“Clamoring Clergy” is the headline from Friday’s Times-Picayune, announcing a meeting of some 50 African-American ministers last Tuesday to discuss the situation in New Orleans. Subtitle of the article by Religion Editor Bruce Nolan read: “Pastors push for leadership roles in rebuilding city.”
As the various ministers stood to speak, Nolan says many began with, “My church was in the Lower 9th. I guess that tells you everything.” Many lost their church buildings and their homes, a situation repeated throughout much of the rest of New Orleans and completely throughout St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Only the West Bank of New Orleans and most of Jefferson Parish and everything west were spared this kind of total devastation.
I admit to being a little puzzled by what the ministers had in mind. They seemed concerned that Fred Luter, pastor of the 12,000 member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, was the only Black minister on the mayor’s 17-member “Bring Back New Orleans Commission.” Nolan says the ministers in the gathering, all of whom serve smaller congregations–who doesn’t–“clearly thought his appointment did not address their concerns.” What are those concerns? Jobs and education.
What got me, however, was a quote from a Reverend Wardsworth. “There’s an element in this city that doesn’t want this city to look anything like it did before Katrina.” Nolan writes that he said this to general approval.
So, let’s see now. Before Katrina, you had thousands of poor Blacks living in the worst section of town, the Lower Ninth Ward. The unemployment rate was horrendous, drugs and murder were out of control. The city’s schools were widely acknowledged to be the worst in the state if not the nation. Festivals like Southern Decadence displayed everything sordid and ungodly in human sexuality. And the ministers are concerned that some people do not want the city to change? I confess to being completely puzzled.
Local politicians are up in arms because congressional leaders are afraid to send billions of dollars down here due to Louisiana’s reputation for corruption. Idaho Senator Larry Craig told the folks back home that “fraud is as much a part of the fabric of Louisiana as it is in Iraq and that flooded sections of New Orleans should be abandoned.” The article in today’s newspaper quotes him: “Louisiana and New Orleans are the most corrupt governments in our country and they always have been….A rookie cop in New Orleans, they pay him or her $17,000 starting pay and then wink and say you better make the rest of it on the street.” And Craig is not alone in that assessment.
Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo has urged fellow congressmen not to let our state’s politicians get their hands on the $62 billion appropriated because of “mind-boggling incompetence” in dealing with the storm and our state’s “long history of corruption.”
I will spare you the uproar from our senators and mayor and governor, all of it predictable.
Before commenting on these charges, let me make a confession. I am an Alabama farm boy and not an insider down here in the swamps. I do not know what goes on inside City Hall or the state house except what I read in the paper or see on the TV news. I do not tell Cajun jokes because with my Alabama accent, they don’t work. But I love this city. I lived here three years in the 60s as a seminary student and pastor, and have lived here a second time since 1990, as a pastor and now as director of missions for all the 135 or so Southern Baptist churches. I did not lose my house or my church in the hurricane, although 27 of our pastors lost both. The one thing that grants me the right to say what I’m about to say is that I personally paid for this website out of my pocket. Furthermore, no honest and knowledgeable person will dispute this.
Louisiana, we brought it on ourselves. In the last year, a half dozen judges in the New Orleans area have either gone to jail or been thrown out of office for taking bribes and corrupting justice. The last three state insurance commissioners before the present one, all went to prison. The one governor elected to four terms, Edwin Edwards, sits in a federal pentitentiary at this moment, convicted of racketeering. When he ran against former Ku-Kluxer David Duke, bumper stickers said, “Vote for the Crook,” meaning Edwards. Many people took a perverse pride in our reputation for corruption.
One of the first things C. Ray Nagin did after he became mayor was to accuse the previous administration of corruption on a vast scale and start arresting people. One reason our Orleans Parish school system is in shambles is a level of financial corruption that staggers the imagination. A recent study revealed such bizarre aspects as a teacher being threated by a teenager 15 years ago or kicked in the shins by a third-grader and ever since, staying at home and drawing their full pay and benefits. That is not an isolated case; it’s rampant. Anyone who lives here will tell you, this is the tip of the iceberg. Does anyone remember Judge Perez of Plaquemines Parish from forty years ago? He was called the only dictator America ever had. Huey P. Long. Earl Long. Blaze Starr. Do the names mean anything to you?
We do have some honest political leaders down here. We must or the corruption would not have come out. The last two U.S. attorneys have done amazing things arresting the bad guys. I am not accusing all our leaders of malfeasance, only saying you can’t blame the rest of the nation for fearing to send a five dollar bill down here, much less billions.
I was glad to read that Maine’s Senator Susan Collins urged the senate to strengthen oversight of hurricane-related spending. She pointed out that it is becoming obvious federal relief efforts are “vulnerable to widespread abuse and waste.”
As a tax-paying American, an involved Louisianian, and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I appreciate tight controls on the money the government is sending. In fact, I had thought of writing the president to urge him not to send money to Louisiana without someone to watch over it. This can be a scary place when our politicians get to meeting over steaks at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
First Baptist Church of New Orleans has teams going into Lakeview, the neighborhood nearest them, helping people prepare their homes for re-entry. Pastor David Crosby said today, “We’re trying to put together a crew that can rewire the electrical system of the houses.” It is assumed that the salt water corroded the wires in most houses; if the power is turned on, it could burn the house down. So we have teams that are clearing trees, cleaning yards, mudding out houses, tearing out carpets and moldy sheetrock, and such. Now a team of electricians. There are city and parish regulations to be dealt with before this can be done.
I spent Friday morning with Pastor Tracey Jines and four of his men from Highland Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, who came to survey the situation and see where they can make the best contribution to bringing this city back. After we drove around Kenner and Metairie, checking neighborhoods and seeing what churches are doing, I pointed them in the direction of New Orleans with hand-drawn map and turned them loose. The pictures they took in Kenner would pale in comparison to what they were about to see.
Faith Baptist Church, one of our newer congregations, has been without a home ever since Katrina severely damaged First Presbyterian Church where they have been meeting. Sunday afternoon, they will be meeting at Riverside Baptist Church in River Ridge at 3 pm, their first gathering since the storm. Lay leader Calvin Watson said, “It’s mostly a business meeting to decide what to do now.” He invited me to share a few thoughts with those who come.
Driving down West Esplanade in Kenner, I noticed a sign in front of the Goodwill store. “No donations, please!” Another sign read, “And no dumping!” It appeared that people were cleaning the water-damaged carpet and furniture and clothes out of their houses and “donating” it to Goodwill, right on the back parking lot. Wonder if they wanted a receipt for tax purposes?
Metairie Baptist Church is hosting teams of workers from North Carolina, feeding them, bedding them down in Sunday School rooms. I went over Friday afternoon at supper time, and discovered most of them had not returned yet. They were trying to finish up jobs they had started that morning. Minister of Music Travis Byrd from Charlotte’s Idlewild Baptist Church–where son Marty and his family worship–told me of a lady they worked with that day. Her home had extensive damage, she was totally dismayed, yet she was thrilled at these Tarheels who had come so far to help. Travis shared his faith with her, and felt she was close to making a commitment to the Lord. They were going back to see her today, so we prayed for her salvation. Travis catches a plane to Charlotte tonight, to be there for church tomorrow, while the rest of their team drives back tomorrow. Just listening to the depth of this man and the compassion of his soul for this one who needs Christ gives me great confidence in Idlewild Baptist Church for my family.
Monday, Freddie Arnold, Ed Jelks, and I are getting into the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time, checking on our churches there. We know what to expect and dread it immensely. Tuesday is our quarterly meeting of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s executive board near Alexandria, and Wednesday from 9 to noon is our weekly meeting of all our Baptist pastors and other ministers.
A friend sent a check for $500 to assist with local churches and pastors. What was unusual is that the money came from San Jose, Costa Rica, from the San Pedro Christian Fellowship. What a special blessing.
We receive gifts for our churches and ministers at this address: NEW ORLEANS ASSISTANCE, in care of Louisiana Baptist Foundation, post office box 311, Alexandria, Louisiana 71309. So far, of the money that has arrived in that account, we have spent none. We’re waiting for two things: to get back into our associational office so we can write checks, and to find out what the churches and pastors in the worst affected areas are going to do. We’ll be issuing reports on how we spent the money. No corruption here, God being our guide.
Thanks for praying for us. If you stop, we’re in a lot of trouble.