What They’re Talking About in New Orleans

Monday, Frank Page came to town and made the front of Tuesday’s Times-Picayune. Frank, the pastor of Taylors, SC, First Baptist Church, is the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was invited to speak Monday night at FBC of Covington and then Tuesday morning to our pastors meeting at Oak Park Baptist Church. But Monday, they gave him a tour of the New Orleans he has only seen in the newsreels.

“The new leader of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention toured New Orleans’ vast flood zone Monday and, astonished at what he saw, promised to point more volunteers toward the region where tens of thousands of Baptist church members have toiled since the second day after Hurricane Katrina.”

“In a neighborhood off Elysian Fields Avenue, the Rev. Frank Page chatted with nearly two dozen sweat-soaked Missouri teens gutting a house along with a few adult chaperones. Later, he visited more than 200 volunteers helping build 40 homes in the Baptist Crossroads Project, a 9th Ward effort co-sponsored by local Southern Baptists and Habitat for Humanity.”

“Flanking those visits were tours of Lakeview and the Lower 9th Ward. ‘My reaction is…incredulity,’ Page said later. ‘It’s almost unbelievable. I’ve seen the pictures, but they cannot capture the widespread devastation. Mile after mile. It looks like something after a nuclear bomb.'”

Religion writer (and all-around good guy) Bruce Nolan explained to readers that the convention’s North American Mission Board estimated its volunteers have contributed more than 43,000 days of Katrina relief work this year. Bruce frequently attends our Wednesday pastors meeting–it met on Tuesday this week in order to accommodate Dr. Page’s schedule–and has a good understanding of who we are and what we’re about. That is a rarity in today’s media.

I missed Frank Page’s visit, unfortunately. Sunday, I spoke four times at the Central Baptist Church of Bearden in Knoxville, TN, and Monday night at Green Valley Baptist Church in Birmingham, then drove home Tuesday. Several people I talked to, however, gave glowing reports of Frank’s visit with the pastors. “We had about a hundred,” David Crosby said. He reported that Page brought a good Bible study to the group on our mission, then fielded questions for a half hour. David asked him why he had run for president of the SBC and what he hoped to accomplish.

He ran, he said, because he felt that the Cooperative Program needed to receive a greater focus in Southern Baptist life. And he hopes to enlarge the tent of cooperation, to include far more people in the work and decision-making role of this denomination.

(Explanation: The Cooperative Program is the plan for the disbursement of offerings contributed by our churches to fund the work of missions, education, and ministry. Typically, a church might give 10 percent of its income to the CP by sending a check for that amount each month to the state headquarters. The office there will keep a portion and send another check to the denominational office in Nashville. Both the state offices and the national office will work from budgets which Baptists have drawn up and voted annually at their respective meetings. In Louisiana, about 35% of the money received in our state office in Alexandria is forwarded to the SBC Executive Committee office in Nashville. There, around 50 percent of the money they receive is forwarded to the International Mission Board in Richmond, another 25 percent or so to the North American Mission Board in Atlanta, and the rest is divvied up among our 6 seminaries and various other ministries and programs. The Cooperative Program was the brainchild of the 1925 SBC meeting and was created to replace the chaotic and inefficient way agencies in the denomination were required to make their case to each individual church. Imagine what a chore that would be today!)

Personally, I’m delighted a large number of our ministers had the opportunity to meet this terrific leader and to sense his heartbeat for the work of the Lord. Too many of our pastors do not keep up with happenings on the denominational level. I remind them that their church is giving millions of dollars and they have a responsibility to know what is being done with it.

One thing locals were talking about today was our Tenet Hospitals, three of which are going to be purchased by Ochsner Foundation Hospitals. Perhaps most importantly, the old Baptist Hospital–now called Memorial–is one of the three. That hospital was in the news today for another reason. Attorney General Charles Foti held a press conference to announce charges against a Memorial doctor and two nurses who stayed through the August 29 hurricane and the many days of high floodwaters, and allegedly gave fatal doses of medicines to four elderly or infirmed patients resulting in their deaths. He indicated his office is looking into other similar deaths and that more charges could be forthcoming. “This is not euthanasia,” Foti said. “This is murder.”

About the time I left town last Friday, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund was in the news. All the members of the blue ribbon panel that was to advise government leaders on the disbursal of those funds resigned, saying the officials were not taking their advice. They indicated that the government people simply wanted to mail out checks indiscriminantly to every church applying for the money, whereas they wanted to scrutinize each request. Perhaps these religious leaders felt it was necessary to keep these safeguards in place for theological reasons: they know man is a sinner by nature, and therefore not every request for these funds should be taken at face value. The newspaper articles indicated that the original ceiling of $35,000 had been raised to $100,000, while we had gotten word that the highest figure is now at $200,000. I have not heard of any of our local pastors actually receiving these checks for any amount yet.

One of the somewhat bizarre aspects to discussions of future hurricane preparation has been the insistence of some that provision be made for people’s pets. Some residents reportedly did not evacuate last year because they were not allowed to take their family dog or cat or bird or, yes, snake, to the shelters and on the buses. Evacuees in those shelters, however, have reported that packs of dogs roamed everywhere in the buildings, terrorizing people who were already traumatized. This time, residents have been assured repeatedly that such provisions will be made next time. But that’s easier said than done. A headline in Tuesday’s paper said, “Money to aid pets lacking, official says.” The responsibility for the care of a pet falls on the owner, said a state leader. Owners should plan to evacuate somewhere–to a hotel or the home of a relative–that welcomes pets.

A Kenner city official wants to be paid. Cedric Floyd was chief administrative officer under ex-mayor Phil Capitano. After the hurricane, the mayor put Floyd in charge of receiving and giving out relief supplies. In the process, he stored some of the materials in his house, waiting for a time, he says, when he could get them to New Hope Community Church, which is one of our SBC churches, pastored by Mark Mitchell. When police found the supplies in Floyd’s home, they charged him with hoarding the items and he was suspended from his job. That was September 23 of last year, and to date, the Jefferson Parish district attorney’s office still has not decided whether to bring charges against him. Apparently, he has not worked since the suspension, because now he’s filing charges for back pay of $63,319.

FEMA announced in Monday’s paper that victims of future hurricanes should not expect to get checks for $2,000 for living expenses such as were handed out in the wake of Katrina and Rita. The agency feels it was taken to the cleaners by a lot of unscrupulous people, accounting for perhaps one-third of all the money given.

We’ve spoken here previously of the situation with our libraries, public and church. Monday, the New Orleans Public Library sent out word it does not need any more donations. More than 1 million books have come their way since Katrina, and they cannot store or process any more. Consequently, they’re donating many of these books to the Friends of the N.O.Public Library to sell at their St. Charles Avenue branch.

The other day I reported here, rather reluctantly, that some volunteers who have come to help us left with a lot of anger and resentment over the accommodations they found. It was hot in the houses they were gutting and the beds and meals provided for them did not meet their expectations. A letter to the editor in Monday’s paper gives another view, one which we hope will be the experience of most.

Karen Schloss Helmberg of Santa Barbara, CA, wrote: “For my 50th birthday, I promised to come to New Orleans to help the city rebuild. I was mad. I was mad at the frustrating delays, the governmental ineptitude and the misappropriation of funds and resources to Iraq when so many of our own are in such dire need…. My friend and I hooked up with Nechama and Operation Blessing and we made our plans to come help. As we dug out much and carried out personal belongings ravaged by water and mold, we cried. It was personal at those moments.”

“Then we began the hard work, as we tore soggy, moldy drywall off the walls, pulled out rusty nails and sodden insulation and power-washed and bleached the houses to their studs. What I didn’t expect was what we got in return: the most amazingly warm, heartfelt welcome, and the thank-yous.”

“People spoke to us on such a personal level as we heard the many…stories…. I came to New Orleans angry at ineptitude by our government. I went home with the hope only individuals can restore.”

Frank Page has pledged to use his visibility as SBC president to help keep our situation and our great needs before God’s people. We’re grateful. We’re going to be needing help for a long time.

I told the folks at Central Baptist Church Sunday morning, “If you want to stun a New Orleanian into silence, just say, ‘Hey, I understand things are getting back to normal down there.’ Because they aren’t, and won’t for years.”

We not only appreciate the prayers and gifts, the visits and the work, but we are completely dependent upon them.

One thought on “What They’re Talking About in New Orleans

  1. Bro. Joe,

    I know you have had lots of people tell you their Katrina story and I really didn’t think I had one worth retelling but here it is anyway.

    My Husband, Don Hardin, was a patient at Lifecare Hospital of New Orleans located on the 7th floor of Memorial Hospital when Katrina hit on August 29. He was on a respirator, had to have dialysis, and also had recurrent infections (he had had complications after surgery on June 8 at Tulane and had been moved to Lifecare on August 12). I was at home in Moss Point, MS because I knew a hurricane was headed for the coast of MS or LA. I felt I needed to be home to make sure things were taken care of there – I felt sure the doctors and nurses would take care of Don and I never dreamed the damage would be so widespread and so bad.

    On the morning of August 30 I was able to reach the hospital using my cell phone and I talked with a nurse who assured me my husband was fine, their generators were running and everything was going smoothly. We were never able to communicate with them again because all phones and cell phones were out in our area. After going to Clinton, MS where our oldest son lives, I learned that patients from all the hospitals in New Orleans were being evacuated and we began to try to locate him. On Friday night, Sept. 3, we finally were able to find out that he had been evacuated on August 30 to Lifecare Hospital of Dallas, TX where he received excellent care until his death on January 28, 2006.

    I had heard some time back that some bodies had been found at Memorial Hospital but when I heard and saw the news this week about the deaths in New Orleans at Lifecare and Memorial Hospital, I realized that but for the grace of God one of those bodies could have been my husband. I thank God that it wasn’t. My heart goes out to the families of those patients. I have added them to my prayer list and I will be praying for them daily.

    I ran into a nurse at Lifecare in Dallas who had been at Lifecare in New Orleans during and after Katrina. She told me that she had helped take patients up to the roof to be placed on helicopters for evacuation. She indicated that it was rough. I know those days after the hurricane must have been horrible for the doctors, nurses and patients but that does not give anyone the right to kill someone.

    Thanks for listening. Susan Hardin, Ministry Assistant, FBC, Moss Point, MS

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