So much darkness. Here and there a light.

“Waitin’ for the train to come in”

The Times-Picayune’s editor Jim Amoss was interviewed by Katie Couric on this morning’s “Today” show. “Why is it taking so long to get the rebuilding process started?” she asked. He answered, “The government needs to step up with money and a plan. Then the mayor and the governor have to get on board.” She said, “The federal government has already put $87 billion into this area.” Amoss said (I’m going from memory here), “Most of that was money paid out to people through the federal flood insurance program.” I wanted to add, “And to help people survive these months they’ve been unable to live at home.” “But,” Amoss added, “very little money has been put into the rebuilding of the city.” That is a point the average U.S. citizen does not seem to get. He pointed out that the city flooded because of the ineptitude of the Corps of Engineers, making it a federal responsibility. Another point most people miss. So we wait.

In the Second World War, Peggy Lee had a hit, done in that soft sultry way of hers, about a girlfriend standing on the station platform, looking for her soldier boy to return. “Waitin’ for the train to come in” was a song millions of Americans could identify with.

Tom T. Hall had a song a generation later in which everyone was waiting for something. It ended, “The bee’s just waiting for the honey. And honey, I’m just waitin’ for you.” Everybody’s waitin’.

Around here people are waiting for the mayoral election, due for the end of April. If someone other than Ray Nagin is elected, all bets are off, and anything could happen. My guess is Nagin and one of the white guys–Ron Forman or Mitch Landrieu perhaps–will make the run-off. People afraid of radical change will probably vote for the known quantity, Nagin. Amoss said on the “Today” show that there is no real polling going on, since so many voters are displaced and many who are here are living with cell phones, putting them out of the reach of pollsters.

How some of us spent Mardi Gras

This morning Freddie Arnold borrowed Riverside Baptist Church’s van and met a group of Georgians at the airport. After checking into the hotel in Metairie, they joined Lonnie Wascom, Larry Badon, and Mike Canady for lunch at the Piccadilly. This cafeteria was the only eating place on the east side of the river we could find open. Everything else was shut down for Mardi Gras–a holiday for most, party time for some. The Georgia group was led by Jim Burton and Richard Harris, executives with our North American Mission Board, come to see the area, and included four men from the oldest Baptist church in Georgia, Kiokee Church of Appling. Pastor Steve Hartman was accompanied by Allen May, Jerry Tiller, and Robert Pollard. All of them–execs, pastor, laymen–were looking for a handle, how to help this area in the way that will mean most. Dr. Jack Allen, NOBTS professor of church planting, joined our group and added considerably to the discussions.

Tomorrow the group will tour the Mississippi Gulf Coast, then Thursday take in the Northshore, from Covington to Hammond.

Following lunch, we gave them the grand tour: Lakeview, Gentilly, the seminary, Franklin Avenue, the Ninth Ward–upper and lower–plus St. Bernard Parish, including Arabi and Chalmette. I expect it’s a day those folks will not soon forget. I cannot count the times I’ve been over this same route, but it’s always heart-wrenching. Katie Couric is right; more should have been done by now.

People from Denver’s Riverside Church were hard at work inside Edgewater Baptist Church, beginning the long process of restoring the damaged buildings. We discussed with them the possibility of leaving the highwater mark somewhere on the building as a lasting reminder, a battle scar, perhaps, of these days for faith and struggle.

This was the first time I’ve been on campus of our Baptist seminary in months, and I was struck by the vacant lots where the “state” buildings used to sit. All have been taken down, 23 of them, each containing four apartments, meaning the loss of 92 living units. Named for the states of the union, these were some of the first student apartments erected in the 1950s when the seminary was new on those 84 acres on Gentilly Ridge, having moved from the old Washington Avenue site. Margaret and I settled into the New Mexico building in June of 1964 with our 16 month-old son and, even though we were from Birmingham and thought we knew hot weather, went almost immediately to Campo Appliances and bought a window air-conditioner. Yes, we had to buy our own. Times were different then. (We also paid only $55 a month in rent.) These days, students have their option of living in brand spanking new four-bedroom apartments. Several faculty homes, ruined by the floodwaters, have also been replaced by grassy green lots.

The Times-Picayune ran a large feature on the seminary today. The headline ran: “Seminary is beacon of hope in Gentilly.” It is indeed, although far beyond its neighborhood.

We ended the day at Ryan’s restaurant in Marrero, dog-tired. After dropping our guests off at their hotel, Freddie had to return the van to Riverside Church, only a mile from my home. I agreed to accompany him and return the key tomorrow. In the church parking lot were two vans, one pulling a large trailer. Several men were clustered around the back of the van towing the trailer, obviously having trouble hooking up the tail-lights. After Freddie and I cleaned out the van, I pointed the folks out to him and suggested that “we” see if “we” could give them a hand. Like I knew what to do. But I know Freddie. If there’s anything mechanical or structural this guy isn’t on top of, I’ve not found it. We introduced ourselves to the good folks from Arkansas and Missouri, Baptists who had been staying in Riverside Church and had been witnessing today on Bourbon Street. One of the men shook his head at the reception they had received from the partying crowd. We thanked them for coming and the tail lights came on and they were off, driving a long way home through the blackest night.

Tomorrow our pastors meet again from 9 to noon at First Baptist of LaPlace. Freddie Arnold will be hard at work in Chalmette, setting up a feeding unit with our Disaster Relief folks. There’s not a harder worker anywhere, or a greater spirit.

Coming out of New Orleans tonight, we noticed so much darkness. Only here and there could a street light be seen. An apt metaphor for this town.

“Dear Father, send your light. Brighten up this dark place. Shine forth through your children who live here and those who, like our visitors from Arkansas and Missouri and Georgia, come to help us. Amen.”

2 thoughts on “So much darkness. Here and there a light.

  1. I just finished reading your column and found out that the “state” buildings have all been torn down. I’m glad NOBTS is being rebuilt, but it’s also a bit sad. Living on the campus in the “Louisiana” building was one of the best times we had in New Orleans. Everyone was on the same economic level – poor. Still, everyone’s kids knew everyone’s parents and the doors were always open. It was a grand time that I’ll always remember. God has been good to us both there and up here in Muskogee, OK. We just bought a house and I’m serving as an interim pastor for a local Indian church. I’m thankful that the Lord has brought blessings out of chaos down there and that He will continue to do a great work there. God bless you, Bro. Joe. You are God’s man for this time and place.

  2. Bro. Joe, As usual, your comments are so very touching…for several reasons: 1) The darkness in N.O. and the light that so many there are trying to shine, “Lord, remind me to pray more fervently and often for Your work there.” 2) Your writing skills are so appropriate and just meant for such as task as this “blogging” for us to see and follow the ministry in N.O., and 3) I appreciate your appreciation of Freddie Arnold. Don’t know if you are aware that his favorite and “only” son-in-law is Nolan Johnston’s son, and my brother. In addition to Freddie’s many talents, abilities, and unwavering call to his and His work in N.O., he has been a SUPER dad-in-law to Jon and I feel has helped to fill an empty “dad-spot” in Jon’s life. Our family loves Freddie as if he was blood-kin and not just in-law-kin! Thank you for also realizing and mentioning his untiring work. And thank you, Bro. Joe for your faithfulness to share God’s work in N.O. through this venue. — Jan Johnston Walley “He’s Forever Faithful, I’m Forever Grateful”

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