Honoring the people who make a difference

This is about a church changed by a teenager, Debbie, and one blessed by my “daughter”, Mary. You’re going to love both stories.

I’ve told you about Grace Baptist Church on Rampart Street in New Orleans. It’s just over a hundred years old, its pastor is 76-year-old Bill Rogers (who is, incredibly, about to get an earned doctorate from our seminary in Louisville), and it has maintained a great witness for the Lord through some extremely difficult times. Now, Monday, January 16, they made the front page of the Times-Picayune. And not just the front, the church took the upper half of the front page with the kind of great publicity you couldn’t purchase.

The headline reads “Together in Faith,” and the over-sized caption near the large color photo showing people hugging reads, “When 16-year-old Debbie Curtis-Barbarin stepped through the doors of Grace Baptist Church in 1973, she brought with her a new era of diversity.” The article covers a celebration Sunday in which the church remembered the day Debbie first attended and started it to becoming a color-blind, accepting congregation. When she walked into the church that day, as soon as she noticed it was a whites-only affair, she decided to leave and not return. That’s when people started coming up, welcoming her. An elderly couple who were so kind made the difference, she said, and she came back. In time, her entire family started attending. The church “now boasts one of the most diverse congregations in the Gulf South,” according to the paper.

The Bywater neighborhood surrounding Grace Baptist Church is still largely vacant. There’s so much rebuilding and renovating yet to do, with displaced residents driving in from outlying cities to work on their off-days. Grace has been running 25 or so since Katrina, but Sunday 70 were present. “This church is totally colorless,” said Pastor Rogers in the article. And for that, he said the church owes a brave teenager a great deal. Today, Grace counts among its congregation natives of Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Canada, as well as locals who are descendants of Irish, German, French, and African.

Incidentally, they led young Debbie to the Lord and baptized her not long after she started attending. She is now a clerk in the finance office of the federal government in New Orleans, lives in a FEMA trailer in Slidell, and commutes to the church where she teaches a Sunday School class.

You’ve heard the Ray Bolz song “Thank you for giving to the Lord,” which envisions people coming up to you in Heaven pointing out the little acts of faithfulness you did on earth which God used to influence them. I’m convinced that is precisely what will happen there. But suppose we got started early; suppose we began telling those special people how important they are to us now, today.

Mary Smith is one of those special people. That’s her real name, although she gets a kick out of telling how she started life as Mary Baronowski.

Mary was a Mississippi College student a long time ago (she reads this, so I’m not telling when) when Margaret and I decided to unofficially adopt four students in our church in Jackson. She was the only female, the other three being Bill Garrett (now in Heaven), Tom Hearon (missionary to Italy), and Gary Pearce (chaplain at one of our Louisiana penitentiaries). I don’t recall exactly how we chose those four or what we did about it. They just became ours, and they know it to this day. Anyway…

Mary and her family live in Baton Rouge and they’re active in the great Istrouma Baptist Church. She’s married to Steve, mother of Joshua and Daniel, and is a piano teacher, Bible teacher, and prayer warrior, in addition to being an all-around super person. It’s the prayer thing I wanted to tell you about.

Pastor Stuart Rothberg was to preach on prayer yesterday, Sunday, January 15, and he asked to interview Mary on the subject of prayer walking. She’s big into that. Mary e-mailed me toward the end of the week, asking us to pray the Father would use her. Which is a little like Emeril Lagasse asking for prayer that his television show would go over big. I promised her I would, but she had to tell me about it afterward. Her e-mail came a short time ago. The fascinating thing is that by 8:30 Monday morning, she learned that God had answered her prayer and had used her testimony in someone’s life.

“I talked about God being our Friend and Companion,” Mary wrote. “When you walk with a friend you make two adjustments…you walk the same direction and at the same pace. That is our desire…as individual church members and as a body.”

The pastor asked Mary for an example. “I shared about prayer walking the church property and praying for the handicapped parking spaces…the people who park there, who were attended to…who sacrificed comfort to come to worship…etc.”

Then, early Monday morning, she received a note from Pastor Stuart thanking her for her testimony and forwarding something he thought she would find interesting. A woman in the church had sent an email to the pastor just after she got home from church. Subject: “Praying for parking spaces.”

The lady began by telling of the family situation in which her husband is out of town on Sundays, leaving her with their young son and her mother-in-law who is not well. I’m going to edit it a little to protect her identity and for space considerations.

“Mama has reached a difficult state of Alzheimer’s and many days, before we get to church, we’ve been through several clothes changes and frustrations over simple things like brushing teeth and combing hair and putting on lipstick. We also have frustrating moments about not-so-simple things like ‘Depends.’

“Mama is at the point where she can no longer figure out which door to go through to reach the garage, which door opens the car, how to work the door handle, or how to operate seat belts.

“And then, after surviving getting ready for church, my biggest frustration became parking at a very large church and walking our son to his classroom and getting into church on time. It is a much slower process for Mama to walk with us, but I couldn’t put her out at the curb. There’s no guarantee she would be there when I returned.

“One stormy Sunday morning when my umbrella turned inside out in the parking lot and we got soaked getting into church, I had complete Mama meltdown. I cried the whole service, I was so frustrated. That’s when my husband got a handicapped hang tag for my car, so I can now park close to the church.

“And then today, to hear that lady say she prayed ‘for handicaped parking and those people parking in them’ was so touching for me.”

She concluded, “Parking must seem like such a small thing to most people, but it was becoming my biggest obstacle.”

Mary said to me, “God is so amazing. But then, I knew that. It’s just so fun to be in partnership, as well as to be reminded on such a personal level.”

Thank you, Debbie, and thank you, Mary, for your faithfulness. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to give thanks to the church member who took time after returning from church to write a thank-you note. Through the wonders of the worldwide web, we have just magnified the effect of her small act of faithfulness.

2 thoughts on “Honoring the people who make a difference

  1. Back in the l940s I was on the Cradle Roll at Grace Baptist Church. My dad was an “associate/intern” with Pastor Scharfenstein while attending the Bible College (now N.O. seminary). I have pictures of VBS in that old stone building, etc. Every time you write something about that church, I pray for that congregation, the pastors, the neighborhood. About 2 months ago I drove my parents by there and we prayed for them. We pray that God will allow that community to come back and that Grace Church continues to be a beacon to point the way to Him in that neighborhood!

  2. Joe —

    I appreciate your comments so much — especially your preference for gumbo over chocolate. As soon as I heard about the Cable Guy’s comments, I was taken back to the first evening out that John and I had when we returned to New Orleans ten years ago — after 6 years in the Mississippi Delta.

    We received a gift certificate, and free child care — and went to Copeland’s. It had been my favorite “special day” restaurant when we lived here as students. I put the first bite of my meal into my mouth, and closed my eyes to savor it. The flavors! There were so many! They blended in a unique way — yet somehow I could still taste each individual ingredient. The neat thing was that each bite tasted a little different from the last, because you didn’t get everything into every bite.

    I told John that night… “THIS is why I am so glad we came back. THIS is why I am so glad that we plan to make this our home.” He said, “Copelands?” I said, “No. Flavor!”

    New Orleans has such a variety of people — a variety of cultures, colors, tastes, backgrounds, even languages. Yet somehow, those differences blend. You see people who are very different from one another being best friends, and not feeling as if they have to turn into a clone or hybrid of the other.

    The problem with Mayor Nagin’s attempt to excuse his faux pas is that the milk dissappeared into the chocolate. That’s fine — I love chocolate. But I don’t want a steady diet of it, and it’s not what New Orleans is known for. If you look at New Orleans best-loved foods — gumbo, red-beans and rice, pralines, even king cake — no flavor, no ingredient disappears into the other. New Orleans culture was – and I hope remains — that way.

    I’m hoping that we will begin to see some great mexican food restaurants that incorporate the best of New Orleans Cuisine. Just like Trey Yuen — a chinese restaurant — does. I’m hoping we will hear some latin music in our worship services. I’m anxious to see our new culture — and hoping that it does not come with the disappearance of any existing culture.

    By the way, the “colorless” worship service wouldn’t appeal to me all that much. I’d want to see, experience and enjoy the color. I’m looking forward to coming home to a city that is even more colorFUL than before.

    I love you, my friend,

    Keep up the good work!

    Christi Gibson, part of the Diaspora in Texas

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