On Sunday, two town hall meetings were held at the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse. I drove down for their 10:30 worship service, then stayed for one of the gatherings.
Belle Chasse is a lovely little river community just below Gretna, barely inside Plaquemines Parish. The First Baptist Church has for decades been one of our stronger churches in the BAGNO association. They’re pastorless these days and the town hall meeting, led by interim pastor Paul Hussey, was to start the congregation thinking about future directions for their church. The other meeting in their building was members of the destroyed churches of South Plaquemines, further down the river.
For years the Plaquemines Baptist Association has been made up of five small churches: Port Sulphur, Buras-Triumph, Riverview, City Price, and Venice. The director of missions for New Orleans has had the responsibility of working with them, keeping their books, etc., but over the years the churches let it be known they had no desire to join the larger association lest they be swallowed up and forgotten. A quick glance at the map shows these communities downriver on a thin strip of land down state highway 23, continuing 65 miles below the Naval Air Station at Belle Chasse. From my house to our furthest church is over 80 miles. Decades ago, most of these churches were bigger and stronger, running in the hundreds. With the oil bust some years ago, members moved away to find jobs, and the churches fell onto hard times. Some were running less than 20. Now, all five of the churches are gone.
As it turned out, the dozen or so who gathered for the South Plaquemines meeting were all members of the Buras-Triumph Church. Pastor Frank Ducharme relocated to Scott, LA, and has sent word that he will not be returning. With the exception of Pastor Lynn Rodrigue of Port Sulphur, that seems to be the case of the other pastors. Not that there’s anything to return to at the present time.
We discussed the need for the Plaquemines Association to merge with BAGNO. We discussed erasing the names of the five churches in Plaquemines and starting from scratch at first, with only one church that would be centrally located downriver. We would pour our resources into it until the population returned sufficiently to justify beginning churches in the other communities.
I told the group that in a recent article on this website, I said, “We do not want a lot of tiny, struggling churches.” One reader took issue with that, saying “That is precisely what God wants.” I never responded to him, but what I thought was he does not have a clue what he’s talking about. These small struggling churches spent their time and resources on themselves, their money trying to pay their light bill and insurance, their work and energy on keeping the ship afloat. Drive around this city and you’ll see New Orleans did not need any more churches; it had hundreds and hundreds. You’ll see several on a block, often side by side. So why was the city so crime-ridden, such a haven for drug-dealers, a dangerous place to raise one’s children? The churches were isolated from one another and inwardly focused. They did not reach out to one another, joining hands with other believers in that neighborhood, building a unified witness. It was every man, every church, on his own. We don’t need any more of that. God has put so many of our struggling churches out of business, giving us a chance to start over and get it right this time.
The two town hall meetings will go on again next Sunday. I’ll be preaching in North Carolina on the 29th (Statesville First Baptist in the morning, Idlewild in Charlotte that evening), so Freddie Arnold will be there, advising and counseling them.
A singing group from “Youth on Mission” based in Santa Fe led the worship at Belle Chasse Sunday morning. They were a diverse bunch, made up of young people from several European countries and a number of states. Their leader, Karen Lafferty, I think was her name, is the composer of a chorus found in every Baptist Hymnal, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God,” which most of us have sung for decades. They will be fanning into the community this week, looking for people to minister to in Jesus’ name. Folks from Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge and Saddleback Church in California were in town working this week.
Friday, while the group from the First Baptist Church of California, Missouri, sat around our office conference table along with Pastor Lionel Roberts of the St. Bernard Baptist Mission, I said something to them about the housing project where this church is located. “Some people do not like what I’m about to tell you,” I said. “You’ve been out to the project and you’ve seen what it is. I want you to know I pray that no one will return to live here. I want those folks to find better lives in other places. But when some of us say that, some accuse us of being anti-poor people. Or, anti-African-Americans. But it’s just the opposite. I want them to do well. But this project was a horrible place to live.” Later, it occurred to me that Lionel himself was raised in that project, which is one reason he has such a burden to reach those people and started that mission across the street.
Then later that afternoon, I ran by the drugstore to pick up a couple of items. At the checkout, I pulled out two magazines and bought them. “I haven’t read a Time magazine in months,” I thought. The Esquire magazine could always be counted on for some interesting articles.
Sunday afternoon, in between watching the footballs playoffs and dozing in my chair, I flipped through Esquire and discovered three things. One, it’s changed. It used to be a fairly decent magazine, but has become slutty. The language made me sorry I’d paid good money for it. Two, there was a full page picture of Mayor Ray Nagin speaking about “what I’ve learned.” Not a whole lot. And three, a lengthy article about–are you ready for this?–the Saint Bernard Housing Project, before and after Katrina. The subtitle said it all: “The storm came and took everything from the St. Bernard projects. But it’s not like things were that great to begin with.” Drugs, murders, prison, broken families, crime, fighting, despair. An ugly picture.
The final two paragraphs of the article are worth repeating here.
“No one is returning to St. Bernards (sic). Even if they wanted to, there isn’t much left of home. The flood gutted the first floor of every building, leaving mold to eat the walls and nearly a foot of toxic sludge on the floors. People who returned home stayed only long enough to drag the waterlogged contents of their lives out onto the curb, a mountain-range of mud-streaked sofas and crumbling coffee tables. Rows of refrigerators gave off the sweet stench of rotten meat. Swarms of flies, like black clouds, hovered around open doorways. Abandoned cars filled the parking lots, covered with chalky silt and stripped of tires and radios. Add the silence–not even birds–and the projects had the look and feel of a village decimated by massacre or plague.
“The people who preached that Katrina represented a ‘fresh start’ also confided a dark conspiracy–that the government intentionally broke the levees to eliminate poor blacks who kept New Orleans mired in violence and decrepitude. It wasn’t true, of course, but the end is the same. St Bernards was a festering pocket of decay, and now it’s gone. And all the junkies and thieves, old women and children, who once called it home have scattered forth to begin again.”
I wish them well. Dear Lord, let those women and children in particular find new hope in Jackson and Memphis and Houston and a hundred small towns that opened their hearts to them. Let them learn to sleep at night without the sound of gunfire awakening them, send their children to school in the morning without fearing whether they will return, and learn to trust their neighbors. Give them a new appreciation for green grass and clean air, for parks and playgrounds and safe streets. And if they ever return to New Orleans, may it be to point out to their thriving children and grandchildren where they used to live, telling the story once again how God used a tragedy to do a new thing in their lives.
People continue to discuss–and cuss–the comments of Mayor Nagin last Monday, in which he told a small crowd at City Hall that “this city will once again be a chocolate city; God wants it that way.” Funny how that innocuous comment unveiled such anger in so many people. But perhaps the most telling comment came from the local atheist.
Harry Greenberger is president of something called Secular Humanist Association and shows up being quoted in the news from time to time. In Sunday’s paper he wrote, “I’d like to know how and when God told Mayor Ray Nagin that he wanted New Orleans to be majority African-American. Was that before or after he designed the flood that destroyed so many African-American neighborhoods?”
Mr. Greenberger illustrates very well just how foolish is so much of our conversation on both sides of this issue.
How much more encouraging it is to find friends from all over America–the world even–who have put their lives on hold and come to help us rebuild. No sermons on judgement from them, just labors of love. No accusations of failures, no rebuke for our building on low ground, no finger-pointing about our record of corrupt politicians. Just love in action. Christlike love.
“My little children, let us not love with word or tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18)