Helping the helpers in New Orleans

I spent all of Thursday afternoon calling on three of our SBC mission centers in New Orleans. Friendship House, overseen by Kay Bennett, used to minister to troubled and needy women and their children. The Rachel Sims Center and the Carver Center, administered by Larry Miguez and Linda Middlebrooks, formerly devoted themselves to inner city kids and their families. These days, everything has changed. In short, the people aren’t here any longer. So, the North American Mission Board assigned these missionaries and those at the Brantley Center, formerly devoted to the homeless and run by Toby Pitman, to help us host volunteer groups coming in to help restore New Orleans.

I had no appointments today, so after spending the morning in the associational office, mainly devoted to writing letters, I headed out to visit the centers. We’ve been sending teams of visitors to their facilities, and I felt it was time I checked to see how things were going.

“We have lights and water, but no phones and no internet.” I told Kay Bennett that she was describing our situation in the associational office. The Friendship House sits near the river on Elysian Fields Avenue, a block from the backside of the French Quarter. A couple of missionary interns working at the center were plowing their way through mountains of supplies sent from all over the nation. “We had to quit taking clothes,” Kay said. “We have no place to put them. I thought about piling them in the parking lot and inviting anybody and everybody to take them. But that sounded like a bad idea.” She went on, “We have lots of helps for people cleaning out their homes. Sometimes our volunteers just drive around, looking for people working on their houses, and donate these large tubs that are filled with cleaning supplies and gloves and masks, brushes, you name it. People are so appreciative. Sometimes they want to talk and that’s where the witness comes in.”

They have a number of volunteers–from Arkansas, I think–who have been staying there for weeks, switching every week or so with a new crew that comes in to relieve these. “One team is working on Dr. Kelley’s house at the seminary today,” she said. “The rest of them are gutting out homes in the neighborhood.”

“I see you still have that tree in your front yard.” She laughed and said, “I’ve called the city and asked if someone can haul it away. But there it sits.” Actually, the Friendship House has no front yard, just a sidewalk. The massive tree, brought down by the hurricane, could have taken out the side of the building, but it went perpendicular. Crews have cut the limbs off and hauled them away, leaving the massive torso sprawled near the front door like the worst in modern art.


We’re told that only one-third of the 3,000-plus restaurants in metro New Orleans survive. In fifteen years, I’ve probably eaten in fifty. At this rate, I’ll have to live to be a thousand to get to them all. La Cote Brasserie in the Renaissance Hotel looked inviting. The sandwich board on the sidewalk advertised a walnut salad and grilled salmon and coconut pie. It was after one o’clock and I was ready. I carried in the only reading material in the car, the June ’05 Readers’ Digest, and ordered “the sidewalk special.” “Hey, that’s cute,” said Jennifer. “I’m going to tell them to start calling it that.” The food was fine, this place gets great reviews in all the papers, but what most impressed me was the last thing Jennifer said. “I’m going to place your bill here, but you can pay it anytime in the next hour or two, as far as I’m concerned.” Having been rushed out of a restaurant up the interstate at Manchac once because I was alone and they needed the table, I appreciate this touch. I tipped her well. (My daughter used to wait tables at Shoney’s and was stiffed by so many callous customers, ever since I’ve tipped waitresses for her.)

Linda Middlebrooks stopped what she was doing to show me around the Rachel Sims Mission Center. It sits on Second Street near the river on the other side of downtown from the Friendship House. Chris, the Americorps worker, let me in. “Everyone is out working right now,” Linda said, “and Larry is working on the plumbing at the Carver Center.” I had been by Rachel Sims, but never inside it. Very impressive. They must have rooms with bunk beds enough for forty people, and three kitchens where church groups can prepare their own food. In the center of the facility is a New Orleans touch you will probably see nowhere else: a tiny open-air courtyard. “We lost our carpet out there,” said Linda. “We call this our Prayer Garden.” I said, “Or smoking place.” “Well, that’s what it is when my brother comes to visit,” she admitted.

Another surprise I got was the two VIP rooms. Smaller than motel rooms, but with twin beds and comfortable chairs and, best of all, privacy. “This morning a WMU executive came in. She had been over here yesterday, and had to drive a hundred miles to find a motel room. I showed her this room where she could have stayed. She’s been fussing at herself ever since.”

Linda lives in a house two doors away where a crew from Alachua, Florida, was hard at work, repairing the work of a hurricane and making the place more comfortable for this wonderful lady. In between is Larry Miguez’s home. Jennifer, who works at the Carver Center, lives somewhere in that complex, too. I said, “Linda, what’s it like living in this neighborhood?” To be honest, most of us would not do it. She said, “A lot quieter now.” And that was all. But, she’s been there so many years, loving the children of the neighborhood, devoting her life to them, living among them–you can’t help but be so impressed.

Over at the Carver Center, a volunteer crew from North Louisiana had just returned from being given the five dollar tour of New Orleans’ devastation, under the direction of Jennifer and DeShannon, also working at the center. The crew had been working all week. “We’d not even seen the city,” one lady said. She looked like she’d seen a ghost.

Larry was hard at work with a plumber, trying to make the center more livable for volunteer crews staying there. My understanding is that Carver will house volunteers working at Global Maritime a few blocks away on Tchoupitoulas Street. “We’re cleaning out,” he said. The kitchen had that kind of clutter that accumulates over the years. “It’s not junk and it wasn’t ruined by Katrina,” he said, “but we need it out of here. Like the children’s books here. We need fifty or so, but we don’t need a thousand. So, we’re going to put them outside and let anyone who wants them take them. Some of this stuff will be hauled off as trash.”

“We need some buses,” Larry Miguez said. What kind of buses? “Church vans or buses.” He explained, “We have more and more people coming in from all over the nation. And when Spring gets here, we’ll have college groups and youth groups, and we need ways to transport them.” In the summer, World Changers will bring thousands of youth here to help us build forty new homes in the Upper 9th Ward. “We could sure use some church buses,” Larry said. I said, “How many?” “Four. One for Carver, one for Rachel Sims. Another for the Brantley Center, and one for Friendship House.”

I said, “I’m going to put out the call on my website. Someone out there knows a church that has a van or bus, perhaps with a lot of miles and they’re thinking of replacing it. They could keep it in the Lord’s service and give it to you.”

(NOTE: Pass along my e-mail address to anyone interested: joe@joemckeever.com.)

It’s easy to see why buses are needed to move people around. The streets are narrow and one-way, and the only parking is on-street. I haven’t asked, but I guarantee you that neighborhood used to be a lot more scary at night than it is today. For better or for worse, we seem to have sent most of our crime problem to Houston and Dallas and Memphis.

Global Maritime Center was a beehive of activity. For over forty years, the Vandercook family has led this ministry to port workers and seamen (and yes, seawomen). When I was in seminary, Rev. John Vandercook–kind-hearted, dedicated, and one-armed–would drive to the docks and meet the ships and ask for permission to go aboard. He would meet the crews and offer some Christian hospitality as they were so far from home. Today, Brother John is retired and his son Philip carries on the work here and at a center twenty or thirty miles upriver at Reserve. For far too long, Philip worked out of his home. Finally, his board and his friends–and probably his wife!–encouraged him to go forward with his dream. This new building being sheet-rocked today will be called the John Vandercook Port Ministry Center. It’s across the street from the river. No longer will Philip or Jared Walley, his colleague, have to drive miles to meet a ship. The center will have a large fellowship-hall-type room for seafarers to play and sit and relax, watch television or read. There will be a phone bank where they can call home. Many are away from home for six months at a time, making what we would consider low wages but which are triple what they could make at home.

Freddie Arnold from our office is serving as building committee chairman for Global Maritime’s new center. He was on hand, going over the work with Philip Vandercook. I do not have words to say how excited I am that this ministry which touches the world without leaving home is going to have such a classy facility. I’ve given to the building fund three times and plan to do so again. As soon as the center is completed, it will have bunk beds to house more work crews coming to help the people and churches of this city. We’re going to be needing them for a long time.

May I invite you to check out their website: www.PortMinistry.com. You can e-mail the director at Philip@PortMinistry.com.

This incredible ministry still needs $400,000 to complete the building. To the best of my knowledge, they have received no large cash gifts. Those who have given all the money to date have done so one or two hundred dollars at a time, occasionally a little more. But it all adds up.

Across the street flows the Mississippi River. That mighty torrent is made up of water that fell to the earth a single drop at a time. Alone, it was nothing. Together with others just like it, it produced the mightiest flow on the North American continent. That’s a picture of the power of your small gift and mine and others like it coming together to do the work of the Lord.

Larry needs four buses. Philip needs four hundred thousand dollars.

I will not play the tiresome internet game of trying to inflict guilt on our readers by daring you to send this article and these two requests to all your friends.

What I will ask you to do is pray. The Lord owns every bus in the world. We only need four. He possesses all the cattle on a thousand hills, according to Psalm 50:10. All we want Him to do is sell off enough of those cows to pay off the new port ministry center for Global Maritime.

Thank you for asking the Father to supply these needs.

2 thoughts on “Helping the helpers in New Orleans

  1. Bro. Joe,

    I remember a number of years ago Rev. John Vandercook would bring a group of men from the ships to our church service at First Baptist Kenner once a month . We had a committee that prepared lunch for them each time they came. They could have gotten a much better meal on the ship, but they chose to come and worship with us. I will always remember the kind-hearted, dedicated, one-armed gentleman, and how wonderful it is that his son Phillip carries on the work.

    Pat Roberson

  2. Bro. Joe,

    I remember a number of years ago Rev. John Vandercook would bring a group of men from the ships to our church service at First Baptist Kenner once a month . We had a committee that prepared lunch for them each time they came. They could have gotten a much better meal on the ship, but they chose to come and worship with us. I will always remember the kind-hearted, dedicated, one-armed gentleman, and how wonderful it is that his son Phillip carries on the work.

    Pat Roberson