Katrina Log–Why A Good Resurrection Would Be In Order Here!

I spent all day Thursday with three good friends and it was one of the worst days of my life.

We were finally able to get into New Orleans and begin the process of checking on our churches. Freddie Arnold from our associational office had secured a pass that got us past police checkpoints, and with Ed Jelks and his wife Glenda (I told you previously he is a church builder for the state convention), we spent the day visiting over twenty churches.

I’ve been worrying about how to tell this. We confined our visits to Orleans Parish, the portion of our city which is officially New Orleans. We drove down deserted streets with no traffic lights, with destruction on both sides, downed trees everywhere, homes boarded up, every store and every business closed. Not some and not most. Every last one. From the time we entered New Orleans at 9:30 am until we moved into Metairie over 7 hours later, we did not see one place to buy a coke or go to the rest room.

No birds were singing. One or two stray cats showed up and ran away. We saw an occasional worker cutting trees or stringing electrical lines. I think we saw a homeowner or two working in their yards, but nothing more. The silence was eerie. This is a major city populated by hundreds of thousands of people, but none were around.

Every house and business wore racing stripes, lines to indicate where the water had risen and stopped, then lingered. Lines placed there by the filth and ugliness carried in the water. The fortunate homes wore their lines low; most sported them like belts, at mid-level or even higher.

Boats were scattered everywhere. The water was gone, but the boats remained. Good boats, many with motors in place and supplies lying on the floor, just sitting there, by the side of the street or under the interstate. I suppose anyone who wanted one could hitch up to it and drive away. We saw life vests discarded, and debris and refuse washed into corners by the fences. And the libraries. Have you ever seen a library after a flood? Not a pretty sight. Books that have been mutilated and desecrated and muddied and ruined forever, scattered across the floor. Mildew and mold on the loyal volumes still holding their position on the shelves. Dark, dank, depressing.

And now the churches. You wanted to know about the churches, and I have stalled too long.

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Katrina Log For Wednesday, September 28 — God At Work Here!

“I had the opportunity to share the gospel with Harry Connick, Jr! He was terrific.”

“I’ve been interviewed on ‘All Things Considered’ about what our church is doing. I got e-mails from people all over the country saying ‘I can’t believe they let you say those things on public radio.’ But they did. I had the opportunity to preach the gospel to the nation.”

“I’ve been asked to write an article on this story for Baptist Press.” “I’ve been interviewed on Moody Radio twice.” “Here, Joe, read this story in the paper about what our church is doing.”

You just have to understand that these pastors, the ones excitedly telling how God is opening doors, have sat here in New Orleans basically ignored for years. You’re just doing the Lord’s work, leading your church,trying to get it right, sometimes seeing little fruit for your labors. Then, suddenly, Katrina storms in and a reporter for the largest newspaper in the Midwest shows up to interview you. National Public Radio calls. You have opportunities you have only dreamed of. Your community lines up at your church doors asking for your help.

You have longed to see this day come. To your amazement, it came on the heels of a tragic storm that took the lives of perhaps a thousand of our citizens and devastated perhaps 50,000 homes. God working in a tragedy.

Tuesday, Ed Jelks and I rode throughout the West Bank area of metro New Orleans in his huge truck with “Official Disaster Team” emblazoned on the doors. Ed is a church builder, a construction specialist with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and a legend in this state. He and I visited twenty of our Baptist churches.

We saw them in every condition–from fully mobilized, excitedly ministering to their communities, parking lots crammed with long trucks of supplies and RVs for volunteers, yellow t-shirted workers everywhere, lines of cars streaming in–everything from that to the other extreme: churches that appear untouched since the storm blew through. Grass knee-deep, shingles that once covered the roof now protecting the yard, a window out here, the roof leaking there.

And the stories we heard.

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Katrina Log For Monday, September 26 — First Day Back On The Job

“These are from the Baptists of North Carolina. And look–they put enough canned goods for a family in separate boxes, so all we have to do is hand it out.” Each box contained fifty dollars worth of groceries.

Pastor Todd Hallman of Luling’s First Baptist Church was showing me the storeroom where his people were handing out food and water to the people of St. Charles Parish. They’ve been on the job since only a few days after Katrina went through.

“Need a refrigerator?” he said. “I said, ‘Yes! Don’t tell me you’re giving those out too?” He said, “Look at this.” Stacks of motel-room-sized refrigerators lined a hallway. “Where did you ever get these?”

Todd said, “I found out through the Purpose-Driven network that a Hilton Hotel in California was upgrading, so we asked them what they planned to do with the old fridges. They sent us forty-two.” Since the one we ordered from Home Depot will not be delivered for another eight days, I took one. When we no longer need it, I promise to pass it along.

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Katrina Log For Sunday, September 25

Margaret and I re-entered our home in the New Orleans western suburb of River Ridge Saturday night at 6:30 pm, precisely four weeks and two hours and a half since we fled Katrina. I revisited our house two days after Labor Day for an hour to retrieve some clothes and check on things, and I thought I knew what to expect on returning. Not quite.

FEMA has been here. They patched my roof with blue plastic to keep the rain from doing further damage. Since Rita dumped more rain on this area over the weekend, this is no little gift. They also left my front door unlocked, a scary thought, although as far as I can tell, we’ve had no losses.

Mold and mildew now decorate the walls of our den and the kitchen ceiling. The grass outside has not been cut in a month and the back fence is down, due mainly to the neighbor’s tree presently squatting across it. These are minor things. Some of our friends lost everything. Nothing that follows is meant to diminish my concern for their losses or to exaggerate our own suffering. Most of our pain is of the small variety, the kind that nags at you and eats away at your equilibrium. Like the fellow said, “I feel like I’m being eaten alive by a school of minnows.”

The first order after moving our bags into the house was moving the refrigerator and freezer out onto the lawn and cleaning them out. We have lots of company in this unpleasant chore. Drive down any street in this part of the world and you may have your pick of hundreds of nice looking appliances in every price range. Slightly used, of course, and forever soiled and spoiled by the decay and fermentation that occurs to organic material when left to nature without the retarding influence of ice or freon.

How shall I describe the experience of cleaning out these units?

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Katrina Log For Thursday, September 22

I wonder if the frustration my family and I are experiencing is being repeated throughout evacuation-land?

All week long, we have been occupying suite 104 of the Quality Inn in Ozark, Alabama, where we traveled to last Saturday in order to preach a revival meeting at Ridgecrest Baptist Church this week. Pastor Jim Hill said what we were thinking, that God knew about Katrina even when we all made these plans and we should go forward. Now that the event is almost over, I’m more certain than ever that he’s right.

Frustration, we’re told, is defined as having one’s goals blocked. If my goal has been to be in the thick of things back at home in New Orleans–or at least in the parts of the metro area we can get into, and it certainly is–then, I’ve been frustrated. I know not to second-guess decisions once they are made, but knowing it with your head and not doing it with your heart are separate things. The folks here have treated us royally, not like refugees but as brother and sister come to do the work of the Father among them, yet at every spare moment, I’ve been on the computer or cell phone with our pastors and other workers, trying to do anything I can to encourage or inform.

Today, my computer went out.

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Katrina Log For Monday September 19

I’m urging anyone who asks not to rush back home into the New Orleans area. While the various city and parish leaders seem to be inviting residents to return, the FEMA director says not so fast. He cautions there is not enough clean water, not enough stores open, and that things are still not up and running sufficiently to take care of hundreds of thousands of citizens coming home.

If you are where you can stay another week, please try to do so.

My brother Ron sent me a weird article from someone who called himself an eyewitness of all the ugliness of the evacuees. This fellow had decided to volunteer in Houston, and after receiving a brief tour of the Astrodome, he stood outside handing out bottles of water to evacuees coming off the endless buses that were arriving from New Orleans. He was offended that few said thank you, and that many preferred a coke or a beer. Then as he did other labors, he was horrified to see the New Orleanians being harsh and demanding and selfish. The conclusions he came to–using ugly profanity and racial epithets–seemed to justify his own mean spirit and his bigotry.

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Katrina Log For Friday, September 16

When the New Orleans ministers met in Jackson, Mississippi, last Wednesday, Ken Taylor (professor at the seminary and pastor of Elysian Fields Baptist Church) said, “I’ve been preaching through John’s Gospel. And my next sermon–the one that was canceled when we all fled the storm–was to be from John 11. The resurrection.”

You cannot be a serious follower of Jesus Christ and not believe in resurrection.

Resurrections come in all shapes and sizes. Someone has asked that I tell you about the time God gave one to our family.

When I was thirteen, our house burned. That in itself was awful, but it came at the worst time in our lives. Two years earlier, the coal mines in West Virginia had shut down, Dad was laid off, and we moved into my widowed grandmother’s house in rural Alabama. Unable to find work there, Dad farmed. Once in a while, he got a few days’ work in a push mine, a home-made tunnel that was as primitive as anything from the 1800s, dangerous and dark and poor paying. Trying to feed and clothe a family of six children, one takes what he can get.

The feeding came easily; we lived on a farm. The clothing was the hard part. The shoes I was wearing had long since worn out, but there was no choice but to wear them on. We had moved across the hill to an uncle’s vacant house, four rooms it was, so you can imagine how crowded we were. I had no coat, and in the winter when I stood waiting for the bus in short sleeves, I would say, ‘I’m hot natured. Can’t stand coats.’ Kids can be such liars. My brother Ron was graduating from high school that year and they had scraped the money together to find him a graduating suit. Then, on that February, 1954, day some coals must have rolled out of the open grate and onto the wood floor. Dad had gone to Jasper and Mom was across the hill at Granny’s house. We were all in school.

It was like a death. You thought you were as low as it was possible to get, then someone found a way to go lower. As we stood around the smoldering remains, Ron said, “Mom, did you save my suit?” She said, “Son, we didn’t save anything.” So we all cried.

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Katrina Log For Thursday, September 15

I’ve promised my wonderful son Marty that I’ll slow down the rate of these articles in a day or so. This log is like a daily radio program I once had: you think of something fascinating to say and you have a great outlet. Once the outlet dries up, you no longer get the ideas. I’m confident there is a law of nature involved here.

The folks who work in our associational office are about to get paid. Stand outside on a clear morning and you can hear the hallelujahs. Since we use paper checks (remember them?) and they were in our office on Lakeshore Drive in New Orleans, our wonderful computer guy Louis James has been working with Whitney Bank to set us up with automated payroll deposits, and it’s finally about to happen. My credit card company will be so happy to see me coming. (My line over the past few weeks was: “I don’t have a lot of money, but I have great credit.” That worked until I found out the card was maxed out. First time for everything, they say, and this was mine.)

Wednesday, at the First Baptist Church of Jackson, around 20 of us preachers from New Orleans assembled. Paul drove over from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Ken and Charlie and Chris from Northwest Alabama, Keith and his son Keith from Ocean Springs, MS, several from throughout Mississippi, and a number from Louisiana. We learned that Alberto and Cosme had stayed in a shelter with their families for a few days, but are comfortably situated in Brookhaven at the moment. All of them needed the fellowship, needed to hear assurances that God’s people–all of them, Baptist members, our denominational leaders, everyone–is going to help them once we are able to return. Scott Smith is back at Highland Baptist Church in Metairie. “We had services there last Sunday,” he said. Oh? How many were in attendance? “Two.”

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Katrina Log For Wednesday, September 14

Yesterday, a number of us met in Hammond, Louisiana, at the North Shore Associational office to begin laying plans for “Adopt-A-Church,” the plan to match New Orleans churches up with sponsoring congregations all over the country.

I think the storm was still raging when Roger Freeman, pastor of Clarksville, Tennessee’s First Baptist Church, sent me an email suggesting that we partner churches in his state with New Orleans churches. I thought it was a great idea, and made special sense coming from Roger, who pastored New Orleans’ First Baptist Church in the late 80s into the mid-90s. He knows and loves our city and these churches. The editor of the state paper was working with Roger on this partnership.

A couple of days later, I began to hear that other states were thinking of the same type linkup. Then, last Tuesday in Baton Rouge, I learned that the North American Mission Board in Atlanta was proposing the same thing nationwide. That’s where we are now.

Several times a day I’m getting emails from people informing me their church is ready and willing to come to New Orleans to help a church rebuild. They know we’re not ready for company yet. In fact, we’re not even home yet. Although daily we hear reports of some residents being invited to re-enter very soon. As soon as it happens, we’ll be open for business and ready to welcome teams from the churches…so long as they understand a few things.

Understand that New Orleans is going to be different. No tours this time to exotic locales. No dining out in your favorite restaurants. It’s all work this time.

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Katrina Log For Monday, September 12

I may be wearing my welcome out with my friends. Tonight, I’m staying with Charles and Shirley Martin in Brookhaven, Mississippi, former members of our church in Kenner before they retired and moved to the country. They belong to Easthaven Baptist Church here, a congregation that has basically turned over their facilities to evacuees from the coast.

“We’re not able to have Sunday School right now,” Charles said, “because they’re everywhere. We’re having a great time, though. Yesterday, our choir was packed and the guests really seemed to enjoy the worship service.”

“There’s an old trailer park outside of town,” Charles said, “that we’ve taken over. Another church and we are buying a dozen or more trailers and we’re setting up there for some of the families.”

“We have three requirements,” he said. “It must be a real family, not just some people living together. They must agree to go to church, and third, they have to get a job. We’re helping them find jobs.”

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