest and perhaps the best–I’m not a good judge of that since I don’t stay in any of them–is the Volunteer Village, an aspect of NAMB’s Operation NOAH Rebuild.

My friend–another former member of FBC Kenner; I married him to his lovely bride–and I discussed work they could be doing, from gutting out and rebuilding to working on the Baptist Crossroads Project, erecting new homes. Either way, I told him, you can stay at the Volunteer Village.

When he expressed concern over the 20 dollars per night cost at the V.V., I suggested he call his father-in-law in Florida and tell him I suggested he fund their project.

His in-laws are more former members of FBC Kenner. We’ve got them all over. In fact, every church in New Orleans has, a fact of post-Katrina life we’re still coming to terms with.

But we will give thanks anyway. The last 3 verses of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk have rarely been more meaningful to anyone than to the people of greater New Orleans at this time:

“Though the fig tree should not blossom,

And there be no fruit on the vines.

Though the yield of the olive should fail,

And the fields produce no food.

Though the flock should be cut off from the fold,

And there be no cattle in the stalls–

Yet I will exult in the Lord.

I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

The Lord God is my strength,

And He has made my feet like the hinds’ feet,

And makes me walk on my high places.”

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