My wife said, “I’m tired of hearing nothing but hurricane news on television.” I said, “If you are, how much more the rest of the country.” She said, “They don’t hear it every time they turn on the TV.” I wonder.
We all know about compassion fatigue. Twenty years ago, every time you turned on the set, you saw the hungry children of Somalia and Ethiopia. At first, you gave money and prayed and contacted your congressman. You gave more money and prayed. Eventually, when the face of another starving child appeared on the screen, you switched to another channel. You just could not deal with it any more.
That’s what we on the Gulf Coast fear will happen. And yet, here in the New Orleans area, we’re just suiting up for the recovery yet to be done. If our friends are tired already of hearing about it and praying for us and helping us, we’re in a lot of trouble.
That said, I need to tell you about Tuesday’s visit into Saint Bernard Parish, the area immediately downriver from New Orleans. The residents have complained for years that New Orleans considers St. Bernard its poor cousin. You’ll find refineries there and fishing villages, but mostly lower-middle-class neighborhoods for people who work in New Orleans. St. Bernard was almost totally obliterated by Katrina. Seeing it this morning, Hiroshima came to mind.
Freddie Arnold, Ed Jelks, and I left early and drove to the end of the road. When you arrive at Delacroix Island, there’s nowhere else to go; you’re at the end. James “Boogie” Melerine is the wonderful pastor of the little Baptist church there. Or, he was. Where the church used to stand are a few pilings jutting into the air. The church building–the construction of which Ed oversaw a decade ago, and men from my church in Kenner worked on as volunteers–just disappeared. Same with some of the other churches. One church appeared to have vanished, then we saw it across the highway in the bayou, only the roof visible.
Churches such as Delacroix, Alluvial City, Reggio–they are no more. Churches such as Poydras, River Edge, Hopeview, and St Bernard Baptist–have had extensive damage and possibly may not make it. First Baptist churches of Arabi and Chalmette are goners also. In fact, of all the Baptist churches we saw today, only Poydras seems viable.
“It’s just a building,” said Pastor David Howard of Arabi. I knew what he meant and recognized what he was doing. It’s the same thing families are saying all over New Orleans today, Wednesday, the first day thousands are being allowed to go back home and see firsthand the devastation. It’s how we deal with great losses. We try to keep it in perspective. We still have our lives, the things that matter most remain, let’s go forward.
And yet, you know and I know those buildings can be precious to us. We sacrifice to build them and give to sustain them. In those classrooms, we do some of our most important work. In that sanctuary, some of life’s greatest moments happened, from weddings to salvation to baptisms to meeting special friends to–most of all–worship of the living God. Yes, it’s just a building. It’s just “stuff.” But it’s more, isn’t it.
“How many times can you say ‘Wow, look at that’?” I asked. “Oh, my. Can you believe that?” You run out of words to describe what you are seeing.
A car in the middle of a field standing on its nose. A boat in a tree. A refrigerator on top of a house. A dumpster on the Arabi church. Slick, oily mud six inches deep inside Hopeview Church. RVs that had floated onto the medians and wrecked. Houses everywhere that have been stripped bare inside and out, looted by Katrina’s winds. A three pound fish on the sidewalk outside the Poydras sanctuary. Where hundreds of homes had stood now lie not even piles of rubbish, but just slabs. Piles of junk lining the roads, like landfill contents coughed up and spat out. A brown, dreary world made up of dried mud and dead grass and ruined trees.
At the invitation of Polly Boudreaux, clerk of the St. Bernard Parish Council, we sat in on their meeting and ate lunch as their guest. The parish government building is unusable now, so they were having their meeting in the only place available, a cruise ship called “Scotia Prince.” Various spokesmen for relief organizations and rebuilding companies were addressing the council members in what was previously a casino room. One man pointed out that of the 24,000 homes ruined by the flood, only one-fourth had flood insurance. They spent the next hour discussing how high to require new homes and businesses to be built to withstand the next storm. I sat there listening and wondering how it feels to preside over a parish that does not exist any more. There is no commerce, none, inside their borders. And no residents, not one. As we left the parish, a long string of work trucks joined us on Paris Road headed for Interstate 10, the single way in and out of St. Bernard.
“How can a storm tear the bricks away from a church like that?” I asked Ed and Freddie, both of them builders. “Look here,” one of them said. A quick inspection showed that the workers who constructed St. Bernard Church had not tied the masonry to the wood structure of the building. The metal ties were there, but it was a rare one that was fixed into the masonry. I said, “How can you be sure the workers are tying your brick and your house together?” They both answered, “Be there and watch it done. Or know your contractor.”
For years that little church has sat there looking strong. As sturdy as a brick house, we might say. Paul Gregoire, admissions director for our seminary, has been pastor of that church longer than any other minister in our association. When the storm came, it revealed a weakness in the construction no one had ever noticed. There’s a sermon there. Life’s storms do not cause the weaknesses; they reveal them. That’s why in the good times, when we’re well and the children are behaving and the bills are paid, this is the time to make sure of the solid construction of our lives, our faith, our relationship with the Lord. Because sooner or later, the storm is coming.
Pastor Cipriano Stephens asked Freddie and me to drop by Valence Street Baptist Church on Magazine Street Monday afternoon to advise him on repairs his church will be undergoing. What we saw took our breath. This building, constructed in the late 1800s and on the National Historic Register, is a lovely tall wood-frame structure with a bell tower reaching up several stories. A visiting church group last summer took an entire week to repaint the building. The storm battered against the church so badly, one side of the tower literally blew out. While we walked around assessing the damage, tourists would pull over and take pictures of this bizarre sight.
Freddie said, “Brother Stephens, look. There is your problem. Rotten timbers from the leaks in the ceiling, and termites.” The wood was so weakened, the stress from the storm broke it.
A professor at our seminary looked at the ruins of his home today and said, “I suppose this develops our character.” Someone else said, “Rather it reveals it.”
That’s the point. Storms and stresses of life uncover the masks and camouflages and defenses we so carefully construct, leaving the real “us” exposed to the world. Who you are under great stress is the real you. For good or for bad.
Today, Wednesday, we held our fourth ministers meeting, and we packed out the room, but this time the visitors almost outnumbered the pastors. We had guests from Laurens, South Carolina, from Peacemakers of Billings, Montana, from Franklin Graham’s ministry (in this case) from Minneapolis, from West Virginia, and from our state convention office in Alexandria. A pastor from Prairieville, near Baton Rouge, said, “I’ve been having trouble finding how to get involved down here, so I just decided to invite myself to this meeting.”
Several displaced pastors expressed sadness that they are not being invited to speak in the churches where they evacuated. One said, “I’m looking at close to a year before getting back into my own pulpit. I need to preach.” He added, “It’s not about the money; I need to stand behind God’s pulpit and declare the word.”
The pastors whose churches survived offered to share their pulpits. One said, “My people love to hear good preaching, and I’d like some help.”
We had been expecting the church architecture people from Lifeway in Nashville, Tennessee, to attend and share their plans to aid the hurting churches. A phone call revealed that their visit is for NEXT week. We will appreciate readers alerting our displaced pastors of the meeting next Wednesday, October 12, at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace, LA, 9 am through lunch.
After our meeting, lunch, and some post-meeting meetings (hey, we’re Baptists; this is what we do), my Peacemaker friends from Montana needed to see someone in Algiers and I volunteered to drive them. We dropped in on Riverside and Calvary Baptist churches where an impressive amount of ministry is going on, then drove around Algiers. Then, we got down to business.
We drove across the river into downtown New Orleans. Johnny Johnson and Rick Friesen thought they had seen hurricane damage before. But nothing like this. The city is so dead. Dark, sad, lonely, depressing. As we drove across one deserted street littered with debris, I said, “This is world-famous Canal Street.” Rick said, “You’re kidding!” A half hour later, we arrived at the seminary. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. My alma mater twice. A part of my life since June, 1964. Every memory I hold of this place and these people is priceless.
Today is the first day for the return of faculty and students to salvage their belongings before crews begin tearing out and throwing away. As we drove onto campus around 4 pm, U-Haul trucks were coming out, driven by young students and middle aged professors. Campus police waved us to a checkpoint in the middle of the street where we signed in, absolving the seminary of responsibility in case we contracted a disease, and we drove on. The front of the campus looked fine, no water damage, just wind and tree trouble. Then we started coming to faculty houses.
Small clusters of people stood around in yards, talking, hugging, staring. The accumulated possessions of lifetimes are being laid to rest inside the crypts of what was once their homes. Talk about above-ground cemeteries.
Old people and small children were missing, due to the dangers of mold upon allergies and respiratory systems. We stopped, hugged, talked, wept, and prayed. But mostly we just hurt with them.
Dr. Charles Harvey is the Vice President for Development, the seminary’s chief fund raiser. He’s a good one too, a wonderful friend to everyone who has ever met him and a great representative of our school. He and Barbara were in the driveway, loading their SUV, so we stopped. Another car sat in the garage, ruined. The water level, clearly visible from the street, covered the vehicle and almost reached the second floor.
Charlie’s dad was another Dr. Charles Harvey, a professor and before that, pastor in Shreveport. If anyone who knew him did not love and admire him, I never heard it. Charlie said, “I came back to find my Dad’s sermon notes and the ordination Bible he wrote in for me.” Pause. “It was all destroyed.” Long pause. “But I’ll see him again some day.”
I mentioned to Dr. Chris Friedman the row of cars across the street in the parking lot, all ruined. He said, “At the height of the flood, we were coming down this street in a boat. I wanted to cut across the parking lot, but someone said, ‘No, the propeller will snag on a car.'” What car? “‘Those under the water.’ And there they are.” What is the white residue on them? “I think it’s mostly salt from Lake Pontchartrain.”
Dr. Ken Gabrielse was missing, but the door to his home stood open. It wasn’t like anyone was going to steal anything, of course. We walked in and looked around at the mold climbing the walls. Margaret and I have spent many a happy hour with Ken and Jana in their wonderful home. These folks live on a professor’s salary, but Jana always made it so beautiful. In the garage sat Matt’s ruined pickup and a motorcycle of no use ever again.
Across the street Dr. John and Christi Gibson welcomed us. They’ve relocated to Wichita Falls, her hometown. “I’m teaching over the internet,” John said. Callie and Trey are now enrolled in high school there and making the most of it. But it’s not the same; they miss their friends at Ben Franklin School. These are precious people, friends of many years, and I ache for them. They appeared to be salvaging very little from their home.
The student manning the checkpoint refused to take my pass back as we exited. “You’ll be back out here sometime this week, won’t you, Doctor McKeever?” I said, “Well, maybe so,” and kept the ticket and we drove off.
I don’t know whether I will or not. My heart aches so badly, I just don’t know how much more of this I can take and whether I want to willingly subject myself to the pain.
And it’s not even my house. My house is just fine, or will be after the roof is repaired.
Saturday when workers were going down my street in their big trucks cutting trees away from power lines, they cut the line bringing TV cable into my house. When I called it to their attention, it turned out none of them speaks English. An email to Cox Cable got no response. Yesterday, I reached an actual human person at the cable company by phone and he said they have a hundred teams out repairing cables and they will arrive at my house when they arrive.
So today, my brother Ronnie from Birmingham called, asking how we are faring. I said, “Terrible. My cable is down, and all I can do is watch TV the old-fashioned way.”
He promised to pray for me.
We all have our problems. And that’s the real size of mine. Just so you’ll know that I know.