Opened Doors

Bill Day will love this story, I thought Saturday morning. The front-page article in the Times-Picayune was headlined “Local Revival,” and gave a run-down on the churches of each denomination that have been restored or are meeting in some fashion. In addition to pastoring Metairie’s Parkview Baptist Church, Bill is a professor at our Baptist seminary and in charge of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Missions. He and a cadre of students have been compiling statistics on the churches of New Orleans. Then I saw it.

Underneath a large map with every church–every one of them–positioned in the metro area, and with various codes identifying which are open and which are not, in the finest print was this line: “Source: The Rev. Bill Day and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary–Leavell Center; Archdiocese of New Orleans; staff research.”

I was right; Bill will love this story. It’s his story.

Here is the beginning of religion editor Bruce Nolan’s article.

“In Metairie, Rabbi Robert Loewy’s Congregation Gates of Prayer is largely repaired, the sight of 3 feet of water in his synagogue’s sunken sanctuary just a bitter memory. But the Rev. Fred Luter continues to preside over a Gentilly church in exile. He gathers his divided flock weekly in borrowed pews in Lakeview and in Baton Rouge, far from the ruin of his Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, where 8,000 members once worshipped on Sundays. And around the Archdiocese of New Orleans, tens of thousands of Catholics still attend Mass or grieve at funerals in what once were unfamiliar neighboring churches, but which a year ago became their new homes: temporary adjustments that may endure indefinitely.”

Down in the article, Nolan reports on Bill Day’s research. As of July, more than half the 800 churches in Orleans and Plaquemines parishes and two-thirds of St. Bernard Parish’s 60 churches were still closed. Throughout the metro area–the same geographical area which comprises our Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans–around 60 percent of the 1,500 churches have reopened.

People who study these things say a church’s recovery is a pretty fair barometer of a neighborhood’s health. They tend to reflect whatever forces are at work in the lives of the residents. But more than this, a church’s comeback can lead the way for the rebuilding of a neighborhood. Residents who were on the fence about returning may see the church’s rebuilding and reopening as a positive sign and decide to follow its lead. And a healthy church will reach out and minister to all the residents surrounding them, not just the ones whose names make up their rolls.

More from the article….

“Day said he began the research with a base list of 1,508 churches that had existed before Hurricane Katrina…. The list, compiled by Baptist Community Ministries, was substantial but not exhaustive. For instance, it included only three of about 20 local synagogues and Islamic mosques. Day said his graduate student investigators fanned out last spring and early summer and visited every church on the list. If the church appeared closed, they looked for evidence of recent activity, interviewed neighbors where possible and followed up in other ways. They hoped to learn whether congregations had pulled themselves together and were meeting off-site in temporary quarters, a common occurrence in post-Katrina New Orleans. If so, Day counted the church ‘open’ no matter the condition of its building.”

Inside a box, the newspaper printed Bill’s figures on the actual number of churches of a given denomination and the percentage not operating. Printed in this order, they started with the denominations with the largest numbers of church buildings. For once, Catholics were second to the Baptists. (That doesn’t take a lot of explaining. The Catholic Church is hierarchical and a central office decides where to build a church. Baptists, on the other hand, are an independent lot and most churches with that label tend to be small and affiliated with any number of denominations.)

Baptists had 652 congregations in the metro area, of which 47 percent are not operating. (Again, our BAGNO had l45 of those; the others are independent or affiliated with other groups.) Catholics showed 146 churches, with 23 percent still closed. Non-denominational was third: 102 churches with 48 percent shut down. Methodist show 63 churches; 29 percent closed. Church of God in Christ, an African-American denomination, had 54 churches, of which 74 percent are closed. We had 33 Presbyterian churches, wtih 9 percent closed. Lutheran churches: 29 with 7 percent closed. I’ll spare you the rest of this long list, except for a couple more.

The 20 Jehovah Witnesses congregations show 45 percent closed. Of the 8 Jewish congregations, only 1 is still closed.

Bill Day wonders why some churches come back and others don’t. A church’s size, its income, and the character of its neighborhood–whether residents returned and whether they were owners or renters–were fairly dependable predictors of a church’s return. However, the income of that neighborhood was not a reliable indicator. He said, “That’s somewhat surprising. I really don’t know why.”

Bill had said to our pastors recently that a church’s membership in a denomination seemed to be a strong positive force for its rebuilding. As we have seen with our Southern Baptists’ connections across America, this gives our churches a strong base of support in personnel, finances, and ideas. I cannot count the pastors who have said to me something like: “I was never much of a denomination person. But our Baptists have made a believer out of me. They have really come through like champions for my family and my church.”

On the other hand, the news is not all good, according to Bruce Nolan. The Catholic church insured all its churches en masse, not to make a bad pun. That is, since the diocese owned all the buildings, they did not have separate policies on each one, but one giant policy. After all, what were the chances that all of them would be affected at once. Which is exactly what happened, of course. So, faced with uninsured flood losses of $120 million, the archbishop “performed triage” last spring. He closed 30 damaged churches which he did not have the money to restore and reassigned worshipers to other churches. Then he put his limited insurance money into the surviving churches until the time comes the others can be restored. As we have reported here previously, Archbishop Alfred Hughes has a lot of unhappy campers in his organization, people angry because their meeting house is shut down.

On the double-page with the map of metro New Orleans showing every closed and every open house of worship, the newspaper has featured 30 churches of various denominations, with nice photos and some information about each. For instance: The First Baptist Church of Slidell was established in 1893; it is open, but repairs are under way; its pre-Katrina congregation numbered 800-900; its present numbers are around 600; it took some $2.8 million in damage; repairs are 80 percent complete.

First Baptist Church of Chalmette was established in 1949; it is closed and the congregation meets in Chalmette High School; pre-K they ran 350; presently 75; the damage (flooding and structural) totaled $2.5 million; repairs are to start soon.

The most identifiable landmark of this city is St. Louis Cathedral which faces Jackson Square and the river. Established in 1718–the date of the founding of New Orleans–the church is damaged but operating, with repairs underway. The pre-K congregation numbered 4300; presently, it’s 1,000.

The huge Catholic church right down Paris Avenue from our Edgewater Baptist Church is St. Francis Cabrini, established in 1952. It’s closed. Previously, they ran 950. The site will be sold to become the new Holy Cross High School.

A few of the churches reported questionable numbers. Several congregations in devastated areas reported large numbers of worshipers before the hurricane and the same number now, even though they may be meeting in a parish hall. Whether this was the truth, in error, or it’s the old bit about preachers exaggerating their numbers, I have no idea, but we’ll leave the matter there.

Also from Saturday’s newspaper….

Columbia University’s professor John Mutter has taken on a research project of his own: he wants to find and record every Katrina death, no matter where it occurred. The number usually bandied about–1,464–comes from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and refers to those who died in this area. However, as evacuees scattered all across the nation, many of our residents died far from home. Dr. Mutter will be trying to locate these which were never counted in the Katrina figures and to catalog them. Information about his project is available at

Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson Parish (that would be Metairie, Kenner, Gretna, Harvey, Marrero, etc.) had a bright idea on how to combat the “black-on-black” violence which is becoming an epidemic locally. He ran up a “kite” to see if it would fly, but community leaders have shot it down. His plan was to authorize deputies to focus on black neighborhoods. Anywhere they found suspicious-looking groups hanging around on street-corners deep into the night, they could detain them and check for identification, that sort of thing. He was prepared for the ACLU’s opposition to the plan, but anyone acquainted with our one-of-a-kind sheriff knows that did not deter him one bit. He was unprepared, however, for the reaction from the African-Americans.

They were offended. “Stopping people because of their race is wrong,” said a leader of the local NAACP chapter. When law enforcers reply that this is not racial profiling but criminal profiling, it falls on deaf ears. Since the sheriff had said from the beginning that if the black community was unsupportive, he would not proceed, it’s now called off. Lee says, “In October 2006, I thought the black community was ready to do what needed to be done. I’m here to say it’s not going to happen. It’s now off the table.”

This being the weekend before Halloween, many of our churches are hosting Fall Festivals of one type or the other, for the children. FBC Kenner’s is Saturday from 4 to 7 pm. I’m drawing children from 4 to 6 pm Sunday at the festival at FBC Luling. Others will be Monday or Tuesday nights.

Monday night will feature the first meeting of our Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans in two years. Normally, we meet the last Monday in October for our annual coming together. Katrina shot the 2005 meeting down, so this will be our first in two years. We’ll gather at Ames Boulevard Baptist Church in Marrero at 7 pm. Among the reports to our people, we will hear a message from Dr. Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and I will deliver a challenge. You are invited.

We will be urging our people to make plans for the “greatest church library conference in America” to be held November 3 and 4 (next Friday night and all day Saturday) at the FBC of Marrero. Hope Ferguson of Natchitoches has enlisted a wonderful team of conference leaders and some 25 volunteers from all over to assist. Some of her Natchitoches friends will take charge of the kitchen and serve meals for everyone. It’s all free and you do not have to be a librarian to attend. That’s crucial, because most of our churches have no library! However, everyone who attends will receive free helps and door prizes will be given away and lots of other freebies.

And no, you do not have to be a member of a BAGNO church to attend. Not only that, you do not even have to be a Baptist. The registration takes place Friday up until 5:30 when supper gets underway. It’s all free.

The only thing keeping many who read this from coming is inertia. I hope you will put that little monster in its place and determine to come. In my 16 years in New Orleans, we’ve never had such a wonderful conference and incredible opportunity as this, and I don’t know when we will again.

What do you do when a great door of opportunity is thrown open for you?