“I’m calling from USA Today newspaper. Jim Burton of the North American Mission Board in Atlanta said you might be able to help me.”
If I can, I’ll be happy to.
“I’m writing about the spiritual state of the people in your area, how they are adjusting to their post-Katrina lives–dealing with the problems of the devastation, the slowness of governments to help, the few neighbors returning, the difficulties in rebuilding, and so on.”
I told her people are more open to talking about God and receiving the spiritual assistance of others than we’ve ever known them to be. Our people who take baskets of household items door-to-door in the troubled areas are finding everyone hospitable. No one refuses to open the door and no one slams it in their faces. They appreciate any help offered and are glad to listen to someone with a witness.
But out in Jefferson Parish–the cities of Metairie and Kenner, primarily–there’s an anomaly. (I didn’t use that word. It only shows up in my writing, not my talking.) Every one of our churches, even the ones which appear to have received no hurricane damage, has lost members, some as many as 40 percent. And yet this parish’s population is around the same as before the storm. This would indicate that while thousands are moving out, those moving in have not been attending church, or at least not in this parish.
Down the street from our associational offices on Lakeshore Drive in New Orleans sits the regional offices for the Lutheran denomination. Monday, one of their leaders sat at our break table and told a similar story. All their churches have lost members and their schools are all suffering. The people with faith seem to have grown in faith, but the churches have not grown numerically. A ‘for sale’ sign sits in front of their headquarters building. They’re asking $1.3 million, and would love to relocate to the Northshore area.
Fred Luter will tell you that the members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church who fill the pews of the FBC of New Orleans each Sunday morning at the 7:30 service live in every direction, many as much as a hundred miles. Hundreds of them live in Jefferson Parish and attend church in Orleans Parish.
I told the reporter about Lizzie, my grandchildren’s cat. When the family evacuated two days before Katrina, they took Beignet, the dog, but Lizzie, mostly an outdoor cat, was no where to be found. A week after the storm, when the parish allowed residents back into the city for a few hours to check on things and pick up some supplies, the children told Neil and Julie to bring Lizzie. They found her. She had survived the hurricane but had had no nourishment that we know of since. They fed her, then put her in Neil’s pickup truck for the 6 hour drive to North Mississippi where we were all staying.
On their arrival, the host family’s cat hissed at Lizzie as she exited the truck. She found the nearest tree and scooted up to the top and stayed there. No amount of coaxing by the children would budge her. Our host suggested we leave her, that she would be down when she got hungry. Two days later, when she had not moved, Neil got a ladder and climbed the tree and brought her down. They borrowed the dog’s kennel and secured her inside a bedroom and gave her food and water. When I came over, the children asked if I wanted to see her. They had to reach in and literally tear her away from the blanket in the kennel, she was so traumatized.
That’s your average citizen down here, particularly in the flooded sections of the metro area. It’s been one thing after another.
“I can understand people wanting to move out,” someone said Monday. “Look at a typical day’s newspaper. It’s all Katrina. Practically every front page article is related to that cotton-picking hurricane of nearly two years ago.” He added, “It would be nice to live in a Nashville suburb and go to church and enjoy a drive through the countryside without a thought to Katrina.”
I suspect it’s that longing for normalcy that is pulling some of our citizens away. After awhile, the fatigue gets in the marrow of your bones and you get tired of the struggle.
Wednesday, I had a call from Bob Dreher of Birmingham. “We have a group from First Baptist Church down here working on the FBC of Chalmette.” Bob is about to turn 80 years old, yet he has left his comfortable existence in the loveliest city of the South (hey, I’m prejudiced, okay?) to come help us.
I had a pleasant little surprise today. An email arrived from our Southern Baptist office in Nashville. The writer sent it to them and asked that they route it to me. What happened was this.
A few weeks ago, when I was at FBC of Alexandria, Virginia, I would speak to the adults each morning and after lunch, we boarded buses and took in various museums around Washington, D.C. Monday, it was Union Station followed by the Department of Archives where the Declaration of Independence is on display.
At the Archives building, we joined a long line of families and high school groups queued up outside the entrance. Someone said a group of Middle Easterners was taking the tour and the security people had sealed the building. So we stood around in the hot sun and chatted idly, waiting. Looking at the vast numbers of teenagers, I said to someone, “Wish I’d brought my notebook. I could draw them.” A few minutes later, she produced a note pad she’d found somewhere. “See what you can do with that,” she said.
I walked over to a group of teens and said to one, “Look at me and I’ll draw you.” Well, I like to draw and no group on the earth enjoys being drawn more than teens, so that did it. In the next 20 minutes or so, I’d drawn almost that many people, including a family with several bright children. Then, the doors opened and the crowd flowed inside, thankful for the air conditioning.
The mother of the children I had drawn had found out from someone that we were Southern Baptists and she had sent that email to me in care of the SBC office in Nashville. I was struck by two things.
One, you can’t hide. Not in this world, not in the age of Google and the internet. Anyone can be found.
Two, what an interesting person she must be. She had to take extraordinary steps to say “thank you” to the guy who had brightened her children’s day. Most people–including me–would have scarcely given it a thought since we did not know how to contact him. But she was determined to say thank you.
Psalm 92:1 says, “It is good to give thanks.” It is indeed, and plenty good to receive thanks.
I wish we could say thanks to all the people who have put their lives on hold and come to help us down here. Ken and Glennes Brasfield of Oklahoma were at our Wednesday pastors’ meeting today. Ken has been here numerous times and according to Joe Williams, has led over one hundred of our citizens to Christ.
Youth on Mission sent two of their leaders to our meeting today. This fine group, headed by Harry Fowler, has been so faithful last summer and this, helping people rebuild homes and lives.
Pastor Hong Fu Liu of the New Orleans Chinese Baptist Church introduced a pastor friend from Salt Lake City, here in town to help the church celebrate its 25th birthday with special services all weekend.
All this summer, at any given time, from 500 to 1,000 friends from Southern Baptist churches all over America are in our city helping us. How blessed we are.
Joe Williams’ lovely wife, Linda–they are assigned by NAMB here as counselors–is now directing the Volunteer Village at the foot of Canal Street where hundreds of our guest workers are bedding down each night. It’s a big job, and it runs through August, after which the Village closes and we move everything over to Oak Park Baptist Church (that’s my understanding).
Thank you. Thanks, Jim Burton and North American Mission Board. Thank you, Steve Gahagan and Dianne. Thank you, David Matthews. Joe Williams. Steve and Ann Corbin. Thank you, Arkansas Baptists, Texas Baptists, Alabama Baptists, Virginia Baptists….and the rest of SBC-dom. Thank you, Mickey Cason. Darwin Bacon. Thank you, David Hankins and Louisiana Baptists. Thank you, Frank Page. Thank you, USA Today for keeping our story before America and the world.
“Thank you, Father, for all these friends and the thousands more who have made this endurable. Please give us the stamina to stay with the task.”