De-spooking New Orleans

“Are you going to mention the guy who killed his girlfriend and cut her up and cooked her?”

I wasn’t planning to. It’s been in all the news this week, and Thursday, the Times-Picayune gave it most of the front page and several full pages inside.

“You might as well. The nation is talking about it.”

At Gentilly Baptist Church Thursday night, visiting with the Arkansas Baptists who have made one end of the educational building their headquarters for rebuilding this city, I noticed one of the ladies engrossed in our newspaper, reading every word of this sordid story. On my drive home, scanning the radio dial for the last game of the National League Championship Series, I came across some talk show host in some city gruesomely savoring each detail of this story. What got me was his comment at the end. “New Orleans most definitely did not need this. I mean, it’s always been a spooky city to me. And now this.”

I will spare you most of the details. The essence of the story is that 28 year old Zackery Bowen took his life Tuesday night by jumping off the top of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in the quarter. In his pocket, police found a suicide note instructing them to go to his apartment at 826 No. Rampart, located over a French Quarter voodoo shop, where they would find the body of his 30 year old girl friend, Adriane “Addy” Hall, whom he had strangled. What they found was a dead body, dismembered, and worse. Some of the body pieces lay in cooking pans with spices sprinkled on top. No evidence of cannibalism, police say, as though this were good news.

In his note, Bowen wrote, “This is not accidental. I had to take my own life to pay for the one I took.”

As if that would. Were she my daughter, ten deaths like his would not atone for the life of my child.

Horrible story. Shocking in every aspect. Bowen said he was a failure in everything he tried, and even listed them: school, jobs, military, marriage, parenthood, morals, love. Friends say he served in Iraq and Bosnia while in the military, although this has not been confirmed.

Would you let me make one minor point here: he came to New Orleans from Los Angeles. He left his wife and two children and moved here. So, don’t blame it all on New Orleans.

I venture to say that much (not all) of what makes New Orleans “spooky,” as the talk show host put it, is the result of outsiders who come here determined to leave respectability behind. Take names on Mardi Gras day and I’ll wager you would find the vast majority of the worst revelers are from Normaltown, USA.

That does not make New Orleans blameless, of course. The city provides the venue and the atmosphere and the opportunity for this kind of behavior.

The priest who admits to having abused former Representative Mark Foley when Foley was a young teen and an altar boy now wants to excuse himself. “Let bygones be bygones,” he said.

That’s one more manner of dealing with past sins. Ignore them. Zackery Bowen’s method at least had a little more logic behind it: pay for a life with your life.

In our “young pastors” mentoring session Thursday, we looked at Micah 6 where the prophet addresses this very question: how to get forgiveness for sin. What would it take, he wonders. Perhaps I should kill a flock of lambs or a herd of cattle. Would God be pleased if I offered my firstborn, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

The message all through the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi is that sin must be atoned for with a death. Every altar, every animal sacrificed, testified to the seriousness of our sin and the stiffness of the fine required to expunge it from the record. Those altars and those sacrifices–every last one of them–all pointed to the moment in human history when Christ Himself would be nailed to the cross and die for our sins outside Jerusalem. Our death would not be sufficient to atone even for our own sins, much less for those of others. It took a perfect sacrifice of a Holy Lord. He was the Sacrifice and He was the High Priest. Human language stumbles trying to grasp the full meaning of the cross.

Last Sunday at Picayune, when John Brock retired from his 13 years of pastoring Roseland Park Baptist Church, he said, “I want it to be said of me that I made much of the cross of Jesus.” That was the topic for his final sermon.

Zackery Bowen said in his note, “I scared myself not only by the action of calmly strangling the woman I’ve loved for one and a half years, but by my entire lack of remorse. I’ve known forever how horrible a person I am. Ask anyone.”

Was he horrible? No question. But the drugs and booze and sordid lifestyle he chose exacerbated that condition.

Here was a man desperately in need of the kind of life-transforming power available in the cross of Christ and if I know anything at all, from no where else.

“Deacon Ernest Penns knows about the power of God,” Jackie James said Thursday night. I was being given the tour of the Arkansas portion of Gentilly Baptist Church before we all enjoyed the dinner his wife Linda was preparing in the kitchen. “When we found the deacon, he was living in his flooded, ruined house. Sleeping on the floor.”

Ernest Penns is 76 years old and alone. So when the Arkansas Baptist group found him, their hearts were touched. They have redone his home and in some respects, adopted him. “You ought to hear his testimony,” Jackie said. “The deacon tells of the time he was living on booze. One day, he was about to take a drink. Suddenly, the Lord said to him, ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ He staggered down the street to the nearest church and walked in and said, ‘I’ve just met Jesus and I need to be baptized.’ And what a witness he is for Jesus now!”

Jackie said, “Next week, I’ll take you down to meet him. I guarantee, you’ll never forget him.” They’re flying him to Arkansas on October 30 to speak to the state Baptist convention meeting. “The deacon said, ‘What you want me to go up there for?’ I told him, ‘You’ve got a word from God, don’t you?’ ‘Oh yes sir–I got a word from God!” Jackie said, “He’s got a killer testimony.”

Jackie and Linda are basically living in New Orleans now, at the Gentilly headquarters of Arkansas Baptists. The kitchen is as beautifully and fully furnished as any home, and the pantry well stocked, thanks to the folks back home. Several rooms have been apportioned with bunk beds, ten or twelve in each. Showers, bathrooms, even a lounge room with a television set. “They can only get two or three channels, but we have a DVD player.”

Where does the church meet on Sunday? “In this room upstairs.” It appeared to have 50 folding chairs set up. “We’re going to have a problem next week. We have 77 volunteers coming in from Arkansas, Kansas, and Nebraska. And right now, we don’t have enough beds for them. We’re working on the gymnasium and hope to have cots set up there. But we won’t be able to get all our people in the worship place, much less the regulars.” The regulars are mostly from the now defunct Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church. Ken Taylor is the pastor.

Thursday, the Arkansans at Gentilly numbered about ten. And I will tell you without fear of contradiction, every single one of them is a character. A delightful group. We laughed and teased. They were so tired from gutting out houses and hanging sheetrock today, but they were having the time of their lives. They’re working on a house for a lady with a terminal condition who had sent word that she did not want to die in that FEMA trailer. It’s like they’re on a deadline, pardon the expression, racing the clock to get it ready for her.

Jackie James said, “Our people have shared the gospel with over a thousand people in this city. And we have the names of 36 who have prayed to be saved.”

Some come to New Orleans to die and even to take the lives of others. But thank God–many others come to give their lives so that others may live, a better life now and abundant life forever.

These are the true friends of New Orleans. Halloween holds no fears for them or for the children of God. “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (I John 4:4)

Every time a sinner kneels to repent of his sin and put his trust in the Savior who died for his sins on the cross, this city is a little more de-spooked.

2 thoughts on “De-spooking New Orleans

  1. A little close to the toes!

    Time for me to quick reading and get back to my sermon preparation.

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