Chocolate or gumbo: which will New Orleans be?

Monday was Martin Luther King Day and the mayor of New Orleans took this opportunity to insult most of the residents of his “new” city and offend the president to whom he is appealing for big money to restore the city.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin was speaking to some sixty people on the steps of City Hall. After envisioning himself having a conversation with Dr. King in which the slain civil rights leader did not like a single thing going on around here, Nagin said: “It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. The city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be.”

That was just the first of several strange statements he made in that brief speech.

The radio talk shows were flooded with callers decrying his speech. WWL radio replayed excerpts several times and the entire speech once or twice. I sent this letter to the editor Tuesday morning: “Had a white mayor stood on the steps of City Hall and called for the city to become majority White, he would have been branded a racist from one end of this country to the other.” Then, referring to the excellent coverage in Monday morning’s paper on Grace Baptist Church, I wrote: “On Monday, your front page featured a multi-racial church in the Bywater section that is ‘colorless,’ as Pastor Bill Rogers said. On Tuesday, the front page has the mayor of New Orleans calling for the city to be “chocolate.” The contrast could not be starker.”

City Councilman Oliver Thomas, an African-American being pushed by some to run for mayor, is quoted in the paper: “Everybody’s jaws are dropping right now. Even if you believe some of that crazy stuff, this is not the type of image we need to present to the nation.”

In that brief speech, Nagin also said, “…God is mad at America. He’s sending hurricane after hurricane…. Surely He is not approving us being in Iraq under false pretenses.”

A friend heard that and said, “This is the mayor who’s trying to get the president to help us?”

A Tulane student on Good Morning America Tuesday morning said, “I had thought I would stay around after graduation and live here, but not if the city is going to be hostile to white people.” After the piece ran, Diane Sawyer quoted a release from the mayor’s office in which he lamely tried to undo what he had done. “Chocolate is made up of several colors,” Nagin said, “including milk which is white.” That’s true, but there’s no getting around the statement he made immediately after the chocolate reference: “This city will be a majority African-American city.” He said it; let him explain it.

All day Tuesday, he tried to do just that. “I got carried away,” he said.

Prior to running for City Hall, Nagin was an executive with Cox Cable, which explains his new nickname, “The Cable Guy”. This is the same mayor who, not long after Katrina, said at a news conference, “We don’t want a lot of Mexicans moving in here,” referring to the construction workers coming to help us.

Someone ventured on a Tuesday afternoon talk show, “Gumbo is a more apt description of this city. A little of this, a little of that, a great stew.” A group of U.S. senators arrived Tuesday to see the city, and wouldn’t you know, they were all talking about our mayor’s comments. Not a good sign.

The members of First Baptist Church of Kenner are grateful for the good people of Arkansas who have been working the food unit in the church parking lot for the last four months, feeding many thousands of people a day. But Tuesday, as the Red Cross and Salvation Army began pulling their trailer trucks out and moving them across the city into Algiers, no one was sad to see the place emptied. For all this time, the church has been without 90% of its parking, with large sections roped off, reserved for the disaster relief crews and Red Cross trucks, with armed guards patroling. Some five years ago when we paved that parking lot, chief custodian Ron Moskau erected signs on the property announcing no semi-trailer trucks would be allowed to park there. We laugh at that now; I’ve counted as many as thirty or forty trailers on the property at one time, and the concrete has held up well.

My daughter-in-law Julie works in the church music office a day or two a week, getting everything set up for the choir on Sunday. “I have two people sleeping in my office,” she laughed the other day, “and several in the music library.” One day last week she walked into the library and threw on a light. In a back corner lay one of our Arkansas volunteers on his air mattress snoring away. He was so gone the light did not bother him. (They get up at 3 am and work til 10 without a break.) The sanctuary building has been literally filled with the sleeping bags and air mattresses of these good folk.

Julie asked, “How does one get to be a disaster volunteer?” I told her our Freddie Arnold is a trainer, and that it takes one full day of training. “Tony, our pastor, has already said he wants a lot of us to take the training, because the next Katrina will probably hit somewhere else next year, and we need to be ready to minister to others the way we’ve been helped.” Julie added, “The people from Arkansas have been so kind, so gracious, it makes me wonder if they teach that in the class.” I asked Freddie. He smiled and said, “No, you can’t teach that. But we do remind our volunteers you are the guests of the church and to be considerate.” Everyone agrees the Arkansas workers have been champions in every way.

This week, Freddie is getting some plaques made up to present to our friends from Missouri and Arkansas to show our appreciation. They’ve done so much for so long, no gift or words can adequately express the debt we owe. The Arkansas people were in here immediately after the storm, living in the Kenner city jail, and not allowed to venture outside, yet providing meals for first responders all over this city.

Tuesday, the pastors of St. Bernard Parish held their second meeting at Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers, following the one back in November. Only James “Boogie” Melerine and Mac McGrath were missing. Since Calvary is now hosting the disaster relief workers from Missouri and who knows where else, their parking lots and green lawns were blanketed with large vehicles. I have no idea how they cope with the lack of parking on Sunday. Our meeting lasted past one o’clock and Calvary fed us lunch. Sitting in on the meeting were Milton Kornegay, the president of the New York Baptists, and Richard Taylor, an associate in the evangelism department of the NY Convention, who also brought along a sizeable check to present to our association, money to help those hurt by the storm.

The news about St. Bernard: perhaps 500 residents live in the parish, but thousands of temporary workers are there. Only First Baptist-Chalmette and Delacroix Island churches have had any type of meetings, but neither in their church buildings. The Chalmette folks meet on Saturday mornings in Baton Rouge at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church, along with others from the parish, in services led by Pastor John Jeffries. They’ve had as low as 20 or 30 and as high as 150 attending. Boogie Melerine, the Delacroix leader, is living in the Poydras area and they’re running 15 or more in home meetings.

February 12 is the date for the first “church” meetings of our folks in St. Bernard. Poydras Baptist Church and the Baptists of Chalmette/Arabi will be announcing their worship services soon, beginning on that date. Poydras’ church will be ready, although they’re without power, and the Chalmette group hopes to secure the use of the local cinema. Stay tuned.

I inadvertently stirred up some questions and a little opposition by recent comments about our encouraging churches in devastated areas to “merge.” Probably not a good word. What we’re trying to do is get the churches to choose one meeting place and all worship there for the time being, until the population is strong enough to justify opening the other churches. Trying to be good stewards of what God has given us. As Pastor Jeffrey Friend said today, “If I were to open Hopeview Church anytime soon, we’d be so few and so needy that I’d have to spend all my time raising money just to pay our bills. Better to leave it closed and let’s work together until enough people have returned.” He added, “Let’s put the emphasis on building the people instead of building the churches.”

Monday, we re-entered the offices of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. The place looked great and felt wonderful, almost like old times. When we walked out on Friday, August 26, no one had any idea it would be January 16 before we came back to work. Our phones and the internet do not work, and probably won’t for several months. We’re asking the office staff to be there only from 10 to 2 pm, and do their phoning and computer work from home the rest of the time. We’ve talked to the postman, and he assures us he will be stopping by each day, delivering our mail. It appears that mail sent our way during the evacuation has been lost and will not be recovered. The address is 2222 Lakeshore Drive, New Orleans, LA 70122 and we’re set to receive some mail. Someone, write us!

The worst thing about going to work is the drive from I-10 to the lakefront through 2 miles of the dead zone. Many, many houses and cars sit there like corpses, untouched since Katrina, although a large number of homes and businesses have been cleaned out. All the usual commercial sites–Walgreens, Wendy’s, the banks, Burger King, service stations, bakeries–lie empty, boarded up, lifeless, depressing. A Popeye’s fried chicken place was being built before the storm hit. The half-finished building stands stark and gaunt, making it hard to tell whether it’s coming or going. The University of New Orleans–down the street from us–is due to start classes soon, so perhaps the students’ presence will encourage more businesses to resume operations.

Craig Ratliff was student minister at First Baptist-Arabi, a church completely destroyed by the storm and flood. When the floodwaters began to get alarmingly high, he and his wife loaded a kiddie wading pool with supplies and climbed in, to make their way to high ground. Afraid it was overloaded, they took out everything except what they could cram into a backpack and began to paddle away, through floodwaters fifteen feet high. Down the street, a fellow hailed them. Next thing you know, this complete stranger climbed into the plastic pool with them, threatening to swamp it. They all managed to get to safety, and later to the Chalmette High School. “That may have been the scariest part of our journey,” Craig said Tuesday. “There were 200 people outside the school and 100 dogs inside. The filth was unbelievable.” Eventually, they were put on buses heading to a distant shelter. “The buses stopped at Shreveport,” he said, “and we got off. We called a brother and he drove over and got us to our family’s home.” He’s living out of state now, serving his home church as interim pastor, and completely able to put down roots where he is now but for one thing. God has put New Orleans on his heart. He wants to come back. He needs to be here. I asked him to send me his resume. Surely a pastorless church in these parts will be interested in this fine young man with such a heart for God and so much to offer.

I keep reminding myself that the mayor is not New Orleans, and regardless of what he says, we are welcome in this city and needed here. New Orleans is about gumbo, not chocolate, as much as we love the latter.

Recently, my 93-year-old father encouraged us to retire, to sell out while the housing market is good, and move away to a normal existence somewhere. I will admit it has its attractions. But it wouldn’t work. This is our place. It’s where God called us. Nowhere on earth is as satisfying as the place where the Lord calls and sends His people.

Forty years ago, while attending seminary, I was pastoring a little church across the river, located on Alligator Bayou in the small community of Paradis. The church was growing and we were having babies and feeling loved by our people and having a ball. A visitor to our church, someone from Normal-land (Texas or Alabama or Georgia), said to me one Sunday, “God has a special reward for you folks who sacrifice to live in such a forsaken place to serve Him.” I was stunned. It had never occurred to me someone might think we were sacrificing. We were loving every moment of it.

Most days we’re still loving it. But every day, we feel His presence. Every day, we depend on the prayers of God’s people. Every day, we find Him faithful.

4 thoughts on “Chocolate or gumbo: which will New Orleans be?

  1. I live just a few doors down from that location in Paradis ! The land now has two trailers on it, and the bayou, crossed over my back yard — was filled in ! Wow, funny you should mention. I have always heart about the “Baptist Church” that was there, but never associated it with you ! A majestic oak still stands on the lot….

  2. Thanks Joe for all you do and mean to so many people. I pray that God will continue to bless you, your family, and your ministry. Thanks for being such an inspirational servant of the Lord! Your friend, David Perry

  3. Brother Joe: I was baptized in a church in the town of Paradis in 1960 at the age of six. My dad was pastor of the Baptist church in Des Allemands, but we did not have a baptistry there. He put me under the waters in that church in Paradis personally! What a blessing. I am still being blessed by your website entries. Praying for you as you continue to minister in the city that care forgot but that God loves. +B+B+

  4. To my brother in Christ,

    Thanks for reminding us that God has a great plan for New Orleans. It’s not about chocolate or vanilla. May we have willing spirits for God to use us all in a mighty way for his glory. As a result, New Olreans will be better.

    Windie Muller

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