Driving to the associational office Friday morning, I was doing all right until I turned off the interstate onto Elysian Fields Avenue and headed north toward the lakefront. After about mile, my eyes became teary and I almost had to pull over. After all this time, the sight of the deadness of this neighborhood is so depressing I can’t take it. I began to analyze my tears. It’s not about this Burger King or that Walgreen’s. They’ll be back. It’s not about that particular house or the ruined car over there. It’s just everything. The place is so dead and so empty, and every house represents a family that has hit a brick wall, that’s living away from home, that is hurting and wondering what to do now.
I said through my tears, “Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do about it! What can I do to help these people?” I’m not real sure how to explain this, but God spoke back. “It’s not about you. You can’t do much. This is about what I’m going to do.” At that point, I lost it again.
Walking up to the office, I thought, “Why are we even here? No one knows we’re here. Nobody is coming to see us. We don’t even have phones. We could do our work better at home.” I had not been there ten minutes when I heard a voice in the reception area.
“I’m Jerry Duncan with the Corps of Engineers. My pastor sent me.” We had a great visit for the next 20 minutes. A major in the Air Force reserve, Jerry served a year in Iraq in 2004, and works for the Corps. “We’re doing for SUNO the same thing we did in Iraq.” Erect large numbers of temporary buildings to serve as classrooms and offices and living quarters for students and faculty and staff at Southern University in New Orleans, one of our historically Black colleges. “They were expecting 300 students to sign up for classes, but they actually had 900. We’ve been hustling.”
Major Duncan belongs to a Baptist church, but not “Southern Baptist,” in Kingsport, Tennessee. “My pastor wanted me to find out how he could send a group of people down here to help you folks rebuild. We don’t have any churches of our brand down here, so he doesn’t have any contacts. His wife is a Mississippian and he wanted to send workers over on the Gulf Coast, but I told him ‘No sir. After you’ve seen New Orleans, you realize these folks need our help like no one else. Everybody ought to see the Lower 9th Ward.'”
We talked of possible projects his church could do and I invited his pastor to go to our website (www.joemckeever.com) and read up on our situation, then to send an e-mail, and we would take it from there. We prayed together and I knew I’d made a new friend.
Ten minutes later, another voice sounded from the entranceway. “My name is Rafael Melian. I’m from Miami, but I used to be on your associational staff.” This 77-year-old brother, visiting friends up here, had dropped by to say hello. In the early 1970s he worked in several Spanish missions locally and became the first language consultant on our associational staff. “I have clipped out some of your cartoons over the years,” he said. As I was saying, one mighty intelligent person. I quickly drew him a cartoon for his office wall and we had prayer together. About that time I heard a commotion in the outer office. A large group had arrived. Brother Rafael moved out to visit with our language secretary Ninfa Rodriguez as I turned to greet more company.
“We’re from California, Missouri.” Say what? There’s a California, Missouri? “Yes sir. We’re all from the First Baptist Church of California. It’s a county seat town. And a wonderful church.” They have adopted Pastor Lionel Roberts and the St. Bernard Baptist Mission, which sits across the street from the now-empty St. Bernard housing project in New Orleans (as distinguished from St. Bernard Parish, which is 15 miles out). Lionel and his wife Karen were showing them around town.
Lynn Gehrman showed them the fridge with the soft drinks and the bathroom down the hall, then we sat around the conference table, filling up the room, and visited for half an hour. Pastor Greg Morrow introduced each member of the group. “I’ve been their pastor nine years,” he said, “This is a wonderful, mission-minded church.” They all nodded in agreement.
“Lionel, I thought about you this morning while I was reading my Bible,” said Pastor Greg. We produced a copy of the Scripture and he turned to Psalm 20, looking across the table at Pastor Roberts as he read:
“May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob set you securely in high! May He send you help from the sanctuary, and support you from Zion!…. May He grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your counsel!…Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God. They have bowed down and fallen, but we have risen and stood upright. Save, O Lord. May the King answer us on the day we call.”
We held hands and prayed together; I gave them cards with our contact information and urged them to invite their church to keep up with our situation through our website.
By now, it was after eleven o’clock. I had worried no one would come and they had arrived one after another, each one with a different situation, each one wonderful and encouraging and inspiring.
Later in the day, I had a conversation with one of our pastors, part of which I want to share with you. My part, not his.
“There is a time in the life of a church when it does not need ‘balance’ in its preaching.” I explained, “Balanced preaching is normally the goal, particularly when a church is healthy and working effectively. Balanced between the positive and negative. Preaching the love and grace of God on the one hand, and an emphasis on sin, the commandments, and the need for repentance on the other. But this is not the time for it for most of our people.
“The people in your pews have been traumatized. Many have lost their homes and their businesses. Many have lost their schools and all have lost some friends. Every citizen has been affected, even those who think they haven’t. You cannot drive down these streets without hurting. In fact, you don’t even have to get off the interstate. You can see enough devastation from I-10 to break your heart.
“Your people are hurting, whether they admit it or not. They’re like a patient who has had major surgery or a heart attack. They’re not ready for a balanced diet. They need soft food, easily ingested, and gently digested. They need reminders that God is still here, that He loves them, that He is going to be with us through all this.”
Later, as I drove away from our appointment, I thought of those words and reflected on how absolutely vital it is to know God is near, that He hears and loves and helps. My cup was so full with the blessings of this day. I had begun it wondering whether there was any point to going to work at all, and ended it rejoicing in the loving gifts of the Heavenly Father who works through His children to bless His other children.
Yesterday the mail brought two CDs from Laura Erlanson at the Baptist Press in Nashville. She sings with an incredible group called “No Other Name.” The harmony and praise of this trio has wall-papered my little Camry and expressed the inexpressible in my heart ever since. God sure did know what I needed.
I may not always know how to convince someone in the existence of God in the abstract, but I get proofs all the time of the reality of the Heavenly Father in the here and now.