What Faithfulness Looks Like

The headline in Thursday morning’s Times-Picayune read: “Mayor finally breaks post-election silence.” Most of what he said in a two-hour press conference was variations of: “The city is moving forward. We’re on track.” In other cities, he has proudly proclaimed that we are ahead of schedule in rebuilding the city. Locals want to ask, “Who says we are? By what measurement? Ahead of what schedule?”

Sorry. I’m not as objective on this subject as I wish I were. Mayor Nagin is predicting the population of the city proper will be 300,000 by the end of the year. On what basis? Because he wants that to be the case.

The mayor explained his optimism: “We as New Orleanians are resilient people. We are proving it. We are creative people. We will not take no for an answer. And I don’t care what anybody says, on the limited resources that we have, we’re going to figure out a way to bring this city back bigger, better and stronger.”

Pardon my skepticism, but he reminds me of a Baptist Student Union president at a state university I once knew. He was a good-looking kid and in the times I spoke at the BSU center, I came to like him. One day, I bumped into his BSU director in an airport on the other side of the country. “We’re going to have to replace him,” he said, referring to the young president. “He’s all talk. He keeps saying, ‘We’re going to get right on that’ and ‘Yes sir, we’ll do that,’ but he never does anything.” It sounds so familiar.

A sign of the continued unsettled state of things in New Orleans is that every day of the year, the newspaper runs a full page of fine-print announcements on how to get in touch with important offices and departments. Fair housing, environmental concerns, FEMA, general resources, law enforcement, legal assistance, Louisiana Recovery Authority, missing people, missing records, municipal and parish governments, nonprofit groups, people with disabilities, post office, schools, SBA, social security, social services, tax assistance, transportation, and veterans affairs–these are some of the headings, with each one having half a dozen numbers and email addresses under it. Under FEMA, you can find numbers on how to get a trailer, how to get maintenance for your trailer, where to call to return a trailer, and a dozen other bits of information.

My wife is halfway through Doug Brinkley’s book on the New Orleans catastrophe, “The Great Deluge.” To her utter surprise, she is fascinated by the narrative and totally engrossed in it. “He has nothing good to say about Mayor Nagin,” she told me Thursday morning. “He faults Governor Blanco sometimes, then he’ll turn around and give her credit when she gets it right.”

In Thursday’s paper, the editor has this in tiny print at the bottom of the editorial page: “Douglas Brinkley took a couple of potshots at Louisiana in a USA Today story about Mississippi’s recovery efforts. The Tulane history professor said that morale about the future is higher in Mississippi. He praised that state’s ‘can-do spirit’ and said that it ‘transcends what you’ll find in New Orleans.’ He could improve morale here by canning the trash talk.”

Thursday night, the board of Global Maritime Ministries met at the new port ministry center on Tchoupitoulas Street in the warehouse district of New Orleans. We’ve spoken of this world-outreach ministry before on these pages, but I need to tell you about tonight’s meeting. They started with supper at 6:30, with perhaps 25 or 30 in attendance. Scott Smith of Highland Baptist Church chairs the board and Freddie Arnold chairs the building committee which is erecting this impressive structure. I’m not a board member, but am invited to the meetings in my role as director of missions for the local Baptist churches. I love these folks, believe in the work they are doing, and support them financially and other ways.

The new building is perhaps a block from the river, which is by far the closest Philip Vandercook and his team have ever been to their work. For all these years since Rev. John Vandercook began this work out of his house in the mid-1960s, they’ve used their homes and local churches as headquarters and ministry points. When I was in seminary (mid-60s, early-70s), students would volunteer to drive their cars to the riverfront to pick up seamen and take to church on Sundays. Brother John retired some years ago, and his terrific son Philip picked up where he left off. Jared Walley works with Philip at the two locations, one in Reserve, LA, some 25 miles upriver, and this one downtown.

The new building is two story, with a large open activities room just inside the entrance. On the first floor there’s a receptionist desk and offices for the workers, a kitchen, and perhaps a dozen booths. Half of the booths will have telephones so guests from the ships can call home, and the other half computer hookups for e-mailing. The activities room will have televisions and books and several bookcases filled with free Bibles in various languages. The people who work on the ships coming into our ports originate in most of the civilized countries of the world. The world passes our front door every day; Global Maritime is stepping into the stream to greet it in the name of Jesus.

Philip reported to the board that income is down. “We lost a lot of supporters due to Katrina. Some lost homes and jobs, and some churches that supported us no longer exist. But God has raised up others to pick up the slack. We borrowed $379,000 for this new building which is still unfinished on the second floor.”

Freddie Arnold said, “So far, this building has cost us $200,000 above what we had estimated. But it’s still way under what it would have cost had we contracted it out.” He said, “We ran into one challenge after another. The construction was well underway when Katrina hit.” Thankfully, the walls were still standing after the storm passed. “Our subcontractors honored the agreements they had made before the storm,” Freddie said, “although the price of everything had gone through the roof by then and some materials were hard to get.”

The Lord sent volunteers to help erect this building, wonderful people from Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, California, and other states. “They did a fantastic job,” Freddie reported. “It would have been impossible without them.” During the time the volunteers worked here, he said, they led ten people to Christ who live in this immediate community.

Treasurer Stephen Harris reported, “We’ve tapped out the line of credit at the bank. For the rest of this construction, the ball is in our court. We need to get people to come see the center. Let them see what God is doing here and catch the vision.” He reported that the construction loan had been converted to a permanent loan.

Freddie Arnold looked around at the lovely and spacious ministry center and said, “When we finish, this building will be a pilot project for port ministry throughout the United States.”

Jared Walley took some of us on a walk-through of the unfinished upstairs. It’s main purpose will be housing volunteers. Two rooms will be filled with bunk beds, with large bathrooms next door. An apartment will house an MSC couple who will live on the premises. “We’re 60 percent done upstairs,” Freddie said. “What we need is money.”

“What kind of volunteers do we need, Freddie?” someone asked. He didn’t hesitate. “The kind with deep pockets.” When we laughed, he said, “I’m serious. It’s going to take another $150 to 200,000 to complete the second phase of this building.”

What will it take to get the apartment on the second floor ready for occupancy? I was thinking perhaps a few thousand dollars. Freddie said, “Eighty thousand.” He explained that all the plumbing and air-conditioning on that floor still has to be installed. More electrical work has to be done, plus all kitchen cabinets and appliances bought and put in place.

“As soon as we get an MSC couple living here in this building,” Philip said, “we can do 35 to 40 percent more ministry than we’re doing now. Having them here all the time will be a big asset.” He told the group he has three people–a couple and a single–who are ‘fighting’ for this apartment. (A word of explanation: MSC stands for Mission Service Corp, a category of missionary in which the person raises his or her own support but still works under the direction and authority of our North American Mission Board.)

In his report to the board, Philip Vandercook covered a great deal of ground, which I am merely capsulizing here. He has been made a vice-president of the World Trade Club, and their board has met at the port ministry center. An adoptive church in Georgia has provided finances, landscaping for the grounds, and workers for the construction. Other churches in Shreveport, Metairie, Jackson, MS, and Dry Prong, LA, were singled out for praise. Philip and Jared and their staff are ministering in two FEMA villages where port workers live. At the block party a couple of months ago in Gretna–where I spent a few hours sketching people and reported on this website–they had 3 professions of faith and gave away 200 Bibles and Jesus videos.

They expect to bring the first seafarers to this new port ministry center beginning the second week of August. “We’re 3 miles from the cruise ship terminal,” Philip said, “and the ships dock four days a week. When we get up and running, there will be times we’ll have 300 to 400 at a time in this building, all workers on the cruise ships.” In addition to the relaxation and encouragement the team will offer these workers, there will also be Bible studies and worship times.

Jared Walley reported, “I’ve been working with some folks gutting out houses. I lost my house and everything, so I know what they are going through. We went into one house where the refrigerator was still in the kitchen with all the rotted food inside. Nothing had been touched in 9 months. Floodwater was still standing in the closet.”

Jared told of an unusual ministry the Lord gave them with a Romanian ship that the Coast Guard stopped downriver at Port Fouchon. The owners lacked proper documentation to be allowed into the United States, and then they went bankrupt. The ship sat where it docked while they tried to sell it. Now, he said, there is nothing at Port Fouchon, so the nine men on board were stuck. They begin to run out of supplies and they were running low on fuel. Someone told us about them and we went down. They were angry, so mostly we just listened. They told us others had come to check on them and promised to help but never came back. We did. They wanted to go to Wal-Mart, even though they didn’t have any money. He said, “So, we drove them to Wal-Mart and let them walk around inside for an hour or so. They just wanted to see it.” They ministered and witnessed to these men who soon returned to their home country.

Steve Corbin and his wife Ann gave reports of their work upriver at Reserve. “We’re learning the ropes,” he said. They live in a trailer owned by this ministry. Steve told of taking seafarers in his automobile to the store and witnessing to the one or two who could speak English. “Then I discovered that all of them understand English even if they don’t speak it,” he said. “So I began to witness to them all.” Every day is a new discovery.

Ann told “how we got here.” She and Steve had been MSC volunteers for five years previously, serving in other places. In April of 2005 she took disaster relief training in their South Carolina town. The very next day, a tornado struck nearby and they went to work. After Katrina did its dirty work in our part of the world, they had the opportunity to come here. She was reluctant. It was hot and the mosquitoes were everywhere. “I had prayed ‘Lord, don’t send me to Africa’ but I forgot to say ‘don’t send me to Louisiana.'”

“Philip Vandercook’s sister Cherry Blackwell, the director of MSC for Louisiana, invited us down in January just to see. Now, our gift is hospitality. I told Steve, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if God gave us a coffee shop ministry.’ He agreed. When we were being shown around the ministry center at Reserve–the building is an old VFW–we walked inside and there was a bar with stools around it. I just knew this was our place. And downstairs was another bar. Steve said, ‘Ann, this is our coffee bar.'”

The Corbins are raising their own financial support, which is always humbling to me personally. How does one go about doing that? And what if their supporters do not come through? Would I be willing or able to live on what free will offerings I could generate from friends?

Ann said, “In our earlier MSC work, we tried to work regular jobs to support ourselves and do the ministry work on the side, but it didn’t work. We were taking more and more time to do the jobs. So we decided this time to go all the way. We put our house on the market last January, in the dead of winter. Steve set a high price and said he wasn’t coming off it. He said, ‘We need to see God work.’ Ten days later, we sold it for that price, in cash.”

Ann said, “We’re living in the port ministry trailer. In South Carolina, we told the church we felt we could get by if we have at least $1500 a month income. That was a joke. These days, we’re living on $300 a month and we’ve not missed a meal. That’s a God thing.”

She concluded, “We get to minister to the whole world without leaving the USA. Which is good, because I don’t like to fly!”

Heather Sibley is a junior at Louisiana College in Pineville. For the last month, she has worked with Steve and Ann in Reserve. They attend our Wednesday pastors’ meetings, which is how we came to know her. She told the group, “I did not want to come here.” Everyone laughed; we’ve heard that story a few thousand times. “I wanted to do mud out and work on houses. When Philip Vandercook told me about going on board these great ships with workers from all over the world, I got scared. Somebody might steal me. I called my mother in Pineville, and she talked to Philip. She called me back and said, ‘You need to talk to Philip some more. Maybe it’s not as bad as you think. He even takes his little girls on board with him.'”

Heather said, working at Reserve with Steve and Ann, she has learned five important lessons over this month:

–You have to be fluid. Every day is a new experience; you run into everything.

–This is not about me. It’s about Him.

–Take charge; make decisions.

–God blesses those who obey, and He will provide.

–Don’t be afraid to do God’s work.

I sat there admiring these good people, all of them earning either nothing or far less than they could take home from standard employment. Yet they are all about bringing the gospel to men and women who work on the docks and on the ships of the world that come to New Orleans, and doing whatever it takes to accomplish that.

Toward the end of the evening–it was nearly 9 pm–the venerable John Vandercook, after whom this new building is being named, stood and spoke. “This room we’re in is nearly empty, you notice.” A television sat in the far corner with a couple of living room chairs pushed up close. “Notice over here what Philip has taped on the wall.” It appeared to be three clippings from sales catalogs. “They are bookcases,” Brother John said.

“We need to display hundreds of Bibles in this room. We want the people who come here to find one in their own language and to take it home with them.” He looked around and said, “Philip needs ten of those bookcases, and they’re going to cost about three thousand dollars.” He paused to let that soak in. “So, if you are sitting on some of the Lord’s money–maybe some lousy old hundred dollar bills–you might want to add them to the bowl I sat over on the dessert table. You notice I put a little seed money in it,” referring to some visible one dollar bills.

I had just received my mileage check and I was carrying five one hundred dollar bills in my wallet. I quickly took them out and deposited in the bowl. I’m making a mental commitment to give another five hundred as soon as the Lord enables me.

Along with the financial report, they distributed a page of “needs” for this new building. It includes such things as the bookshelves, matching couches and chairs for the main room, a large screen television, five computers for internet access, a pool table, ping pong table, and cafe table and chairs. They need a commercial ice machine, a phone system with 8 or 10 extensions, weed eater, mulch, and a fence with electric gates. They need a sign in front on Tchoupitoulas Street.

Here is their contact information. Global Maritime Ministries, 3635 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans LA 70115. The center’s phone number is 504/895-2028. Their fax number is 504/895-2029. The center at Reserve is at 1372 Highway 44, Reserve, LA 70084. Phone 985/536-6060.

Their website is www.PortMinistry.com. Philip Vandercook’s e-mail is Philip@PortMinistry.com.

I hope readers will note I have not asked anyone for anything. The Holy Spirit does that so much better than I ever could.