Evangelistic Baptist Church, north of downtown and just south of the Interstate on Elysian Fields Avenue, was begun by Anthony Pierce a quarter-century ago. These days, Anthony and his wife life in Lafayette, and at this point, it appears they will not be moving back this way. Nevertheless, he still tries to pastor the small congregation that has managed to re-assemble in this sad post-Katrina neighborhood.
“Yesterday, we had a clothing giveaway,” Anthony said. “We must have had a hundred people show up. It was great. And we ran out of food. Nice problem.”
They had a supply preacher today, as Anthony has taken a job in retail sales and had to work. A lady said to me, “We want to thank all the churches that have helped us rebuild. It’s so lovely when the people of God come together in the unity of the Lord.”
Gentilly Baptist Church is a lot of things these days. It’s officially “Gentilly/Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church” due to the merger with the remnants of the two congregations. Ken Taylor is pastoring the merged group which might have numbered 60 today, which includes a number of Arkansas friends here to help with the rebuilding of the city. This church building is the headquarters of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Jackie and Linda James live on the premises and host church teams from that state and their partner-state-convention, Kansas-Nebraska.
Associate Pastor (and seminary professor) Dennis Cole said, “Arkansas Baptists have just affirmed that they are going to stay with us until November of this year at least. They’re sending lots of church teams this way. Some weeks we’ll have a hundred staying in this building.”
One Saturday soon, Dennis announced, a nursery in the Alexandria area is sending 3,000 yard plants down to Gentilly church. “We’ll be sending teams into people’s yards all over the neighborhood planting these. If you want one,” he said to the congregation, “get on the list.” He added, “We’ve worked to rebuild the neighborhood, now we’re working to re-beautify it.”
Pastor Ken Taylor introduced me and I shared a few words of appreciation for the Arkansans present and asked everyone to urge their friends to “pray big” for our city. The church’s website is www.gentillychurch.org.
St. Bernard Baptist Mission sits across the small street from the closed-down, fenced-around St. Bernard Housing Development. Pastor Lionel Roberts said, “We never know who’s going to show up in church. Some Sundays we have as many as 60, sometimes a lot less.” When he started the service at 11 am, he was probably looking at 20 people, but they kept coming in. “Where do they live? They drive in from every direction.”
“The best news is we baptized three last Sunday,” he said. The association’s portable baptistry was resting in the foyer. Pastor Lionel and “Sister” Naomi Roberts would appreciate your prayer for one of their sons who will be in court next Friday on a robbery charge. Lionel said, “He has been diagnosed as bipolar and we think that was part of the problem. He’s never done anything like this before, so we’re praying the judge will be lenient. No one was hurt.”
Driving away from St. Bernard, I noticed well-dressed people arriving for worship at Asia Baptist Church down the street, a congregation affiliated with the National Baptist Convention. A block further, other churches of other denominations were boarded up.
On Paris Avenue, Edgewater Baptist Church is thriving, if the full parking lot is any indication. Pastor Kevin Lee said, “We were down some this morning. We had 120, I think.” Which is outstanding, and I’m fairly confident this is more than the church was running prior to Katrina. As with Gentilly, they draw a lot from the seminary family. Their worship service was earlier, so classes were in session all over the educational building and in hallways when I walked through. Their sanctuary is still skeletal.
Kevin said, “Our two-year-old son has been diagnosed with the speech of a 10-month-old. They’re running tests to see what’s wrong, and we have a therapist helping us. We’ll appreciate the prayers.”
Lakeview Baptist Church is now meeting in their sanctuary, in chairs of various shapes and descriptions. They might have had 40 in attendance. I caught the last of Pastor Dick Randels’ sermon from John 5 on the healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda. The floor is concrete–as was the floor of Gentilly–and the wall behind the pulpit is still bare rafters and beams. But they’re hanging in there, as are all the others, and for that we applaud them. The congregation was staying for lunch.
I asked Harry Cowan, the veteran minister of music, about his wife Carolyn. “We’re about to call in Hospice,” he said. His lovely wife was diagnosed perhaps a year ago with a malignant brain tumor. “They’ve done radiation and now they’re doing chemotherapy. It’s the worst kind of cancer. They’re doing all they know how to.”
I drove home from the five churches this morning with deep appreciation for these ministers and the members who could so easily join a thriving “normal” church in the suburbs, but who feel called by God to work at rebuilding these congregations in these depressing neighborhoods. These men–and so many others like them–are my heroes.
And I came away with three major prayer burdens–for the child of Kevin Lee, the son of Lionel Roberts, and the wife of Harry Cowan. We will appreciate our readers lifting these up to the Father.
Sometimes when I’m visiting in a lovely part of the country, such as I was two weeks ago in Webster County, Kentucky, I will use a little line on the residents which first came to me in the Smoky Mountains above Asheville, NC, twenty years ago: “I feel so sorry for the people who live here because they don’t know what they’re not missing.” I said that to the folks at FBC Providence, Kentucky, and meant every word of it. They live in such a glorious area, but for those like my hosts Donald and Anna Cole who have lived there all their lives, the danger is that one tends to lose sight of how special it is. Until they come to visit us.
A brief drive through any of the neighborhoods I spent my morning in would change all that. In a typical block, you see boarded up houses and for sale signs and an occasional FEMA trailer and then a bright freshly-done renovated home. Sparkling yards and ugly yards overgrown with weeds sit side-by-side. High-water lines are still visible on the houses and in many cases, the spray-painted-insignia from the National Guardsmen is still prominent. The pavement is broken–this is low priority in a city still trying to recover–and the corner strip malls with their convenience stores and filling stations are still shuttered. A few children are out, but they are a rarity.
We’re still years out.
Kevin’s child, Lionel’s son, Harry’s wife, and New Orleans. Our prayer requests.