“I had the opportunity to share the gospel with Harry Connick, Jr! He was terrific.”
“I’ve been interviewed on ‘All Things Considered’ about what our church is doing. I got e-mails from people all over the country saying ‘I can’t believe they let you say those things on public radio.’ But they did. I had the opportunity to preach the gospel to the nation.”
“I’ve been asked to write an article on this story for Baptist Press.” “I’ve been interviewed on Moody Radio twice.” “Here, Joe, read this story in the paper about what our church is doing.”
You just have to understand that these pastors, the ones excitedly telling how God is opening doors, have sat here in New Orleans basically ignored for years. You’re just doing the Lord’s work, leading your church,trying to get it right, sometimes seeing little fruit for your labors. Then, suddenly, Katrina storms in and a reporter for the largest newspaper in the Midwest shows up to interview you. National Public Radio calls. You have opportunities you have only dreamed of. Your community lines up at your church doors asking for your help.
You have longed to see this day come. To your amazement, it came on the heels of a tragic storm that took the lives of perhaps a thousand of our citizens and devastated perhaps 50,000 homes. God working in a tragedy.
Tuesday, Ed Jelks and I rode throughout the West Bank area of metro New Orleans in his huge truck with “Official Disaster Team” emblazoned on the doors. Ed is a church builder, a construction specialist with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and a legend in this state. He and I visited twenty of our Baptist churches.
We saw them in every condition–from fully mobilized, excitedly ministering to their communities, parking lots crammed with long trucks of supplies and RVs for volunteers, yellow t-shirted workers everywhere, lines of cars streaming in–everything from that to the other extreme: churches that appear untouched since the storm blew through. Grass knee-deep, shingles that once covered the roof now protecting the yard, a window out here, the roof leaking there.
And the stories we heard.
Pastor Tom is living on a houseboat on a bayou. Soon he’s moving into the upstairs of the church.
Pastor Dave has not come back to town since the storm and there is a question whether he will return at all. He’s dating a divorced woman and the church members are up in arms. The former brothel next door which the church bought a few years back was dramatically and completely flattened by the storm. It is a pile of rubble.
Pastor Chas asked the Red Cross workers not to put wine in the church fridge. Allowing them to camp out in the fellowship hall was one thing, but they should respect the church by not bringing in alcoholic beverages. The workers got the message, in a way. The next time they came in from town at two in the morning, some of the RC workers were drunk and proceeded to disturb the neighborhood. Deputies had to be dispatched to put down the disturbance at the local Baptist church. (Like that ain’t never happened before!) The lady who headed the local RC team was reassigned.
A Catholic lady who had evacuated to Memphis where the Baptist churches seemed to compete with each other in taking care of her, asked someone: “Where are the Catholics?” “We do our work in silence,” she was told. “This is no time for silence!” she insisted. Her Baptist neighbor, who told me the story, asked, “So, are you coming to church with us Sunday?” “Yes,” she said and gave him a hug.
I realize I need to be careful in telling these stories involving other religious groups. Anyone who knows our history knows we Southern Baptists don’t always get it right either. So, please don’t take this as a slam. I’m just telling the stories I heard Tuesday.
On the Sunday after the hurricane, that would be Labor Day weekend, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune showed up at the one church in my neighborhood holding services. With the power off, the church was cooking meals on their gas stove and outside grill, and serving hundreds twice a day. The reporter was given free access to any of the fifty people in church that morning. “Are you a parishioner here?” he would ask. If he received a “No” he followed that up with, “Why are you here?” The answers were all versions of the same thing. “My church is locked up and the minister is nowhere to be found. This church has been here for my family. They fed us.”
I felt so sad for the churches that look deserted. If a thriving parking lot with volunteers everywhere, with meals served and free water and ice and ministry offered freely, if that says life and health to the community, I hate to think what shuttered windows and high grass and empty parking lots communicate.
A special blessing I’m having is the outside church groups asking, “How can we help pastors or churches in the New Orleans area?” In some cases, they want the name and address of one or two in special need, to whom they can communicate directly. We’re glad to assist them. In other cases, they are sending money to our account with the Louisiana Baptist Foundation for us to give as we find special needs.
The address–pass it along, please–is NEW ORLEANS ASSISTANCE, in care of Louisiana Baptist Foundation, p. o. box 311, Alexandria, LA 71309. Wayne Taylor is the executive director of the LBF. I encourage anyone who wants to know about us to call Mr. Taylor directly.
This morning, Wednesday, some forty ministers and perhaps ten leaders from our state convention offices met at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace for our weekly gathering. Fifteen minutes after nine, I hated to call a halt to the noisy fellowship–hugging, laughing, talking–going on in the crowded room which used to be the church sanctuary and now functions as the meeting place for the church’s Spanish mission.
Half of our three hour meeting was taken up in introductions, telling what happened to a church, the membership, one’s family. Everyone had a story. Some lost their church buildings and their homes, several lost one or the other, everyone suffered in one way or the other.
Freddie Arnold is a missionary of the NOrth American Mission Board, serves as our associate director of missions, and is Mr. Disaster Relief in this state. Usually during hurricane season, he takes local teams to Florida to assist communities in storm recovery. This year, he stayed home. No one has been busier than he over the past several weeks. Some were stunned to learn that Freddie and Elaine’s home in East New Orleans was under several feet of water for weeks and is a total loss. Instead of grieving, Freddie has been hard at work, directing the relief teams coming into our city. “I’m sleeping around,” he laughed, when someone asked where he was staying.
We were excited to see David and Ninfa Rodriguez walk in late. Ninfa is one of our association’s secretaries and David pastors Horeb Spanish Mission (okay, Iglesia Bautista Horeb, to be exact) in Gretna, a thriving congregation by any standards. We knew they had evacuated but were not sure they were returning. They had quite a story. As Katrina approached, David and Horeb’s leaders had brought together 150 people, all directly or indirectly part of their congregation, and they evacuated en masse to the Dry Creek Baptist Assembly near the Texas line. Funny thing about that. Camp Director Curt Iles had finally raised the cash to buy materials to construct a new chapel. Now, he was praying for the Lord to provide skilled volunteers to erect it. In walks Pastor David with a host of experienced carpenters and workers with their families, all needing a place to ride out the storm. For the next couple of weeks, they stayed at Dry Creek and constructed the building. Then, Hurricane Rita hit on that side of Louisiana, knocking out the camp’s power and water. Some wanted to stay and help, but Curt and David reasoned that 150 visitors in a waterless, powerless facility was more a burden than a help, and the best thing they could do was go home. We are delighted. Several in the group came to know Jesus Christ as Savior during the evacuation.
One pastor said, “A couple from our town evacuated into Texas. There, the Baptists showered them with love and hospitality and led both of them to the Lord Jesus Christ. They baptized them, and they were in our church services Sunday!”
David Howard pastors the First Baptist Church of Arabi in ill-fated St. Bernard Parish. “Total loss,” he said about his buildings. Just down the way perhaps a mile is the First Baptist Church of Chalmette. Pastor John Jeffries indicated their buildings might have survived, but the neighborhood didn’t. Pastor Howard said, “You know what I’d love to see? For all of the Baptists in St. Bernard–including the town of Poydras–to come together and build one major church. To work together instead of separately. To be one strong voice instead of several small voices.”
The idea caught on and before the morning ended, several ministers began to toy with the same possibility in their areas. For a metropolitan association with 75 churches and 60 missions–many of them tiny and struggling–this has major implications. As we began to envision several small churches coming together to form one congregation, with all the ministers still there, someone ventured that those extra ministers would serve as a pool for new church starts which would be needed soon in other areas of the city.
We’re dreaming, as you can see. The exciting thing is that a lot of great people are dreaming with us. In a few hours, God has wiped off the face of the earth some pockets of poverty and crime and misery. He has moved untold thousands locked into cycles of desperation and despair to small towns and functional cities where they are finding great schools and safe streets and loving churches. People who would never have entered our churches were relocated to Shreveport and Houston and Brookhaven and Dothan, and are being welcomed and treated so wonderfully by God’s people, they become open to the message of the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ.
And what of Old New Orleans? It’s gone forever. What kind of city will replace it? The answer–dare we say it?–is blowing in the wind. Still to be determined.
Bible students know the Hebrew word for wind (ruach) is the same word for spirit and for breath. The Greek word (pneuma) also applies for wind, spirit, and breath.
What kind of city will this become? God knows. Literally. The Spirit of God is in charge. We pray that He shall form this city anew. We are asking God’s people all over this land to join us in this prayer.
They’re planning Mardi Gras already for next year. Not that we thought they wouldn’t. It’s just that they don’t know what else to do. Because they don’t know anything better.
Our task is to show them.