I took one of our local pastors to lunch the other day. He expressed the frustration others around here are feeling in telling our story to outsiders. “Pastors say they want to come help us,” he said. “Then I say, ‘What do you want to do?’ And they all want the same thing. They want to come in and fix up a damaged church, then stick around and help that church get on its feet and get a great ministry going in their neighborhood. That sounds great, of course. I say to them, ‘What if my church doesn’t have a neighborhood?’ They say, ‘What’s that? How could a church not have a neighborhood?’ Well, it doesn’t have one if no one lives there. I’m telling you it’s frustrating.”
Tell me about it.
We basically have two cities: one alive and strong and another dead and vacated. The first one–the living one–is the portion of metro New Orleans that suffered in the storm but has recovered and is now open for business. That includes the “river sliver” from the French Quarter to the CBD and uptown, it includes all of Metairie and Kenner and everything across the river. The second city–the dead one–refers to vast sections of New Orleans lying empty and gaunt and dark, with people gutting out homes and streets deserted and businesses shuttered. Here and there, lights glow where power company workers punch holes in the darkness. Once in a while you’ll find a FEMA trailer in someone’s yard to indicate life on the premises. Even more rarely, you’ll find someone living inside their home. This twilight zone refers to 75% of New Orleans, all of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.
Tuesday, two men working in one of our ruined churches sat across the table drinking coffee in another church office. “We’re just about through gutting out the church,” one said. Their buildings had taken ten feet of water, ruining the bottom floor forever. Volunteer groups have toiled ceaselessly for weeks.
“What are you going to do next?” I asked. “Well, that’s our problem,” he said. Without power in the neighborhood and with no one living there, should they restore their church building? What if the government rules that all buildings must be so many feet above the flood plain? What if they rebuild and then find out their area is to be left vacant and turned into a park? What if the neighbors do not move back? In any of these scenarios, their labor and investment would be poorly spent.
“I suppose we’ll close it up tight and wait to see,” he said. Wait to see what the neighborhood is going to do, what the government regulations will be, what their situation will call for. Waiting is tough.
Then he brightened up. “Hey, we’re thinking of putting up a tent beside the church. Lots of people are coming into the neighborhood to work in the daytime and then leave at night. But if we had a tent, we could minister to those folks. What do you think?” It’s a great idea.
We discussed the possibility of merging several of our churches in that section of the city. City and parish leaders are predicting that the population of New Orleans, about 475,000 before the hurricane and possibly 75,000 now, will grow to half the pre-Katrina figure within the next five years. Five years. That’s a long time to let a building sit vacant. Perhaps some churches could combine.
Some pastors in other sections of the city are considering the same possibility, so we’re going to see if we can help the discussion along. On Wednesday, January 11, in our SECOND pastors’ meeting after our return from the holidays, we’re going to clear off a portion of time for neighborhood gatherings of ministers. We meet from 9 to noon, but around 11 o’clock, thirty minutes before we adjourn for lunch, we plan to ask the pastors of churches from the West Bank to gather in this corner, those from St. Bernard in that room down the hall, from Kenner and Metairie over here, from Gentilly and Lakeview there, East New Orleans here, and so on. Let’s talk. See what the Lord and common sense come up with.
Everyone church leader I know is fighting two conflicting forces: impatience and paralysis. “We need congress to allot that money now! What’s wrong with them?” I hear. And a minute later, “We can’t do anything until we hear from______.” Fill in the blank: the insurance company, our members, the denomination, our adoptive partners, our lawyers, the government, the evacuated pastor.
Tuesday, my grandson took me for a haircut. Inside the shop, the two ladies stopped what they were doing (actually, one was in the chair and the other was barbering her. Or something.) and pointed us to the chairs. Dina wanted to talk. “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a Baptist minister. I work with all the Baptist churches in this area.” She wasted no time telling me what she thought.
“Well, I’ll sure tell you one thing,” she said. “You Baptists are really something. You folks have been all over this city helping people out. I’ve been so impressed.” I thanked her. Told her we’ve had folks from 41 states in here working as volunteers. But she wasn’t through.
“Now, I’m a Catholic, and I am disgusted. You didn’t see any of our people out here working. No sir. They were nowhere to be found. It was the Baptists. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve heard a lot of Catholics say that.” I could have said we have heard that story a hundred times, but didn’t. I was a little uncomfortable and not wanting to fuel her anger toward her church.
Later, she said, “I’m thinking about going to another church.” Then, “What church do you go to?” I told her and we talked about that a little. Then, I went out to the car and got my “official drawing paper.” My printer friend Tim Irons made up these special pads for me a year ago. I draw someone and tear off the page and hand to them. On the other side is the plan of salvation and a sinner’s prayer and a little note at the bottom identifying the cartoonist. I drew my barber and showed her the gospel message on the reverse. They finished the haircuts, I tipped them good, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas. Later that day, I told my pastor about Dina. Tony is so outreach minded, he would change barbers and go to her just in order to reach her. Except he doesn’t go to barbers. Tony runs a razor over his head every morning and lets it go at that.
I’ve been studying Nehemiah in preparation for teaching it January 8-9 at New Prospect Baptist Church in Jasper, Alabama, where some of my kinfolk belong. Now, this little book is about the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, walls that had lain in shambles since Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed them in 586 B.C. I’ve sometimes referred to this in conversations about our situation, that while the whole city needed rebuilding, “first, you start with the walls.” Make the city safe first, then go about the business of restoring the homes. In the case of New Orleans, first rebuild the levees. Regarding my damaged home, first replace my roof. Stop the continuing damage, secure it, then you may take your own good time about renewing what’s inside. Then, something occurred to me.
Decades earlier, around 538 B.C., Zerubbabel had returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the Temple of worship in Jerusalem. Then, in 458 B.C., the priest Ezra came home and reinstituted worship. Then and only then did Nehemiah show up in 445 B.C. to rebuild the walls. Before the walls came the worship.
That makes a lot more sense. Before we repair the levees, we humble ourselves before God in the same way the Israelites did under both Ezra and Nehemiah–with worship and prayer, fasting and repentance, celebrating and praise. Then go secure the city. First things first.
The danger here–one of many–is a tendency some of us religious types have when it comes to spiritual preparation for tasks on our agenda: “Before we start to work, let’s have a word of prayer.” We’ve all heard that and some of us have been so shallow as to have said it. I wonder where this business of “a word of prayer” originated. You will not find it in Scripture. It reeks of condescension to the Almighty, throwing Him a bone before we do more serious stuff. When God sends a true revival of righteousness and heart-felt worship to our lives, one of the first fatalities will be “a word of prayer.” We will become people who live lives of prayer, who value prayer as our greatest resource, and who never again look upon prayer as a formality to get out of the way before turning to the business at hand. Prayer is our business.
I shared with our pastors an outline that presents itself to us in Nehemiah. In chapter one, he gets word of the devastation of Jerusalem and begins praying for God to do something. When God does act, chapter two, it’s four months later. PRAY AND WAIT is a great watchword for the Lord’s people. Waiting is difficult and it goes against our nature. However, we are promised that “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” (Isa. 40:31) A couple of chapters later, as Nehemiah is overseeing the rebuilding of the wall, the enemies come out to sabotage the work, like hyenas circling wounded prey. PRAY AND WATCH now becomes the theme, as each worker is armed and prepared both for work and battle. Our Lord used those very words in Gethsemane in urging the disciples to stay alert. (Matthew 26:41) PRAY AND WORK is our ultimate mantra, as the Lord’s people constantly call on the Lord for protection while never pausing in their labors.
In an old book on Nehemiah, Professor Donald Campbell tells of a time when Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelist of the late 19th century, was crossing the Atlantic when a fire broke out in the ship’s hold. Moody and a companion joined the bucket brigade, passing pails of water to be doused on the fire. The friend said, “Mr. Moody, let us go to the other end of the ship and pray.” Moody said, “No sir. We can stand right here and pass the buckets and pray hard all the time.”
During this Christmas season and as the New Year dawns, we in the New Orleans area will appreciate all the prayers offered to the Father on our behalf. Whether we are waiting, watching, or working, let us pray constantly. This is our moment. Our faithfulness during these days can change this city and thousands of lives forever.