Why Things Take So Long Around Here

(NOTE: I’m preaching this Sunday night, July 30 at 6 pm, at Calvary Baptist Church in Alexandria, LA. If you’re nearby, we’d love to have you worship with us. Pastor David Brooks asked me to update everyone on the New Orleans situation.)

We’re finding two groups of church volunteer teams coming to our city. The vast majority are dedicated, hard-working, and here to serve the Lord. But there’s another kind showing up in some of our churches.

“We had the church group from hell,” one of the pastors said. Everyone laughed at the obvious exaggeration, but he said, “I’m serious. They let the teenagers run wild, they knocked holes in the walls of the church, they were completely unrestrained.” He added, “I think someone told them it was all right to destroy things.” The 45 pastors and guests in Wednesday’s final meeting at Oak Park Baptist Church sat there stunned, until another pastor agreed with him.

“We did, too,” he said. He told how he walked into the sanctuary one night and found that the visiting youth group had taken over the sanctuary–a large one, too– and had turned on every light and opened up the sound board and were having a party. Teenagers were running wild throughout the building.

I had not heard any reports of this kind of behavior. Then, to my utter surprise, a third pastor admitted to having the same experience with undisciplined, uncontrolled youth groups.

“I think we need to have training for our people on how to host church groups,” a preacher said, “and possibly there ought to be training for groups coming here.” When several nodded in agreement, Jim Burton who heads volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board said, “We have that training available and can do it for you anytime you’re ready.” Not many people ask for it, he said, and mentioned that the NAMB website has a 65 page booklet available to be downloaded and printed and handed out any time we choose.

Jim said, “Can you ‘fire’ a church group? Absolutely, you can. In fact, I’ve terminated a couple of church groups in World Changers this summer. They knew what the rules were, they violated them, and we sent them home.” He looked out at the pastors and said, “You can, too.”

I think most of us do not want to take that drastic a step because we feel these groups are doing us a favor by coming to help and we do not want to alienate them. Perhaps their behavior this one time is an aberration, we think. Some of us still hurt at the characterization the leader of one group left with us recently when he said he had never been treated so badly anywhere in America. All because the facilities where his group was being lodged was not up to their demands.

Jim Burton said, “Let me remind you the number one concern you must have for groups coming here is what do you need? You’re trying to rebuild your city. Your first concern is not what the visiting group wants from this trip.”

By way of contract, early in the afternoon, some of us drove into the Upper 9th Ward onto Port Street where a team of volunteers from North Richland Hills, Texas, was rebuilding a home. I should have written down the terrific pastor’s name–Jay Kramer, maybe? In the hot sun, he and his wife were working like slaves along with another dozen of his people from Center Point Church. “We started the church three years ago in a home,” he said, and now they have 800 members. This was their first mission trip, and they were working like bees in a hive. Some of our NAMB and NOAH people met them there to receive a check for $10,000 they were giving for the rebuilding of our city. This was one impressive group. The pastor told us most of his team were relatively new Christians. Jim Burton and I addressed them to express appreciation for their encouragement.

At Wednesday morning’s pastors’ meeting, Tom Pewitt announced that Memorial Baptist Church called a new pastor Sunday, Rev. Jackie Gestes of Lubbock, TX. The Pewitts had met the Gestes family on a trip to the Holy Land some time ago. Isn’t that just like the Lord?

Soon after the hurricane, when Baptists of our city saw the first “yellow hats” arrive and set up feeding units and begin to minister in the name of Jesus, many of our people have wanted to take the Disaster Relief training so that they will be qualified to travel to troubled areas for similar ministries. Freddie Arnold, a “white cap” and instructor, announced today that on Saturday, August 19 from 9 am to 3:30 pm, he will give this training at our associational offices. For those who wish to work on chain saw and mud out crews, additional training will be required.

Freddie promoted the annual “Ridgecrest on the River” event in which we hold conferences all day for various leaders of our churches, with a particular emphasis on Sunday School. Normally held at the seminary, this year the September 9 event occurs at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. After a number of conferences that day, we all gather in the sanctuary for a worship time in early afternoon. The preacher will be Dr. Gary Frost, the executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, and one of the finest preachers any of us will ever hear. Baptists from perhaps a seventy-five or hundred mile radius will be participating in this ROTR.

Bill Taylor of NAMB and Bruce Raley of Lifeway shared with the group plans to bring the national meeting of the ministers of education from our SBC churches to New Orleans next year, perhaps in the Spring. “We could be talking about as many as 400 to 600,” Bill said. There are several aspects to this event. They want the M.E.s to see the two sides of New Orleans–what the hurricane did and what God’s people are doing–and to visit the churches and see how they might be of help. We’ll share more details here as they firm up.

In order that Bill and Bruce could get a sampling of what the ministers of education would be facing on arriving here, I asked four pastors to tell our guests about their churches. When they finished, Bill Taylor said, “This is why I want the ministers of education to come and see for themselves. It just doesn’t work to read this or hear about it.”

Cornelius Tilton is pastor of the Irish Channel church in Uptown. His church did not flood but had serious structural damage from the wind. They now worship in the fellowship hall, with only one-third of his people returning. “We have only Sunday morning and Wednesday night Bible study and prayer time,” he said, with summer camp in progress this week. Cornelius said, “Two other damaged congregations are meeting with us right now and it makes a full room, which is a good sight. But soon, they’ll be returning to their own buildings and it’ll be just our little group.”

Kevin Lee of Edgewater in Gentilly told how their church had over 10 feet of water. They’re meeting in a tent on the parking lot right now, and are close to finishing the restoration of the educational building. “We hope to have electricity in a week or so.” He said, “We have 80 to 85 of our members back, but sometimes with the volunteers we’ll have 140 in attendance.” He has noticed a lot of college students coming, and added, “I think they like the adventure of worshiping outside in a tent.”

Lynn Rodrigue of Port Sulphur in lower Plaquemines Parish told how the eye of Katrina passed over them and brought a surge up the Mississippi River of 25 feet of water. “The wind was clocked at 175 miles an hour,” he said. “Everything was lost in a 40 mile radius. We’ve been in a recovery mode ever since.” They’re operating a food distribution center, giving out food and ice. “We feed about 500 residents a week.”

Port Sulphur Baptist Church is in partnership with Baptists from Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas. Second Harvest is donating hundreds of thousands of pounds of canned goods to distribute. “They’ve promised to keep giving it free through January of ’07,” Lynn said. A pastor from Baton Rouge gave them a circus-like tent with carpet to use for church. Modular buildings have arrived, and Freddie Arnold’s brother is putting them together. They expect air conditioning in a week. Worship averages 30 to 40 people who have actually moved back into the area. “Around 80 to 90 percent of our people have relocated elsewhere,” Lynn said.

Jeffery Friend of Hopeview Church in Violet (St. Bernard Parish) described the 13 feet of water and sludge in his church, with everything a total loss. “Missouri Baptists gutted out our building. They’ve put in showers and hung drywall, and are hoping to use the building to house volunteers.” Presently Jeffery and some of his people are combining services with Suburban Baptist Church in east New Orleans where Jeff Box pastors. Suburban had wind damage, but the fellowship hall has been repaired and they’re worshiping there. “We average about 60 people on Sunday,” he said. The two pastors alternate preaching. “We have cookouts every week.”

These four churches are rather typical of many of our congregations–some meeting in tents and some in fellowship halls, all of them pulling in people from other churches to some extent. It’s quite a challenge for visiting ministers of education who will want to advise us on restoring Christian education. Bill Taylor quoted our seminary president, Dr. Chuck Kelley, who said, “The next challenge before our churches is restoring mission.”

Tobey Pitman, director of Operation NOAH Rebuild, updated us on the Volunteer Village in the World Trade Center downtown. We need to get the word out to church groups wanting to come help, that this terrific facility is available. Tobey gave tribute to the layman who is investing great sums in carpeting the three floors of the village, and making carpet available to us in other ways.

Earlier Wednesday morning I had received a phone call from a leader of a non-Baptist faith group planning to come help senior citizens rebuild their homes. “The Episcopal office gave me your name,” he said. They had a place to stay, but needed meals. Could we provide meals for them? I said, “Let me tell you about our Volunteer Village and see what you think.” When he heard that the location is at the foot of Canal Street downtown, that the 20 dollars a day covers the accommodations, 3 meals, parking, badges, and supplemental insurance, he said, “Man, that sounds perfect; we’ll just do that.” I gave him the number for the office of NOAH (504/362-4604), and asked him to keep my number handy if he needs us for anything.

I told Tobey and Steve Gahagan, the construction manager for NOAH, what a privilige it is to be able to give this kind of information to callers. Without it, we’d be having to “re-create the wheel” for every new caller with a need. Thanks to the work of the North American Mission Board–and the tithes of God’s people in churches throughout America–we are organized and ready!!

Steve Gahagan continues to put out a call for a licensed electrician who can stay with us and help wire houses. St. Bernard Parish is backtracking somewhat on early permission to let us use out-of-state electricians to rewire houses we’re rebuilding. Now they say the electrician has to be present at the inspection, which takes place at a later time and which would be impossible for most volunteers who travel here with church teams from a great distance.

“The next stage of our work is going to be demolition of houses,” a couple of our leaders stated. St. Bernard Parish has 5,000 requests for homes to be taken down at this moment, and more are coming in daily. Steve Gahagan laughed and said, “Yes, we have guys eager to get on those tractors.”

Jim Burton of NAMB announced that PBS is in town making a video documentary on the rebuilding role of faith-based organizations in this city. “A lot of that is about Baptists,” he said. We have said here and I repeated it today for the Texas group: “The rebuilding of this city is being done by God’s people!”

As we ended the meeting, David Crosby reminded the pastors of our anniversary Prayer Rally at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans on Tuesday night, August 29 at 7 pm. We need to get our people together for this time of intercession and thanksgiving.

(Help us get the word to everyone: beginning Wednesday, August 2, our weekly pastors & leaders meeting moves to Good Shepherd Spanish Baptist Church at 5033 Wabash in Metairie, just off Transcontinental.)

Hurricane Katrina continues to claim victims. Tuesday morning in Lakeview, the son of former Congressman Bob Livingston was trimming a tree prior to cutting it down when he came into contact with a live electrical wire. Richard Livingston was 37.

Mayor Ray Nagin returned to the city long enough to create another controversy. Famous for shooting from the hip, he announced Tuesday that the salaries of police officers would be raised by 10 percent and the starting pay for rookie firefighters would be boosted by $5,300. Immediately, leaders of the fire union reacted, saying they were taken completely by surprise. The mayor is ignoring the sacrifices of veteran firefighters since Katrina, they complained. The director of the city’s Emergency Medical Services unit says she was caught off guard also. Dr. Juliette Saussy is hoping the omission of ambulance drivers and dispatchers was just an oversight. Mr. Nagin insists that these raises were just the “first step.”

Every pastor can take a lesson from our mayor, although not a positive one. No church leaders (or any other kind, for that matter) like to be surprised by major announcements that affect them. By delaying his announcement just one day, the mayor could have pulled in leaders of the union and other affected agencies and given them advance notice. Better yet, he could have invited them to sit down with him two weeks ago to hammer out a plan acceptable to everyone.

Leadership is hard work. That’s why so few do it well.

The media and the ACLU are pressuring Attorney General Charles Foti to release the results of his investigation into the behavior of Gretna City Police, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies, and the bridge police in the days following Katrina when they stood on the Crescent City Connection (the downtown bridge over the river) and along the West Bank Expressway with guns drawn, forbidding New Orleanians to come their way. The officials say the towns on the West Bank had insufficient supplies to care for evacuees from New Orleans and to receive them would have been inviting disaster. The main issue, however, concerns whether they had the right to turn back citizens. After all the bridge is in New Orleans and across the bridge is the Algiers portion of New Orleans. What then were the deputies and police from Jefferson and Gretna doing turning back New Orleanians from crossing into another section of New Orleans? Great question, and I expect the attorney general–who will be forced to turn his attention from the prosecution of the Memorial Hospital doctor and two nurses–will likewise be forced to admit these officers were exceeding their jurisdiction.

Columnist Lolis Eric Elie, who comments on this matter in Wednesday’s paper, called the Gretna Police Chief to ask about the geography and jurisdiction of the event. “I’m not commenting on that until the litigation is settled.” Likewise, Elie writes, Charles Foti expects to wrap up his investigation into the matter in “about three weeks.” He said that in November.

Elie says, “If the attorney general was a roofer or a carpenter, then (his) timing would be understandable. These professions are generally governed by the Saturnalian calendar, and the definition of three weeks can vary widely. But in the legal world, there are statutes of limitations and other time-sensitive regulations that mandate a more precise calculation of time. Based on that calendar, the attorney general’s three weeks expired a long time ago.”

My encyclopedia says one year on Saturn is over 29 years on Earth. That gives me an idea. The next time someone from out of the area asks, as they do about once a week, how long I expect it will be before New Orleans is “back to normal,” I’m going to say, “Oh, about a year.”

Some of my church members over these four decades of ministry would tell you I’ve preached by the Saturnalian calendar for a long time. When I told them “I won’t keep you long” and “My message tonight will be brief” I wasn’t lying. I was just speaking in interplanetary terms.

2 thoughts on “Why Things Take So Long Around Here

  1. You know me… I’ve got a picture that I can’t get out of my head… Jeff and Jeff and their congregations put into a FriendBox and shaken up together. The names aren’t as picturesque when you think of David Crosby and Fred Luter, but the picture is similar. The joined hands of congregations across racial barriers is one of my favorite Pre-K happenings.

    Thanks for always reminding us that in spite of all the inconveniences Katrina brought to our lives — God is doing some wonderful things.

  2. Joe, as the national director of Appalachian Regional Ministry for Southern Baptists, I appreciate your article on volunteers – both the positive and the negative. The issues of out of control youth and demanding visiting teams are tensions we work with in Appalachia. Usually both issues go back to the pastor – churches tend to reflect the personality of the pastor, unless he has just arrived on the field.

    While the overwhelming majority of the mission teams coming to the Appalachian region come with a servants heart, we continue to struggle with the one the shows up seeking to be served and not to serve. The sad reality is that far to often the one team that is out of control or demanding is the mission team that is remembered.

    The matter you addressed is a concern to all of us working in volunteer mobilization wrestle with every summer. Personally, I’ve been considering sending them to Jolo, WV to work with the “snake handling church.” Oh, and I believe they have concrete block walls.

    Praying for you and the work in New Orleans.

Comments are closed.