Going on in New Orleans

These days, the leadership of our Southern Baptist churches in metro New Orleans assemble on alternate months for our “Executive Committee” meeting. Under the leadership of Executive Director Duane McDaniel, we met Wednesday morning, July 21. Here are my notes from the gathering.

Those interested in where New Orleans is spiritually and/or where the Baptist work is locally will not get all your questions answered, but will find this of considerable interest, I think.

(At the conclusion, read my interviews with Pastors Dennis Watson and David Crosby.)

Pastor Eddie Painter (Barataria Baptist Church in the town of Jean Lafitte, LA) reported on his church’s involvement in cleaning up the recent disastrous oil spill. Presently 105 people are being trained for cleanup in his church. Some of them, Eddie is teaching to read. He said, “Guess what will be the first thing they will be reading!” Everyone laughed. No one answered. We knew he was referring to the Bible.

Eddie said, “For our July 4 outreach, we scheduled a barbecue for the community. The mayor asked if we could move it to Town Hall, a block down the street. Hundreds came. We gave away 4 cases of Bibles that afternoon. And when we had our VBS parents’ night, it was standing room only.”

“Agencies are serving 2500 meals a day out of Barataria Baptist Church. Some 200 are given to us to take directly into the community.”

Eddie concluded, “Want to see what Barataria Baptist Church looks like these days? Kick over an ant hill. That’s us.”

New pastors Paul Naylor (FBC LaPlace) and Tim Williams (Williams Boulevard Baptist Church, Kenner) were introduced. Paul came here from Arkansas and Tim from Canada.

David Crosby (FBC-NO) chairs the associational administrative committee. He said, “These are exciting days to be serving God in New Orleans.”

The administrative committee has designated $900 from the Lillian Gray offering to situate an office trailer for the use of chaplains in the town of Venice (related to the oil spill). David reported that Lower Light Baptist Church is coming into the association as a mission of Suburban Baptist.

Duane McDaniel’s report covered numerous areas. The state convention and North American Mission Board are back on board funding the position of a church development strategist for the association. “We’re searching for the person for this position right now.”

Jack Hunter was introduced as the new “Mission/Rebuild Strategist” on a permanent basis. Jack, a lawyer by profession, formerly was serving in the association in another temporary slot. As the Mission/Rebuild Strategist, he will serve as president of New Orleans Baptist Missions which has responsibility for three assignments: Christian health centers, the Baptist mission centers in our city, and a high quality volunteer center.

Financially, Duane reported, we have run a deficit the last two months, as a reflection of the economy. However, including all the funding sources, year-to-date we’re still in the black.

(More from Duane further down in this report.)

Dennis Watson, pastor of Celebration Church, Metairie, reports that as of two weeks ago, they are now meeting in their rebuilt sanctuary on Airline Drive. (This facility had taken such massive flooding after Katrina and the multi-million dollar cost was so prohibitive, many thought the church would not be rebuilt.)

Dennis spoke on “10 lessons God has taught us over the last 5 years since Katrina.”

1. Storms are a part of life.

2. God is all powerful and can circumvent the impact of storms.

3. The Lord will be with us through the storms of life.

4. God speaks to us through the storms of life.

5. The Lord uses storms to make us more like Jesus.

6. Faith in God is the key to overcoming the storms of life.

7. The Lord uses storms to unify His people.

8. The Lord uses storms to galvanize the church into action and ministry.

9. The Lord will perform miracles in, for, and through His people as they get involved in serving Him by serving others.

10. God can turn every tragedy into a great victory.

Pastor Watson invited everyone to participate in the Greater New Orleans Pastors Coalition the first Thursday morning of each month. “We meet together, pray together, and often prayer-walk neighborhoods.”

After the pastors prayer-walked the section of New Orleans known as Central City a couple of years back following a number of gruesome murders, the murder rate for that area dropped so drastically that the police superintendent commented on the improvement.

Dennis invited everyone to the Fifth Anniversary Katrina worship service on August 29 at First Baptist Church of New Orleans. Governor Bobby Jindal and Dr. David Hankins (exec of Louisiana Baptists) will be featured on the program.

Over lunch, I interviewed Dennis Watson for an article for the Baptist Press as we approach the 5th anniversary of Katrina. He has led Celebration Church for over 20 years, and previously served as pastor of FBC-Chalmette.

What about your church? How has it changed in these 5 years?

“We lost 60 percent of our members as a result of Katrina. I’m talking about permanent displacement. Five years ago, we were running 1800 in multiple worship services. We were about 30 percent African-American and 70 percent Anglo and all else.

“These days, we are 15 percent African-American and we have grown numerically.” (I had to pull the numbers out of him, but Dennis admitted the church is up some 125 percent over 5 years ago. The last two Sundays, attendance has been 2600 and 2850.)

What is your take on the churches of our city as a whole?

“They may not be stronger numerically, but they all seem to be stronger in character and purpose. As a rule, the greatest losses were in the megachurches.”

And the city of New Orleans?

“We’ve had disastrous leadership from City Hall these 5 years. Mitch (Landrieu, the new mayor) will do a good job.”

And how about you personally?

“I think one reason I didn’t ride the emotional roller coaster some people did is that I was in my late 40’s. Also, our family lives close and they are a real strength. My church staff–the core positions–have stayed through the years, so that has given us a real continuity and stability.”

On June 1, 2009, Dr. Duane McDaniel came to New Orleans from pastoring a church in Honolulu. The choice of this good man was partially the result of a year-long study the association had done under the leadership of seminary Professor Reggie Ogea, as we completely revamped the organization and refined our mission in this city. Working with LBC and NAMB, plans were made for additional staff positions in the work of the association.

Duane says, “The Baptist community in the greater New Orleans area agrees with Dr. Charles Roesel who forecast that successful ministries in the new millennium ‘will meet hurting people at their point of need and contagiously share Christ.'”

Some of the ministries New Orleans Baptist Association is committed to focus on include home repair in the flood zone, expansion of primary health care in neighborhoods being rebuilt, constructing a durable volunteer center to accompany guests wishing to do missions in an urban context, and starting new churches throughout these communities.

Over the five years since Katrina, Duane says, “Tens of thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers flooded our city to assist in gutting out and rebuilding broken homes and in restoring hope to the broken-hearted.” These volunteers have stayed in our mission centers, in church buildings, in hastily erected volunteer villages, and in mobile home parks. However, with a new volunteer center, which the association under Dr. McDaniel plans to erect, “volunteers will receive training for their respective service; they will read and reflect on the Word of God and His work in and through them; and they will celebrate the presence and power of Christ in their lives and in His Kingdom that they are helping to build in New Orleans.”

About the proposed health centers, Duane adds, “These will provide full-service primary care to the entire population…. They will be staffed by medical professionals–doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners, and social workers, among others–who have responded to the call of God to follow Christ in their vocation in service to the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the captives, and the afflicted.” He adds that New Orleans, as with most urban centers, has a huge such population.

A few days ago, I sat at lunch with David Crosby, since 1996, the pastor of New Orleans’ First Baptist Church, and interviewed him. Ever since he was a “city reporter” for the Times-Picayune in the 1970s while a seminary student, David has loved this city. I don’t know of anyone who has his finger on the pulse of the city the way he does.

David, educationally, where is New Orleans these days?

“We’re making progress. We have lots of new opportunities. The charter schools is a big positive.”

Talk to me about the city as a whole.

“Health care is dismal right now. But in the long run, the new LSU Teaching Hospital and the new VA Medical Center will be wonderful. They will bring in hundreds of doctors.”

“As for crime, we’re at the bottom. We have a new police superintendent, but he has his work cut out for him. We wish him well.”

“As for economic development, we’ve done nothing new in these five years.”

“Regarding the infrastructure of the city, we’re just gradually recovering. We’re still the most blighted city in America by far. However, the new expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge and the new Interstate 10 bridge to Slidell are absolutely wonderful.”

Let’s talk about the churches.

“Ministry in this city continues to be difficult for Southern Baptists in general. For many years we depended on immigration of Southern Baptists to fill our churches, but that is declining. Baptists are not as strong as they once were. New couples coming in tend to be from independent churches. There is a surge of young professionals coming in, but for the most part they are unchurches.”

“The city is still suffering from post-traumatic stress. Not as much as before. But the recent oil spill revived it.”

What else?

“Tourism is back strong. And the movie industry here is flourishing due to tax breaks and other incentives.”

“The New Orleans Saints are really important to this city. Several strong believers on the team have given strong leadership to the city. And, as you know, the city has rallied around them.”

Our new mayor has given hope to people who know and love New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu, younger brother of Senator Mary Landrieu and son of the last Anglo mayor of the city Moon Landrieu, was elected last year from the Lieutenant Governor’s position. After the previous 8 years of the C. Ray Nagin administration in which much was promised but little delivered, hope is blooming anew.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Mayor Landrieu said, “The oil spill’s much worse than we ever thought. The budget’s much worse, the dysfunction is much worse, the NOPD is much worse. But you know, that’s why I signed up.”

I do like that attitude. He has come to work.