Getting a Head Start on Sunday

Around here, they throw the heavier half of the Sunday newspaper on Saturday evening, so I get to discard the sale papers and ads and delve into the Sunday crossword puzzle early. But I always save the funnies to read with my cereal the next morning.

Son Marty and family are driving back to Charlotte from the beach. I ran over to Gulf Shores (Alabama) Wednesday and spent the night with them. While he was fishing and Misha and her mom Peggy were soaking up sun, I had quality time with Darilyn, 9, and Jack, 5. We told stories and I drew sketches of them and colored the pictures, which turned out pretty good. I’m still smiling at Darilyn’s comment as she gazed at the finished drawing with appreciation: “This is what comes from looking good and having a grandpa who is a cartoonist.” No false humility around this place!

Marty caught lots of fish, including a redfish weighing–he estimated–30 pounds. He has the photo to prove it. Did he weigh it? Oh, no. He’s learned from his dad: a fish will be heavier if you don’t weigh it. It’s like in church: we’ll have more people if you don’t count them.

“Are you losing a lot of pastors?” Lonnie Wascom asked Friday. He and I had met for lunch at Middendorf’s at Manchac between LaPlace and Hammond, and while putting away plates of their special (paper-thin fried catfish), we caught each other up on our work. Lonnie become director of missions for the Northshore Associations (comprised of the long strip of civilization from Hammond to Covington to Slidell) only a few months before I did less than 4 years ago.

Quite a few, I told him. But there’s no way to tell if it’s a normal attrition rate such as we would have had without a Katrina. In the last few days, Jeff Box has left Suburban for Georgia, Tony Merida has left Kenner for the seminary, and Bobby Burt just left FBC LaPlace for Alabama. Some of our major churches are pastorless, the three afore-mentioned plus Oak Park, Belle Chasse, West St. Charles, Calvary, Gretna, Lakeview, and Marrero. Some, like Faith, have had interim pastors for so long, they’ve probably forgotten any other way.

The five parishes that make up metro New Orleans have put their heads together and devised a plan to issue official passes for three levels of citizens which will enable them to get back into the area early in case of a storm evacuation. First responders get priority, as do utility workers and other emergency relief suppliers. The second tier includes humanitarian relief agencies, and the third group is for businesses critical to restarting life in the city (food, gas, financial).

Such passes are not for everyone and not for every mom-and-pop business, officials say. All our “disaster relief” workers will want to apply with the proper agencies. In the Kenner/Metairie area, go to In New Orleans, it’s www.cityofno/Portals (and a bunch of junk afterwards so that the result looks like: www.cityofno/Portals/Portal38/portal.aspx?tabid=23). If that’s a website, you sure could fool me. I think I prefer the St. Bernard Parish method: “call 504/278-2323 to schedule an in-person interview.”

A page 2 article says the state is now lowering their guaranteed shelter capacity in case of another hurricane from 109,000 beds to 93,000, partially because our friends in Alabama are not coming through with as many spaces as had been expected. In Louisiana proper, we’re told, some 67,000 citizens can be housed in general shelters, and in East Baton Rouge Parish, they’re setting up a spot to house up to 280 sex offenders. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but glad someone did.

The one thought I have about such planning for evacuation shelters is this: Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi are just as vulnerable to hurricanes as is Louisiana. One would think we would be pooling our resources and working as a team. Thankfully, our Baptist disaster relief agencies function that way. When the tornadoes hit in Kansas recently, the DR trucks of several states were on the highway headed in that direction. One of our local churches contacted me asking where to send money to assist the churches in Greenburg.

Hilary Clinton is in town. She spoke at Dillard University’s graduation today, Saturday, and Friday addressed a standing-room-only crowd at an Uptown bed and breakfast (yep, that’s what it says here). Prior to her talk, she re-visited the still-devastated portions of the city and heard the stories of some of our citizens. Helen Johnson, 83, told how she paid $50,000 to a contractor who did a shoddy job of repairing her house, then skipped town. Almost 21 months after surviving the storm on the second floor of her home, she has finally closed on the Road Home grant yesterday.

Senator Clinton says the government should provide seed-money to jump-start all priority infrastructure projects, including fire stations and schools. If she were prez, she says, she would require a complete review of the Corps of Engineers and demand the highest degree of levee protection. She heard from a state senator that more than a billion dollars in federal money is in limbo because FEMA says state rules for giving it out will violate age-discrimination laws. “That is just absurd bureaucracy,” she reacted.

Today at Dillard’s graduation she said the natural disaster of Katrina has become a national disgrace due to the government’s bungling, and the result is an international embarrassment. You won’t get a lot of argument around here.

Speaking of the Corps, it’s meeting with the public in Chalmette today discussing what to do about the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, called MR-GO (“Mister Go”). This waterway was authorized in 1956 by Congress as a quicker connection between the Gulf and the Port of New Orleans (just sail in west from the Mississippi coast without having to go around to the mouth of the Mississippi River and navigate a hundred miles upstream). Since Katrina’s winds blew right over MR-GO and overwhelmed the protective levees and destroyed the Lower 9th Ward as a result, Congress has now instructed the Corps to move deep-draft shipping over to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Whether that means closing MR-GO as locals want is the question on the docket today.

Where’s the mayor? Mr. Nagin and 60 members of his team are attending a weeklong FEMA-sponsored emergency management training seminar in Emmitsburg, Maryland. They will take classes on everything from weather to stress management, and participate in drills simulating actual emergencies in a medium-sized city.

I had a call Wednesday while on my way to the beach. The chaplain at University Hospital had given the man my number. His 20-year-old step-daughter was run over by a drunken driver the other day in Kenner. A bartender had refused service to a drunk, so he stormed into the parking lot and zoomed out into the street and lost control of his vehicle, hitting and running over Jessica who was walking on the sidewalk. Police still haven’t found the guy. Meanwhile, James, the step-father, and Jessica’s mother arrived from Oklahoma City to stay with her. They’ve taken an unfurnished apartment in Metairie and are maxing out their credit cards and need our help.

I gave him the names of two of our most-likely-to-help churches and asked him to call me Friday. He did. I drove over to the apartment today, Saturday, with a number of items we have in our home and gave him some money. “My church back home is small,” he said, “and they don’t have a pastor. The new assistant pastor sent me two hundred dollars.”

My son Neil heard my account of this and said, “Our church business administrator has sent out an email on this, asking for help. We’re going to do something for them.” Jessica is getting out in a day or two and rehabilitation will follow. I hope the young singles at our church will get involved in ministering to her.

I’m recording this here for a reason. One of my pet peeves is the large numbers of churches that are not set up to assist anyone–I mean anyone, church member or complete stranger–with a medical or financial need. Frequently, pastors and other ministers have hard hearts on this subject. “You don’t know who to trust,” they say, and “Helping the poor is a bottomless pit; they just keep coming.” Both statements are true. However, Christians have no choice in this matter. We are commanded to get down in the ditch and help those victimized by bad people or terrible events. (The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 comes to mind.)

The churches and citizens of metro New Orleans have been the recipients of the mercies of God and the generosities of a nation unlike few people in this world. Let us therefore be quick to turn around and give aid and comfort to those among us who have been “run over” by life’s cruelties.

“Freely you have received. Freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) The words of our Lord.

Nothing–absolutely nothing–tells the story about my Christianity or yours like the way we respond to a person or family in need.

This is a good place to close, but the story-teller in me needs to add the conversation I once had with a leader from a former church I had pastored. I knew Earl to be tight with a buck and he could be pretty critical toward others. I had not seen him in twenty years when he and his latest wife drove down to New Orleans to visit us. Somewhere in our conversation he said, “Joe, you’ve got the homeless downtown. I’ve seen them there. Don’t you think they’re all freeloaders, that they could get jobs if they wanted to? Don’t you think it’s a shame the way the government and the do-gooders throw money at them?”

I said, “Earl, it’s possible you are sincere in what you are saying. But it’s also possible it’s just an excuse to get out of helping people in need. Here’s a little test to find out: do you give help to the people you geniunely know to be in need? If you do, then I believe you’re sincere. If you don’t, then you’re just trying to get out of obeying the Lord by helping your neighbor.”

He changed the subject. (It’s interesting how bold a pastor can be to someone who no longer belongs to his church!)

There’s a wonderful little proverb that goes: “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Prov. 19:17)

That sounds like a deal.