Saturday, the weather was delightfully Octoberish and felt almost normal, so I spent much of the day working in the yard. The parish trash people had hauled away the pile of limbs from my back yard, my pastor had come over and cut my grass (really), and many of the stores were open. In football, LSU won and so did Alabama, although both had tough fights. The Saints found a way to lose to Atlanta at the very end. Things were returning to normal.
But not quite.
I ran by the Wal-Mart Supercenter late this Monday afternoon. The hand-sprayed sign on a sheet of plywood read: “CLOSE.” I was musing over what that might mean–the word must have 500 meanings–when the guard in front said, “We closed at 5 o’clock.” Oh. Closed. My dry cleaners opens from 7 am to 2 pm. Most of the McDonalds and Burger Kings and Wendy’s have restricted hours too, and some are open only in the drive-through. Today, Wendy’s was interviewing applicants for jobs under a tent in their parking lot from 1 to 4 pm. Many residential streets are still lined with piles of litter and brush, and at least half the businesses in our part of town have not started up again after the storm.
The streets of Metairie and Kenner are congested day and night, due to the large number of construction workers who have taken the high-paying jobs. Where are they living? Everywhere–motels, rentals, tents. And in camper cities. Groups of RV campers, the kind you pull behind a pickup or Suburban, can be found in parks, parking lots, on levees, anywhere there is a clear space. FEMA is parking the same kind of campers in people’s driveways, giving them a place to live while their houses are being renovated. This town has more trailers than Arkansas! (That’s a joke, razorbacks!)
Sunday morning in the worship services of the First Baptist Church of LaPlace, Pastor Bobby Burt invited me to say a few words. “I want you to know I turned down an invitation to preach on a cruise ship this morning,” I began, “in order to be here and thank you for all you have been doing from the first in ministering to workers from all over the nation, people who have come to help us get our city up and running.” I thanked them for hosting the ministers each Wednesday from 9 to noon and feeding us lunch. “Before Katrina, we had a hard time getting 15 of our pastors together for our monthly conference. These days, we’re running 40 or 50. It must be the great lunches.”
Sunday afternoon, I attended my third “first-time-back-from-the-storm” worship service, when members of Faith Baptist Church met in the facilities of Riverside Church in River Ridge, about a mile from my house. I’m not sure how old Faith is–four or five years, perhaps; they were formed when First Baptist New Orleans relocated from St. Charles Avenue for their Canal Street location and some of the members wanted to keep a witness in this area. They’ve been meeting in the historic First Presbyterian Church, which unfortunately took a great deal of damage from Katrina. Now, both congregations need places to worship.
I told the Faith folks that, after attending all these “first” services, I see a pattern: a lot of hugging, plenty of joy, and everyone gets asked two questions: did you take any damage? where did you evacuate to? Quite a few members lost their homes, but you could not tell which, the joy was so thick.
The question arose of what I should say to these good people. They came through the storm, they have no meeting place, their pastor search committee has been looking for God’s man for their church for two years, unsuccessfully, plus their interim pastor, Dr. Tim Searcy, has been relocated to Atlanta with the administration of the seminary. They might be feeling stressed, I felt. God impressed on me Isaiah 43:18-19. “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?”
Since every good sermon needs at least three points, mine were: 1) do not dwell in the past; 2) God is getting ready to do something new; 3) the question is whether you will get in on it.
They’ve asked me to come back next Sunday afternoon–same time, same place—and so I plan to cover the rest of Isaiah 43. Fascinating text.
Today, Monday, we (Freddie Arnold, Ed Jelks, and I) were planning to get into the ill-fated Lower 9th Ward to check out our churches so damaged by the floodwaters. We had so many other church buildings to check on throughout uptown and east New Orleans, we didn’t make it. The Lower 9th has been rescheduled for next Tuesday.
To describe what we saw today in the flooded sections of New Orleans, I would have to repeat verbatim everything from a couple of weeks ago when we entered the city for the first time. The yellow water levels banding the houses at waist or eye level, the caved in roofs, the ruined cars, an occasional dwelling with a hole in the top where a resident had climbed to safety, dried mud, dead grass, the yucky smell of mold and mildew in the air. Dead neighborhoods, destroyed churches. Same song, another verse. You never get used to it. You feel that this city will be a year just in cleaning up, decades in rebuilding.
Suburban Baptist Church in East New Orleans was constructed when Ralph Webber pastored there 40 years ago. I even did a youth revival for them, to show you how long ago that was. The damage we saw today was mostly from the wind, but it was considerable. The back of the sanctuary stands high and exposed to the elements. The hurricane force winds had bent the back wall inward, breaking loose a beam which spanned the width of the inside wall, knocking it onto the pews. “That entire wall will have to be torn out and rebuilt,” said Ed Jelks, who knows about these things. “It ought to be redesigned entirely.”
Some of our small congregations have been trying to maintain large plants constructed in better times for bigger memberships. Some spend a large portion of their budgets just on upkeep–utilities, janitorial, insurance. I find myself hoping many of these will be able to tear down the damaged buildings and put in their place smaller structures more suitable to their needs.
One option we hope some of our churches will consider is merging with other churches in their part of the city. This could result in stronger memberships and a greater witness.
“What is your strategy for the churches?” I’m sometimes asked. On the one hand, we plan to keep getting our leaders together on a regular basis and let them hear from expert leaders on what their options are, how to access architectural counsel and financial advice, to assist them in every way possible, as well as bringing in churches from all over America to partner with them in rebuilding and redirecting their ministries. We encourage them, pray for them, advise them in any way we can. But on the other hand…
Each church in the Southern Baptist Convention is an independent, autonomous congregation. No one sits in authority over another church. Only the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. So, we urge the pastors to assemble their people and build good communications, even the ones who are scattered. The Sunday Times-Picayune told how Pastor Cornelius Tilton of the Irish Channel congregation held a one hour conference call with all the members he had been able to locate; they worshiped by phone. That’s one way of getting the job done. Communicate.
Pastors need to prepare their people for change. Nothing about this city is ever going to be the same. It will be many years before the population level returns to what it was two months ago. Some neighborhoods will disappear. Some churches already have. We can name 26 of our churches that were totally destroyed, and perhaps a dozen severely damaged.
In New Orleans these days, change is the only constant.
We will never get back to normal. In fact, we are beginning to establish a new norm. Pray with us that it shall be the plan God has in store. After all…
“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127:1)