One. Here’s what a pastor told me Wednesday. He leads a church–or led it, to be exact–which was completely erased off the map by Katrina. He’s back in the neighborhood now and, without a church building of any kind, gathering 60 people for worship on Sundays in what he calls a porch and someone else said is a shed. Before the hurricane, his little church did good to run 25. “Half of the sixty we’re running now are Catholics,” he said. Two things make that remarkable. “They used to ridicule us,” he said, “that we were some kind of sect or cult. Now we’re the only church down there.” And the other thing. “We’ve been told the Catholic diocese had only 14 million dollars insurance on all their buildings in the whole area. With so many church buildings destroyed, they don’t have the money to bring them all back, so they’re closing down the churches in the outlying areas. And you know that good Catholics have to go to church each week, and they are taught if you can’t get to a Catholic church, go to another one.” He smiled and said, “So, they’re coming to our Baptist church.” He says he grew up in that same remote area decades ago, himself a Catholic and persecuting the Baptists.
(Do I need to say again that we’re not anti-Catholic. I know many dear brothers and sisters in Christ who are Catholic. I’m just reporting how things are changing around here, sometimes for the better, sometimes the worse.)
(An inserted note: 24 hours after posting this article, the Friday, Feb 10, Times-Picayune announced in a front-page article that the New Orleans Catholic Archdiocese is indefinitely shuttering 30 local churches, out of a total of 142 in the area. They are closing many schools and completely shutting down seven church parishes. This is due to the tremendous damage to the buildings, the loss of hundreds of thousands of local citizens, and the staggering $84 million in uninsured losses the churches incurred.)
Two. Thursday, I went to see for myself the FEMA base camp on the West Bank where we are now boarding hundreds of volunteers from all over, people who come to help us gut out and rebuild houses and churches. Terry Henderson directs the disaster relief work for Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board. He and several volunteers sit at computers in a house adjoining Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers answering e-mails and taking phone calls from churches interested in coming to help, getting and giving information.
“There are two of these camps,” Terry said. “One in St. Bernard Parish and this one. Each tent contains several hundred cots.” The one we stuck our head into had perhaps a dozen men sleeping across a darkened area; this was two-thirty in the afternoon. A large tent nearby served as the feeding station. “They get three meals a day here,” Terry said. “The workers will pack a lunch for a volunteer to take to his job site. It’s actually pretty good food.” Down the path was a row of large pods. “Shower units,” he said. And on what was obviously a playing field, tent after tent in a row, one of them designated “Women.” This base camp easily accommodates two thousand people.
“No one under 18 is allowed to stay in a FEMA camp,” Terry said. “The church groups with kids have to try to get into one of our mission centers or take over a church fellowship hall somewhere.” (To arrange for that, call Aaron Arledge 504-235-6462.)
To talk to the ladies in Terry’s office, for information about reservations for your volunteers, call 678-386-1575. They’re in the process of making a video with all the information you’ll need before coming this way. They will send it free to any group making a reservation. Incidentally, the FEMA officials have strict guidelines–and heavy security–for these base camps. The only way for a Baptist group to be accommodated in the facility is through Terry Henderson’s office.
Three. Karen Willoughby is spending much of this week in our city. As the new managing editor of our Baptist Message, the denomination’s Louisiana weekly, she’s down here learning her way around, meeting people, and finding this to be a mother lode of stories.
Thursday, she met for an hour and a half with Freddie Arnold in our office, picking his brain about the recovery work. At 10:30, she and I sat in my office for what was to have been a one-hour appointment, me telling her my story, how I see things down here. Then people started arriving and she kept finding more stories. She left three hours later.
Scott Smith walked in. The pastor of Metairie’s Highland Baptist Church, Scott plopped down the latest Decision magazine on the table. There, taking up two pages, was a color photo of Scott and his personal testimony of having come to Christ in a Billy Graham Crusade years ago. It ended with what he’s doing now to prepare himself and his people for the Billy and Franklin Graham “Celebration of Hope” in the New Orleans Arena, March 11-12. I was impressed, but Karen even moreso. “Did you write this, Scott? Or did someone interview you and put your name on it?” Scott reacted with mock horror, “Why would you even ask such a thing?” And we knew Karen had nailed it. She’s an editor and knows how these things are done. Nevertheless, it’s an incredible honor and we’re all proud of Scott.
About the time he left, Paul Brady came in and we hugged. This former pastor of Oak Park Baptist Church in Algiers now directs local mission work for the Hermitage Hills Church in Nashville. He recruits volunteers in that church, then brings them down and directs their labors. I have not seen him in months. He said his team was working at Poydras Church with John Galey, who was outside. “Send him in,” I said, “Karen needs to meet him.”
John Galey pulled up a chair and told our new managing editor how Poydras Baptist Church will meet for the first time since Katrina next Sunday morning at 10:30 am. He told her of the challenge of pastoring there, and we talked of Boogie Melerine and the work going on down toward Delacroix Island, and of John and wife Reyne’s new baby, Luke, born a couple of weeks ago.
The Chalmette Baptist churches are meeting at the high school this Sunday, also at 10:30 am, so this will be a big day in St. Bernard. I told Galey that Freddie Arnold and I are committed to being there; we’ll probably try to hit both worship services that morning.
Since Karen had been jotting down notes on my ministry as the director of missions when our visitors started arriving, she flipped back to her notes and asked each of them what they thought of me and the job I’m doing. The nerve of this lady! I told her John had to be nice, since his mother-in-law Meredith Johnson is our administrative assistant. But they were all nice in their comments. The fact that I was making threatening faces at them across the room did not influence them one bit.
Karen says most of her stories will be 300 words. “No one wants to read long stories,” she said. Which is bad news for me. I can’t say good morning in 300 words. This article started off to be brief.