Stern days, but not dark ones.

Thursday morning, visitors in our associational offices represented Southern Baptists from Texas and from Michigan. Freddie Arnold and I pulled up chairs and chatted with them about the best way to bring work groups into New Orleans, as well as how not to do it.

A diverse group met at New Salem Baptist Church in the Upper 9th Ward Thursday after lunch. Pastor Warren Jones returned from evacuation in Grapevine, Texas, three weeks ago and is living in a make-shift room across the street from the church. He has nothing but praise for the fine hospitality the members and staff of the First Baptist Church of Grapevine showed him for months, and for that, we thank them also.

A dozen of us sat in a large circle in the hollowed out sanctuary, with Pastor Warren and BCM director Keith Cating astride stacks of drywall in front. Baptist leaders from Texas and Arkansas were present, as well as Northshore Director of Missions Lonnie Wascom, and others from our local BCM. “Who cleaned out your building?” I asked Pastor Jones.

“Anybody and everybody,” he answered. “I never knew who was going to show up. The doors are wide open, as you see, and people just walk in and we put them to work.” Right now, it appears the folks from Russellville, Arkansas, are going to be helping.

The Upper 9th Ward is, as you would expect, close to the disastrous Lower 9th. The main difference is that its buildings are still standing. But drive down any street and you quickly decide this is one devastated area. Without knowing the residents, you could see yourself as mayor deciding to bulldoze the entire place. Sad, sad, sad. But it is home to Dr. Warren Jones and his congregation, all of whom are scattered across America at the moment. It is completely uncertain how many, if any, will be returning.

Warren Jones is what is affectionately known as a piece of work. He’s one of a kind, a truly beloved and kind man of God. The joy of the Lord seeps out the pores of his skin. “See that sign out front,” he said. “We put a verse of Scripture every week on it. In fact, some of our people and I have a meeting each week about that. We pray and take suggestions, then decide. And when we’ve not put up a new verse, we get calls. People say, ‘What’s the verse for this week?’ There’s a lot of traffic out there.” He was referring to North Claiborne Street, three steps outside the front door. “We’ve had people come to know Christ because of the verse of Scripture on that sign.”

I was glad to hear that. I wish pastors knew what a great tool they have for drawing people into the kingdom and their church just by the creative use of the sign in their front yard. My spirit grieves when I see a nice sign carrying a message about an event that occurred a month ago. And almost as bad, no indication as to when the services begin on Sunday. Worst of all are the negative ones. I recall a sign in front of a Mississippi church years ago that read “Repent or burn in hell forever” and on the other side “Are you driving your children to hell?” Some pastor had a hell fixation and had forgotten the word “gospel” means “good news.”

“You see there’s a police station across the street from us,” Warren said. “They’ve been using our parking lot. You’ve read and heard about the suicides in this precinct. It’s sad. They have to go on policing the neighborhood and they’ve lost their own homes, their families are scattered who knows where. But we have led some of them to the Lord. They call me. Sometimes they say, ‘Pastor, Mrs. Edwards on Pauline Street has returned to her home for the first time.’ They know I’ll want to go see her. We already know she’s hurting, because this whole neighborhood is devastated.”

Aaron Arledge said, “I used to come over to this area to buy fried chicken. But this is not a neighborhood you want to be caught in after dark.” Warren laughed. “I was raised here and it is something. In fact, one night I was confronted by several young men with a long, long knife. I knew my life was over right then. That was the night God got my attention and Jesus saved me. These are my people. I belong here and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Aaron handles accommodations for church and college groups coming to work in the city. He said, “At Spring break, we have 350 college students coming to work on this church.” And presumably some others when they finish.

Warren said, “We’ve been adopted by five Southern Baptist churches. One of them has helped us. I don’t know what the others are going to do.” Right now, of course, everyone is waiting for some answers. What is going to happen to this neighborhood? Will the residents return? What’s the point of restoring the church if no one moves back here. Warren Jones is so confident they will be returning, he wants this church up and running so that when they do, New Salem will be perfectly situated to welcome them home and bear them witness for Christ. I have no disagreement with that, and complete admiration for this man. He’s made of stern stuff.

Earlier this week at the evangelism conference, one of the speakers quoted Winston Churchill, which sent me to my book of his speeches to check the reference. In doing so, I found a concluding line from a talk Churchill delivered to the student body of Harrow, an elite boys’ school, in the early days of the Second World War, that seem appropriate to our situation.

“Do not let us speak of (dark) days; let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”

I almost envy the young pastors in our area. Right now, early in their ministry, they get to see things most generations never experience: a demonstration of the power of God, of the collective force of His people for good, of the working of prayer in his own life, of the blessing of receiving the prayers of multitudes of God’s people, of a city rebuilt and made new. Many of our young men have been interviewed by the national press and spoken on nationwide radio and television hookups. They are making friendships that will last a lifetime and will change them forever. Those who persevere–who stay here, live on their knees, and keep trusting the Lord to answer their questions, provide their needs, and accomplish His will–those young pastors will be mighty forces for God for the rest of their years.

On one hand, I’m tempted to say a la Churchill that they will look back on these “stern” days as their finest hour. But I hope that is not the case. This Katrina-semester is a only classroom, a laboratory, in which they will learn lessons and build skills that will make them formidable leaders of Christ’s church in the decades to come. And if I know the Lord, He will not waste the lessons these students are learning today.

It was one year ago today, January 26, 2005, that I began the radiation treatments of my head and neck area for cancer. The last treatment was March 14. The recovery from that experience is only now winding down. But how well I remember during some of the worst days of misery, praying, “Father, help me not to waste this suffering,” without a clue what that meant, only certain that the Father would know and that I was acquiescing.

Now, I’m beginning to understand a little. That’s why I pray for my brothers who pastor these severely wounded churches, many of whom also lost their own homes and belongings, that they will not waste this experience, but offer it to the Father as a fitting sacrifice for His purposes, whatever they may be. Be assured of this: your suffering is precious to Him, and He will not treat it lightly or discard it thoughtlessly.

“Lord, make us of stern stuff for the living of these days. Amen.”

3 thoughts on “Stern days, but not dark ones.

  1. Joe, Thank you for continuing to write about the situation in NOLA. It’s the first thing I read every morning to keep me focussed in prayer and deed towards the needs there. I urge all to make an effort to go see for themselves. Everyone is able to help in some way. Most needed are good listeners and strong shoulders to lean on. You’re a great writer, Joe, but no words can describe what the eye and heart sees there. I’ll be bringing a team back in 2 weeks. Hang in there!

  2. What is a URL? I never know what to put. Anyway. I came down and helped out when Disaster Relief was taking untrained workers. Now, I’m finding it really hard to get trained because of transportation issues. I don’t have a car. It would almost be easier to just hitchhike down to Louisiana and ask you what you need done and let you train me on the job. Honestly, I’d consider moving my stuff down there on a permanent basis as soon as there’s a place to move into.

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