Early Saturday afternoon, I more or less coerced my 12-year-old grandson to go downtown with me. “I want to see the church that burned and that they’ve knocked down.” Grant was intrigued, but neither of us was prepared to see the walls of Coliseum Place Baptist Church standing in place just as the fire had left them Thursday morning. The newspaper had indicated the walls were gone.
Yellow “crime scene” tape stretched in every direction, a block away from the church in some places but then at times veering uncomfortably close to the front. A large crane held a wrecking ball on a cable, swinging it threateningly toward the huge brick bell tower, occasionally crumbling loose a section. Kenner deacon Ed Waller stood under a nearby shade tree, along with Sherrie and their son Graham, and our mutual friends Clyde and Vickie Etheridge. At least 25 people were milling around in the park, all eyes on the remains of the building as it was gradually coming down. A few cameramen were on duty, one or two from local television stations. “That guy is from Fox-8,” Ed said. “I used to work with him.”
Ed Waller loved this church. “My mother used to be the church secretary. In fact, this was my home church from my conception until I was 19. Even then–in the early 70’s–it had become a non-resident church. People had moved away from the neighborhood and were driving in on Sundays.” Ed used to climb into the bell tower while Mrs. Waller toiled in the church office. I asked, “How high would you say that tower is?” The one the swinging ball was now in the process of demolishing. We agreed it was 50 or 60 feet high. “But that’s only the base of the tower,” Ed said. “In 1965, Hurricane Betsy toppled the 75 foot extension that sat on this base.” He told how someone had parked his automobile up against the tower as the storm approached, thinking it would be sheltered there. “When the tower fell, it pancaked his car. From the roof to the pavement was maybe 12 inches.”
The daughters of Rev. John Curtis came by the burned church yesterday, Ed said, and carried away the cornerstone, the one that said “1854,” the year the sanctuary was built.
“Some of the people out here are angry,” he said. “They wanted the church walls to be saved and are mad they’re being demolished.” I said, “Where were these people when the church was looking to raise 2 million dollars to save the building?” I remember a conversation with Pastor Mike Melon on foundations he was pursuing to find the money. The only thing I could tell him was that there is no denominational money for such causes. It appeared to me a hopeless endeavor and evidently Mike finally decided the same. Now an arsonist has made the demolish-or-renovate decision for the little congregation.
Mike Moskau came by to watch the tearing down of these last walls. He’s the general contractor for the rebuilding of our Baptist seminary. “We’re on schedule,” he said. “Everything on campus is looking great.” He told how he had 600 Mexican workers laboring to restore the seminary buildings. He pulled together several of our Hispanic pastors and called President Kelley and said, “I know the answer to this, but I want your permission to use a chapel for Sunday worship services.” He received the permission. “The work went so well soon they were holding Wednesday night services there.” A number of the Mexicans have come to Christ in these months.
Ed Waller said, “See that old couple there on the bench? They were married here. They are really hurting today.” I said, “How do you feel?” “Mixed emotions. I know that a church is not brick and mortar, it’s people. But still, you love the building and have wonderful memories there.” Precisely how we felt after Katrina when we found some of our churches devastated beyond belief. I told in these pages how we had wept. Someone took me to task on our website, reminding me that the church is not a building but people, as though this was a new thought to me. Still, we learn to love the building where we worship. That line from our Lord about “where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” seems to apply here, too.
Grant was intrigued by what he saw, although when the crane operator took a break and the dust settled, he was ready to head home. Ed Waller laughed, “When you see one brick fall, you’ve seen them all.” On the way back to Metairie, Grant and I bought soft drinks to cool down. The thermometer on my car showed an outside temperature of 102 degrees. At home, Margaret said New Orleans was the nation’s hot-spot today. I did not need convincing.
Sunday morning, I worshiped with two of our Ninth Ward churches, at 10:30 with Warren Jones at New Salem Baptist Church on North Claiborne and Alvar Streets, and at 11:00 with Grace Baptist Church a half-mile toward the river where Bill Rogers is the long-time pastor. So many similarities, so many differences.
New Salem’s building was brand new when Katrina did her dirty work. Last time I was in the sanctuary, it had been rebuilt, but 25 folding chairs were placed on the concrete floor for a worship service. But not today. It is an all-new church. Sparklingly new. New pews, red cushions, bright red carpet, new pulpit furniture, red choir chairs, modern sound system, everything so impressive. At 10:30 Warren started the service with 8 or 10 of us present. They continued to drift in, and by the time I left, his audience was 30 or so. Because of the heat, I had left my sport coat in the closet and ended up being the only man in the place not wearing a jacket.
“Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow morning,” Warren Jones said. He invited everyone to bring a salad or some dish on the first Sunday of July. “After worship, we’ll have a business meeting and fellowship together over lunch.” Next week, they’re getting back to a full schedule of events, with Sunday School and Wednesday night prayer meeting.
When Warren walked into the sanctuary and spotted me, as we shook hands, he pulled out an envelope containing his church’s contribution to the work of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. I said, “Were you expecting me?” “No. I just had that with me.” I was impressed. This church has struggled to survive, is running a fifth of their former attendance, yet they are contributing to the association.
We don’t keep count of these things, but my impression is that no church in New Orleans has been the recipient of more help from church teams around the country than New Salem. I hope some of those church groups will read this, because I firmly believe their efforts and their contributions were well placed. Three blocks up on Alvar Street, forty new homes are going up, part of our Baptist Crossroads Project being built under the guidance of Habitat for Humanity. Forty families will soon be moving into this neighborhood, an area that is still pretty dreary, with most of the businesses still shut down and many homes still vacant. New Salem is helping residents of their community gut out homes and is distributing a free DVD which tells people what to do to make their home livable again.
A half mile away is Grace Baptist Church, officially in the Bywater section of town. Grace made the front page of the Times-Picayune this year because of their ethnic mixture, a blend of every culture and color. Pastor Bill Rogers has a lot in common with New Salem’s Warren Jones in that they both are strong, friendly personalities. Talk with either for two minutes and you feel you’ve known him for years and want to know him better. Assistant Pastor Charlie Dale was away on a well-needed vacation and summer missionary Jenny Savely led the worship, accompanied by an organist and a pianist. Grace’s attendance was around sixty and the mood was, as at New Salem, warm and joyful. They had just finished Bible school this week, averaging 17 each day, with 25 children the last day. “Almost no children are in the neighborhood,” said Pastor Bill, “so we were glad to find this many.”
Grace Church had no flooding inside after Katrina, but typical hurricane damage to the roofs which caused rainwater to pour in and create problems. Church groups have been generous in helping Grace, and in turn the church has turned over its facilities to groups working in the area. Just a mile beyond the church is the Lower 9th Ward which was totally devastated and where more deaths occurred than anywhere else in the city.
As he stood to preach, Bill Rogers said, “We are sad today because Coliseum Place Baptist Church is no more. One hundred and two years ago, when Coliseum Place was fifty years old, they came to this section of the city and started this church. They began the 20th century as a strong mission-minded church and they begin the 21th century with this tragedy.” He told of getting a phone call Friday from someone wanting him to interfere with the demolition, to contact the Southern Baptist Convention or some authority.
Inspired by the history of the Coliseum Place Church, Bill preached from Matthew 16 a sermon he called “A Church Built On a Rock.” That rock is Jesus, he said, not Simon Peter as some have misinterpreted that passage. Churches built on Jesus are strong and solid and able to help their neighbors.
Grace and New Salem are poised for exciting ministries to a neighborhood on its way back. The members of Coliseum Place will more than likely be relocating to some section of Jefferson Parish where most of their members live, would be my guess.
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ goes forward.
On my way home, I drove down Camp Street just to see. The wrecking ball had finished its work. The church building is now a pile comprised of two million bricks and some charred timbers. The yellow tape was still in place, the site being a dangerous place.
“Thank you, Father, for the Church.”