The Encouragement This Wednesday

“I love these weekly meetings. I’m not a pastor, but these have meant so much to me. I wouldn’t miss one.” The deacon who spoke those words right after lunch today confirmed what I’ve noticed. The fellowship in these Wednesday pastors gatherings is the main attraction. Our meeting was over at 11:30, it took 20 minutes to get the sanctuary cleared out and to move everyone to the fellowship hall for lunch, and at 12:30, hardly anyone had left. Good sign.

I’m about to do something we’ve not done before. I’m going to tell you who attended today’s pastors gathering.

Jay Adkins, Christoph Bajewski, Anthony & Mel Bellow, Don Campbell, Charlie Dale, Darryl Ferrington, Thomas & Jill Glover, Joe Kay, Brent King, Thuong Le, David Lema, Steve & Ann Corbin, Jennifer (?) America, Keith Manuel, Jose Mathews, James “Boogie” Melerine, Linda Middlebrooks, Larry Miguez, John Charles Murphy, Anthony Pierce, Manuel Ponce’, Dick Randels, Lionel Roberts, Philip Russell, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Craig Ratliff, Wayne Scholle, Oscar Williams, Bob Jackson, Rob Wilton, Yong Nam Shin, Cherry Blackwell, Lawrence Armour, Walker Downs, Brantley Scott, Keith Cating, Jared Pryer, Jerry Darby, Benny Jones, Mary Jessie Lowe, Kay Bennett, Philip Russell, Bryan Russell, Lynn Gehrman, Joe McKeever, and no doubt several others I missed. I did not count heads today, but count 48 names here.

We were missing Freddie Arnold and several pastors who were attending other meetings, specifically with “Operation NOAH Rebuild,” our North American Mission Board project.

Here’s a quick synopsis of Wednesday’s doings….

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Those Who Get Into the Boat

Where to start. I left New Orleans last Saturday early, driving home to North Alabama and to my graduating class’s 48th anniversary that evening. Sunday, I preached twice at the First United Methodist Church there in Double Springs and again Monday night. Home Tuesday. Saw lots of old friends, made some new ones, and ate far more than was wise. My 94-year-old father beat me in the first five hands of rummy, until I finally took two. He shows no sign of dulling. My nearly 90-year-old mother asked me one hundred and twenty five times what else I wanted to eat, and wouldn’t I like some of this and a little of that.

I told anyone who would listen that 1958 was the best class ever to come out of Winston County High, and that “if given an opportunity to select your graduation date, you’d do well to choose fifty-eight!” One thing our class agreed on is that things are changing. When we were kids, you would see pictures in the paper of these elderly people celebrating their 50th high school reunion. No longer. They’ve finally let the youngsters claim those big numbers.

While I was away from New Orleans, it was the same old same old. Mayoral candidates having what they call debates almost daily now, including one tomorrow at First Baptist-New Orleans. Crime re-emerges in full force in the city. Hurricane preparation occupies half of every day’s paper.

Columnist James Gill in Wednesday morning’s Times-Picayune tells what happened at a mayoral debate the other day, one that was sponsored by an organization of preachers calling itself ACT, meaning All Congregations Together. I suppose there are some non-Blacks in this assembly, but have not seen any in the photos the paper runs of their doings periodically. What the leaders of ACT did was present both candidates a pledge to sign. They would be agreeing to attend an ACT retreat with their leaders within 45 days after the election, and then meet with them on a bi-monthly basis thereafter. Gill wrote, “ACT further required to be consulted over all major appointments. Here was an opportunity to play the man and refuse to betray the voters by ceding the powers of the office. But our two noble leaders meekly attached their monikers.”

Brother. Talk about courageous leadership. Not even the slow pace of the recovery of our neighborhoods depresses me as much as seeing this kind of passivity, cowardice, and fear among those vying for leadership roles. How does that old line go: “There goes the crowd. I must rush to the front, for I am their leader.”

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Hawaiians and Arkansas and Other Friends

Wednesday night, a church group from Hawaii held a crawfish boil at the Rachel Sims Mission Center where they are staying, and invited me over. What a terrific group. This was a repeat work trip for four of the twelve members. Pastor Duane McDaniel is truly one of the finest brothers I’ve ever met. Fred and Elizabeth Luter came in to share the festivities about halfway through. Fred is preaching in David Jeremiah’s church in San Diego later this week. We’re glad to share him with the Lord’s people in other places, but I for one will be so glad when he settles down here in town. We need him around!

Ron and Janie Moskau are two of FBC Kenner’s finest. Thursday night, I bumped into them at a restaurant and Ron told me about a fellow named Eddie. “Eddie is a roofer and sheet metal worker. He’s done a lot of work at our church over the years.” Eddie lived in Chalmette and lost his house in the flooding that followed Katrina. Recently, Ron called our Freddie Arnold about sending a crew over to gut out his house and to restore it. Freddie directed a team from Arkansas that way. One day, the team leader called Ron to say they needed more sheet rock. Ron called Eddie, who stopped the job he was working on, and picked up supplies and delivered them to his house. That’s when he got into a conversation with the leader of the Arkansas group. Two hours later, Eddie had prayed to receive Christ as his Savior. Ron said, “I knew you would love to hear this.”

I do love to hear it. Furthermore, this same story has been repeated hundreds of times in our city.

We are forever grateful for godly men and women from all over this nation who put their own lives on hold to come help us rebuild and who remember to help our people in the best way possible.

The mayor is shooting from the hip again.

Mayor Ray Nagin has become famous (infamous?) for popping off without thinking, then backtracking. Just after the city was inundated by floodwaters, he went on national television announcing the way to rebuild New Orleans was to turn Canal Street downtown into a Las Vegas type boulevard with lots of casinos. No one, absolutely no one, thought that was a good idea, thank the Lord. And his comments on the chocolate city are well known. Now, he’s pulled another one.

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Diversity and Synergy: How Baptists Operate Best

Today was our first Wednesday pastors’ gathering at Oak Park Baptist Church in the Algiers section of New Orleans. We began at 10 as advertised, but they straggled in for the first fifteen minutes, until our final number topped out in the early 40s. Bruce Nolan, religion editor for the Times-Picayune, sat among us today for the first time. Monday, it had occurred to me he might be interested in this meeting of pastors, particularly since it has meet weekly since last September and shows hardly any sign of slacking off.

Whoever shows up is the program. Today, that meant Freddie Arnold, Joe Williams, Gary Mitchell, Steve Gahagan, and the usual suspects. What makes it special is that it’s always different. What each one shares is never the same. I often think of the line from I Corinthians 14 that in the early church worship services, one would come with a song, another comes with a message from the Lord, another a testimony, and so on.

Freddie Arnold reported on his meeting last week with all disaster relief workers in Arlington, Texas, his “On Mission Celebration” in Cullman, Alabama, the week before, and another gathering or two along the way he’s attended. Freddie reports to outsiders that the SBC disaster relief teams which descended on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the hurricane established a high reputation here for integrity, that they helped to create a spiritual environment which enhanced the Billy & Franklin Graham crusades which were so well-attended and so fruitful, and that they provided a ray of hope in a dark, dark situation all across this area. He reported that in last week’s Arlington meeting, a representative of the Internation Mission Board presented a check for $800 from a small group of Muslims from Southeast Asia, men whose areas had been so hurt by the tsunami. For each of the men, their gift represented one month’s income. It is precious in the Lord’s sight and in ours.

In the Arlington meeting, Freddie Arnold was one of several to receive the Distinguished Service Award in DR work. He receives our vote for being awarded the whole shooting match.

Joe Williams continues holding his “Ministry Fatigue Seminars” for our ministers and spouses. “We’ve refined it now to 10 am to 2 pm, including lunch.” He is finding that one aspect of the fatigue of ministers is that they cannot free up large blocks of time to devote to these seminars. Joe said, “We are providing some material for workers with pre-school children in your church,” referring to a stack of books entitled “Helping Children Rebound.”

Gary Mitchell works with bi-vocational and small-church pastors for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. The denominational wide group of which he is a part had planned to hold their 2006 meeting on the campus of our local seminary. After the hurricane, they tried to move the meeting to Covington on the northshore where they found a meeting place, but no hotels. Finally, the Pearl River Baptist Association in McNeill, Mississippi, opened their camp to the group and they will be meeting there the end of this week, and driving down to see New Orleans. Gary said, “We took McKeever up on a recent invitation in his blog to ‘come and see.'” They will overflow the 128 beds the PRBA camp has available, spilling onto floors and into RVs.

Steve Gahagan is the newly-arrived construction manager for Project NOAH, the arm of our North American Mission Board that is setting up to organize the volunteer efforts of thousands over the next two years as they arrive to assist in the rebuilding of this city. Steve used to be a construction supervisor for Habitat for Humanity in South Carolina and his wife Dianne has great administrative skills. So Dianne will run the office for NOAH, in a building NAMB provided for their use at nearby Calvary Baptist Church. They’re living in one of the ministerial homes owned by Oak Park. We are so blessed to have NAMB’s direct involvement here, and particularly honored to have Steve and Dianne, workers whom the Lord seems to have prepared for just such leadership roles.

Joe Kay is the interim associate pastor and, as he says, “Minister of Miscellaneous,” at our host church, Oak Park. As he welcomed us and told of the lunch plans, he got everyone’s full attention when he said, “Our church has a 15 passenger 1996 Ford van to give to one of you. It needs a brake job. See me afterwards.” Someone said, “The line forms in the rear of the auditorium.” Sure enough, at lunch, three pastors came by to ask that their name be added to the “van lottery”. Joe took their information and said, “We have a committee on this. I’ll pass it along.”

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Now All We Have to Work Out Are The Details

Mayor Ray Nagin made all the national news programs Tuesday, touting his plan for the evacuation of New Orleans in case of the next hurricane. No shelters will be opened, everyone will be ordered out, buses will be provided. One newscast elaborated that the plan calls for city buses to pick up those without means of transportation and take them downtown where other buses will take them out of harm’s way. Amtrak will be used, they said, to carry away the hospitalized and otherwise infirmed. Planes to ferry the hordes of tourists who are presumably in the city at any given time. Anyone on the streets during the storm will be arrested.

The report says that Nagin assures everyone that we will not be relying on the federal government this time. Maybe not, but it sounds like he will be relying on the government’s railway system. And the FAA’s airlines. And another thing: once the buses and trains leave the city with our people, where will they go? Who will be hosting our citizens? Will everyone be Houston-bound? and has anyone asked the Texans how they feel about that?

A newsman introduced one local citizen. “The mayor has said every citizen needs his own individual plan for evacuation, to know exactly where he is going. Bob here has his plan already made. In the case of a hurricane, where are you going, Bob?” The New Orleanian said, “North. Up north.”

All of this reminds me of something Will Rogers said in the middle of the First World War when the German U-boats were creating havoc in the Atlantic. “I have a plan for getting rid of all those U-boats,” Rogers said. “You just bring the temperature of the Atlantic up to a boil. The submarines will get so hot they can’t take it and will have to come up. Our people will be waiting with guns and can pick them off.” When asked how he planned to bring the temperature of the Atlantic up to a boil, Rogers answered, “That’s a detail. I’m a policy man myself.”

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Hurricane Season Begins in One Month

June 1 is the official kick-off for the six-months-long-hurricane-season. Not that the calendar notices. But everyone in this part of the world starts getting antsy along about then. Similar, I expect, to the way our Kansas neighbors do everytime a storm brews in the west and they start thinking ‘tornado.’ What makes our situation especially poignant is that in no way will this city be ready for another hurricane in one month. We’re far less prepared than one year ago, and you know what happened then.

“Brother Joe, we have no electricity.” That was the phone call from Lynn in our associational office this morning first thing. I was stuck in interstate traffic and told her and Ninfa to sit tight until I arrived. The power company workers behind our buildings informed me that they were working on some stuff, that they had shut off our lines, and that we might not even have electricity Tuesday. I asked the secretaries to go home and call all our pastors to remind them of our Wednesday meetings at Oak Park Baptist Church (10 to noon each Wednesday for the next 3 months). Later, I locked the doors and drove out to check on some of our churches.

Lakeview Baptist Church in the flooded subdivision of that name is now meeting in their fellowship hall, says veteran leader of that church and now interim pastor, Dick Randels. When I caught him on the cell phone, he said, “I’m in Lowe’s buying tile for our fellowship hall.” On Easter Sunday, they had their biggest crowd yet. I think he said 39.

We have three Southern Baptist churches on Alvar Street in the Upper Ninth Ward located within a mile (or less) of each other: New Salem, Christian Bible Fellowship, and Grace Baptist Church. Warren Jones, pastor of the New Salem church has been on the site every time I have driven by. “That little building across the street that we want to buy, the one you and I thought we could get for perhaps $15,000. She wants $65,000 for it. I’ve gone ahead and signed the papers,” Warren said, “because we need that location.”

“We’ve been having church here,” he said. The sanctuary is lovely, nice light fixtures hanging down from the ceiling, a far cry from the last time I saw the church. They might have had 25 folding chairs sitting in the center, each with a white towel across the seat. A thoughtful provision, I would say, in a dusty city. “On Easter, we had them standing around the room,” Warren said.

Christian Bible Fellowship is pastored by Eddie Scott, and still has lots of cleaning out and rebuilding to do before being usable again. At Grace Baptist Church, associate pastor Charlie Dale brought me up to date on their progress. They’re running in the 40s for church. Volunteer groups have slowed to a trickle now. The renovation work in their buildings is almost complete, although there is plenty of house gutting out to be done in the neighborhood.

It would be tempting to say that the first two churches (New Salem and Christian Bible) are African-American and that Grace is Anglo. That might have been true at one time. No more. In fact, the first time I met Charlie Dale, he was Eddie Scott’s assistant pastor at Christian Bible. And Grace made the front of the New Orleans paper a couple of months ago for its multi-racial, all inclusive membership. Why those three churches are located so close together is probably for the same reason a lot of churches sit where they do: we’re Baptists; we don’t plan these things; that’s where the church was when we bought it. Something to that effect.

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