God’s People are Building This City

I’m directing traffic these days.

“Can you tell me how to arrange for housing for our group that will be coming to work in New Orleans?” I put them in touch with Operation NOAH Rebuild, which is about to open space for 500 people nightly at the World Trade Center in downtown New Orleans. No more sleeping on the hard floors of fellowship halls, or worse, in tents on an Algiers playground.

“We have some money to help a church have a vacation Bible school.” I directed the caller to Jennifer Smith, our VBS director and wife of the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Metairie. If anyone knows a church needing that assistance, she will.

A check arrived in the mail yesterday, about 600 dollars. The note said, “To help some damaged church.” We deposited the check and wrote another just like it to Port Sulphur Baptist Church where Pastor Rodrigue is working out of a tent, giving groceries to 500 families a day, and trying to rebuild a ministry in the most devastated area of Louisiana.

A pastor called. “I’m still working on my application for the Bush-Clinton Katrina money and need some help.” I invited him to come over to the associational office. That’s why we’re here.

The lead story in Tuesday’s paper indicated that as the August 29 deadline draws near, the one year anniversary of Katrina and the cut-off for repairing your home or having it demolished by the city, the mayor and his staff expect lawsuits from citizens in order to stop the process. “We will respect property rights,” leaders say, and emphasize special allowances will be made for senior citizens and others. In all honesty, the city which is running on a skeletal staff is not suddenly going to show up with armies of workers ready to begin tearing down houses.

Other stories in Tuesday’s news tell how Mayor Nagin will be revamping his City Hall team, but with no details as to what he will actually do, how the city has cut a deal on picking up the mountains of debris and household trash that is accumulating on sidewalks and curbs throughout the area, and how the police department tripled the number of arrests last weekend, thanks to the presence of the National Guard patroling the more deserted sections of town, which freed up the NOPD to get after the bad guys (they hauled in 34).

On the other hand, Wednesday morning’s news was that four people were gunned down in a trailer park just outside Slidell last night. Police have no clue why.

Tuesday morning for the first time, the area underneath the interstate at Elysian Fields Avenue was cleared of flooded and ruined automobiles. This site has been a graveyard for probably 200 cars for many months now, but workers were cutting the grass yesterday and raking up the trash. One more good sign of life here.

The American Library Association has been holding its weeklong annual convention in the city, the first large convention to meet here post-Katrina. Estimates range from 16,000 to 18,000 delegates are meeting in the Morial Convention Center at the riverfront. This is the convention center made infamous in the days following the hurricane, and now renovated. In appreciation for their investment and encouragement, the local media has been generous in covering the activities of these visitors. They even downplayed the rowdiness and drunkenness of a few delegates in a downtown hotel that made it necessary for the cops to be called. A columnist found this funny–the vision of drunken librarians just not working in his imagination–and finally decided it must be convention hangers-on who attend these meetings, sales staffs from publishers and the like. Convention delegates have given money and donated time and books to many local libraries put out of business by the hurricane and the subsequent flooding. Laura Bush, the nation’s premier librarian, spoke on Monday.

Reports are that around 11 percent of the $19 billion FEMA has spent in this part of the world since the August 29 hurricane was wasted or given away fraudulently. In any similar situation, Washington leaders say, one might expect a certain amount–maybe 1 to 3 percent–to be misused. But this is an enormous figure and will bear looking into. The only consolation at all to New Orleanians is that the stories deal with people in other localities, such as hotel owners in Texas submitting invoices for fictitional evacuees, prison inmates across the country filing claims, and a military base in Alabama which renovated a shelter where our people were housed, the cost coming out to an average of $416,000 per evacuee. No doubt they will find that Louisianians were also involved in their share of this kind of excessive spending or outright fraud, sin knowing no respect of geography, but at least it’s one thing that will not be blamed on the legacy of political corruption we’re so noted for. At least, not this time.

Recently our legislature passed a law forbidding smoking in Louisiana restaurants. Now, this should be a no-brainer, but some local lawmakers have planned a conference call with Governor Blanco for 5 pm Wednesday to urge her to veto the bill. “It will hurt restaurants,” they say. How’s that? The bars will start serving more food to smokers and the restaurants will suffer. This is the same bunch that finds reason to justify cockfighting in the state. Lord, help us.

The displaced residents of some of our housing developments have now hired lawyers to sue the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans. HUD and HANO announced 2 weeks ago plans to tear down four flooded developments and replace them with mixed income housing. Former residents who are dispersed all over the Southeast converged on New Orleans to protest. “We have a right to live in public housing,” said Pamela Mahogany. Another resident was mentioned as having lived in the Lafitte Development for 40 years.

I do not doubt these folks feel displaced and fearful. I do question whether anyone has a “right” to live in public housing. As a rule, I try to be quiet about this controversy. It’s obvious that I want those hell-holes torn down and replaced by new neighborhoods where families can live in peace. But I live outside New Orleans in safe Jefferson Parish, miles away from any of these projects, and my opinion on this issue is just that, my opinion.

The New Orleans City Council said Tuesday they want to officially end the state of emergency which Katrina began. Mayor Nagin feels differently. This emergency condition grants special powers to the mayor’s office which he would be relinquishing if it ended. “It’s too soon,” he says.

John Maginnis, an independent journalist who covers Louisiana politics, notes some of the more humorous lines from the recent legislative session. “This amendment just deletes some language that’s already been deleted.” “That money will be gone quicker than a Meat-lover’s pizza at a Weight Watcher’s convention.” In the debate over the no-smoking bill, one representative said, “People do not smoke. Cigarettes smoke. The people are just the suckers.” One of the men told his colleagues he had lain awake the night before praying for guidance. “I heard a soft voice saying, ‘I’m not getting involved in that levee board bill.'”

Wednesday’s Pastors Meeting

Attendance was in the 50s for the 10 am meeting Wednesday at Oak Park Baptist Church. Dr. Bill Taylor, retired from Sunday School leadership for Lifeway, was on hand to talk about bringing scores of ministers of education to New Orleans in ’07. “I’m still haunted by something one of you said the last time I was here,” he said. “People make promises to help us, then forget us. They agree to partner with us, then don’t answer the phone when we call.” As a result, Bill said, he was determined to be a man of his word and not make empty promises. “I’m glad to see that NAMB is staying true to New Orleans.”

One of his numerous ideas is to see if churches across America will employ our seminary students to work in our churches in rebuilding, instead of having to take secular jobs.

Tobey Pitman, project coordinator for Operation NOAH Rebuild, at my request gave more information about the Volunteer Village being established on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors of the World Trade Center downtown. “I’m so excited about this,” he said. “We will be able to house 500 volunteers in comfortable surroundings. Just think–they’ve been working all day and get to come back to town at night. Everything is complete downtown. they’ll be seeing both sides of our city, the needy side and the normal side. They can ride the best free ride in the city, the ferry across the river. The great restaurants are right there, shopping, a theater.”

What will the volunteers pay to stay at the Volunteer Village? “It will cost 20 dollars a night. That covers 3 meals, parking, badges, and accident insurance.” He added, “We got a great deal on this. Normally, accommodations this large–it’s 60,000 square feet–would cost $8,000 a month. We are getting it for a fraction of that.”

Where do you call to make reservations for your group? “Call the Project NOAH number–504/362-4604. And because we have so much space, we think we’ll be able to take care of non-Baptist groups also. Although, we’ll always give preference to faith-based volunteers.” I told him someone had mentioned to me some teams coming from CBF churches and needing a place to stay. When I said the Volunteer Village would be open to them, he doubted it. Tobey Pitman affirmed that they will be welcomed.

“We need staffers,” he said, “Volunteers and coordinators for the kitchen. The kitchen at the World Trade Center has not been used in several years. We’re getting it in shape now.”

Tobey ended with a request. “Pray for these workers who come and stay. They’re not from here, but God puts it on their hearts. People like Steve and Diane Gahagan. Joe and Linda Williams. Imagine leaving your comfortable home for a two year commitment in New Orleans. It’s tough. But they’re doing it. Pray for them.”

Steve Gahagan, construction coordinator for NOAH, said, “Get this. Next week we have 4 groups coming in to rebuild homes. 15 gut out crews. 10 painting crews. And 175 people with World Changers coming to work with Habitat in building the homes in Baptist Crossroads.”

Steve said, “Our biggest need right now is for licensed electricians. St. Bernard Parish has given us the right–and no one else–to use out of state licensed electricians. This is a major step forward. Most homeowners do not have the money to afford the local ones or the time to wait until they get to them. So we’re able to step in and wire the house for them.”

NOAH has a lot of electrical work to do, Steve said. Lots of sheetrock hanging, lots of painting. “We work with anyone in town.” He’s still taking gut-out applications, he said, but “we don’t know how much longer.”

Steve added, “I’m praying for volunteers, people who are still thinking about coming to help us. They’ve not made the commitment yet. I’m praying for these.”

Mark Robinson is the new director of student work for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, having come from the University of Louisiana at Monroe. We introduced him and he asked the ministers and laymen to let him know their ideas and suggestions on local collegiate ministry.

I presented David Crosby, pastor of the FBC of NO, with a tongue-in-cheek line: “David doesn’t actually do anything. He just thinks up jobs for other people!” Some of those who work with him closely and love him dearly laughed the biggest. He is indeed a visionary. Take a look at the hundreds working all summer building those 40 houses in the Crossroads. That was his vision. “There are billions of dollars in ‘stuff’ out there,” he said, “and thousands willing to come help us. The church must be the premier broker of volunteer goods and people for God’s glory.”

“Never again in your lifetime will you have so much resource available to you as right now,” David said to the New Orleanians.” He added, “Some of you have said you worry about another disaster occurring and distracting the country. I’m not worried. They won’t forget us. They love to come to New Orleans. They did before the hurricane and they do now. Only by using them poorly will we lose them in the future. We have a tremendous stewardship of this manpower.”

“Let’s be ready for these teams when they come to our community and our churches to help us. Get prepared. Put them to work. They want to make a difference. They want to go back home exhausted, feeling that God used them here, that they have done a significant work for Jesus in this city.”

“I told HGTV ‘God’s people are building this city.’ Just look around. There are no atheist groups out here gutting out these houses or hanging sheetrock or putting up new houses in the 9th Ward. These are Christian groups. Look at their t-shirts. See them in the restaurants. You can’t miss them–they’re the ones bowing their heads praying over their catfish po-boys. These Christian visitors have kept some of these restaurants in business. Christians are fueling the economy as well as the rebuild.”

David ended, “We need to pray deliberately for our city. I drive through the various neighborhoods and pray for what it will become, for whoever is going to move back in.”

Before we ended in prayer groups, Scott Smith took the microphone. “I have three groups of World Changers in town this weekend and I need three churches to host them Sunday morning. They’ll come to your church and fill the pews and ‘amen’ you while you preach. All you have to do is feed them lunch afterward. Who’ll be the first? Okay, that’s one. I need two more….”

Later, several people said, “We should never had lopped an hour off the length of these meetings. An hour and a half is never enough.” Three people said, “Great meeting. What a blessing.”

It’s the mixture. It’s the blend of ages and races and backgrounds, of personalities and experiences and perspectives. It’s the hearing of stories and the sharing of faith.

There is never a plan or agenda for this gathering when we begin at 10 o’clock Wednesday mornings, except for the one the Holy Spirit makes. When it’s over and we move reluctantly out of the sanctuary into the fellowship hall where the ladies of Oak Park Church have prepared a delicious lunch, some of us feel this is the high point of our week. The best show in town.

God is so good.

2 thoughts on “God’s People are Building This City

  1. Joe, and fellow pastors–you are in our hearts, on our minds, and in our prayers. God be praised for the great work He is doing in and through you.

  2. Joe, I have helped MANY of your Pastors with Bush-Clinton Katrina Relief applications and remain willing to continue to help. The deadline is July 31. BUT keep in mind, they are only 1 of 83,000 private foundations in the U.S. (there are thousands of corporate-giving and individual funders!). I would LOVE to help your Pastors, their staff, and especially the volunteers/congregants learn the process of developing Biblical relationships with funders in a one-day workshop!

    On a seperate note, please KNOW that I pray daily for you and your Pastors!

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