Friday’s Times-Picayune, the abbreviated version of our daily paper, carried an editorial under the title “Casting Stones.” A Montevallo, Alabama legislator named Hank Erwin who writes a newspaper column said Katrina was God’s judgment on the Gulf Coast because of the “gambling, sin, and wickedness.” “It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgement of God.” And what about the innocent victims of the storm? They would have survived if they had only heeded the warnings of “the godly evangelists and preachers.”
The editor called this kind of reasoning “ignorant,” then told of a local Catholic priest using his invocation before the New Orleans City Council last Tuesday to pronounce the same verdict. Monsignor Robert Guste of a Kenner parish evoked groans from his audience as he confessed the sins of Mardi Gras, gambling, and the Southern Decadence festival. Again, the editor was aghast.
William Willimon is a name known to every preacher, as a former Duke University chaplain, now the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, but mostly the author of a host of great books. The editor quoted Willimon: “I expect there is as much sin, of a possibly different order, in Montevallo as on the Gulf Coast.” Then he asked, “If God punished all of us for our sin, who could stand?” (Which happens to be a paraphrase of Psalm 130:3 and a great question for anyone ready for God to judge other people.)
Early Sunday morning, I couldn’t stand it any longer and added my two-cents worth. In an e-mail, I said to the editor, “I am amazed at the presumption of those who know Katrina was God’s judgment on the Gulf Coast and perplexed by the sureness of those who know it wasn’t. As a minister of the last 15 years in metro New Orleans, it seems to me a wiser course to say: ‘It might be; we surely deserve it; let us seek the Lord.”
An hour later, when I returned my from walk on the levee, Margaret said, “Tony Campolo is on CNN.” I caught the last half of the segment in which Tony and a Black pastor were being interviewed on this subject. The African-American minister seemed to be claiming this as God’s judgment on New Orleans and the coast. The host read an email from a woman named Sandi. “I’m not in favor of spending tax money to rebuild a city that crucifies Jesus Christ.” She went on in that vein for a bit. “What do you say to that, Pastor Campolo?” the host said.
“I say to Miss Sandi, ‘Dear lady, you need to repent. Repent of your self-righteousness. You’re saying, ‘I’m righteous, and they are sinners, so God is judging them.’ What hypocrisy. The far greater sin is to live in luxury when millions in poverty barely exist.”
Oh, I thought you’d find this interesting….
Thursday when we entered our associational offices for a few minutes , I picked up a few things to bring home and got out quickly (no power, no air, no water). A bookmark fell out of my calendar, in which Oak Park Baptist Church in the Algiers section of New Orleans was promoting their block party, scheduled for Sunday, August 28, from 5 to 7 pm. I was to have been there with my sketch pad, drawing children. Watermelon, food, prizes. And on the reverse, this note: “100 percent of the money raised will go to the Tsunami Relief effort.” The party was never held, of course, but the irony is wonderful. The hurricane damaged a church the very weekend it was scheduled to raise money to help flood victims on the other side of the world. Now Oak Park itself will be needing the loving gifts of people’s offerings.
Sunday morning, I worshiped with Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers on General DeGaulle Drive. Pastor Keith Manuel sports a Doctor of Philosophy degree from our seminary, but you’d never know it. He plays the guitar in the church band and was preaching in blue jeans. “I’m wearing my work clothes until we have recovered from Katrina,” he said. He introduced national guardsmen, and work crews from Missouri and Florida. The back church parking lot is filled to overflowing with trailers and tents and trucks, where a major station for ministry has been established.
Keith said, “Our councilman for this part of New Orleans tells me that Algiers Point will be the major site for the rebuilding of New Orleans. And guess who is sitting at the crossroads?” Calvary Baptist Church. And they are ready.
I said to Wendy Manuel, “I know you both are worn to a frazzle, but I promise you some day you will look back on this as the greatest days of your ministry.” She said, “We already are. We’re having the time of our lives.”
Early Sunday morning, I had an e-mail from Polly Boudreaux, who had read our last “log” about the condition of churches in New Orleans. “You need to see St. Bernard Parish,” she said. “You’ve never seen such devastation.”
Polly is a the clerk of the parish council in Chalmette and a member of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. She lost her house, everything. She and her children are now living over two hours away where she has enrolled her children in the local school.
I said, “Do your children feel like city kids moved to the country?” She said, “In a way. For example, there was no school Friday. I wanted to know why. They said, ‘Mom, today is the first day of the squirrel season.'” Welcome to rural Louisiana, Sportman’s Paradise.
Freddie Arnold and I are going into St. Bernard on Tuesday of this week. “Have lunch with me,” Polly said. Can we do that? There aren’t any stores or restaurants left in your parish. “We eat on a huge ship,” she said. “It used to be a ferry that could hold 800 people. Now they’ve parked it on the river to feed workers in this area.” She’s promised to introduce us to parish officials. We hope to be able to drive down to Poydras and all the way to Delacroix Island to check on our churches.
A friend said, “All I know to do is pray for you folks. What else can I do?” I assured her that prayer is the most urgently needed support activity. “Pray the Father to give us wisdom,” I asked. For instance, a famous evangelist wants to hold a crusade in the city next January. Normally, it takes a year or more to plan such a meeting. This would of necessity be different. But is this what we need to do? It may be the direct way God has chosen to lead many hundreds to faith in Christ. Or it may be a diversion from the ministry already going on. Which? Pray for Him to give our leaders discernment.
Freddie Arnold says we know for certain that in metro New Orleans, we have lost 26 of our Baptist churches. Tuesday we’ll be looking for more.