People are coming and going in our city. The headlines this week announced that the mayor is firing 3,000 city workers, the St. Bernard Parish sheriff is laying off half his police force, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans is letting 800 employees go. Not enough people living in those areas to justify the workers or support the payrolls.
At the same time, Burger King is giving $6,000 bonuses to new hires, payable in increments over the next year. All the fast food places are competing for employees and with a minimum wage of $5.15, they’re offering rates of $8 and $10 per hour. Meanwhile, every reputable construction company and a lot of fly-by-night outfits are hiring every live body they can find. Someone told me FEMA is paying chain saw owner/operators $1200 a day. The hotels are booked solid, with long waiting lines, most of them temporary workers in to help get the city running again. Even if you decide to take one of these jobs and move to the New Orleans area, you’d better have a place to live. I notice a sign–every intersection seems to be growing these stick-in-the-ground signs–in which some guy says he’s buying houses, any house, that sells for less than $200,000. My guess is he will rent them out so long as the construction industry needs them, then count on the housing market having stabilized.
A note from Mary, our “adopted daughter” from when she was a student at Mississippi College and Margaret and I on her ministerial staff at First Baptist-Jackson, who belongs to Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. Their student minister Aaron told me Mary and husband Steve were knocking themselves out helping the church take care of the vast number of evacuees they took in. Mary and her good friend Anne are walking wounded, one from falling over a box in the shelter, the other from overusing an already sprained hand. Their church is moving a family from BR back home to Marrero (a suburb of New Orleans, West Bank) today and bringing a full contingent of workers to get the job done in a few hours. They will be cleaning the house (no flood damage) and stocking it, removing a fallen tree in the back yard, cutting the grass, and all the things one has to do when re-entering a house after six weeks away.
Istrouma Church is a great example of what I’m hearing every day: God’s people all over this nation have literally knocked themselves out taking in our dispersed citizens, without the first consideration to color or class or condition, and have showed them the love of Jesus Christ. And they did not require them to become Baptists either.
I’m just one person down here in New Orleans, but perhaps I can speak for many of our people when I say to the people of God everywhere: thank you; you’ve done an incredible job.
Someone pointed out to me that this dispersion of our citizens is the exact reverse of Acts 8:1. In that passage, the early Christians in Jerusalem were persecuted, so they scattered all over that part of the world, and everywhere they went, they took the message of Christ. (See Acts 11:19 for the second half of that story.) In the case of the Katrina dispersion, the citizens were blown into the world and everywhere they went, they ran slap into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, the gospel in human form, the Lord’s people loving them and caring for them.
On Friday, I met with Lonnie Wascom, my counterpart on the North Shore (that is, the associations encompassing Slidell, Covington, and Hammond areas). He had so much to share, I sat there taking notes. This area was hard hit by Katrina also, although they never evacuated and so began ministries early on at various churches. He said, “Let me tell you what’s going to happen with your pastors. I’ve already seen it with our guys.” He went on to describe how the pastors are leading their members in ministry in the community, knocking themselves out day and night. Gradually, he said, the church members begin to heal and get their act together. Then they wonder why the pastor is still grieving, still stressed out, still going sleepless. He said, It’s because the pastor has not taken time for himself, to heal, to rest, to recover. And on the NOrth Shore, they’re now having some pastors get sick, their bodies exhausted and unable to ward off viruses.
I invited Lonnie to our ministers meeting in LaPlace next Wednesday morning, to talk to our pastors about this. It’s at 9 am at First Baptist Church on Ormond Boulevard, in case you see any of our pastors and ministerial staffers.
I’ve been reading a great little tattered paperback, first printed in 1944 right in the middle of World War II, a book of sermons preached from a famous New York City church. The pastor was speaking to the hurts and fears of the American people in his messages. The title is “A Great Time to be Alive;” I love the irony of that. In the famous Dickens quote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Such tragedy on every side, but for a man with a message of comfort and healing from God, a great time to be alive.
People are still discussing the articles and talk they’re hearing on every side that Katrina was God’s judgment on this area. I thought you would be interested in the reactions I’m hearing from various ones.
One. Someone pointed out that most of the business in our notorious French Quarter–the nerve center of the ungodliness which some believe brought down the wrath of God upon our area–comes from tourists from Normal-Land who leave their chamber of commerce jobs for a few days and live it up down here, then return home shaking their heads at the debauchery which they helped to fund. If God decides to judge us for our sin, won’t He have to spread the blame around a much broader area?
Two. A friend said, “What bothers me is Christian people–those who ought to know their Bibles!–doing this. Haven’t they ever read the Book of Job? It was his judgmental friends who are the goats in the story for telling Job his troubles were the result of his sin and God’s judgment. There’s more going on behind the scenes we never know about.”
Three. Another: “It helps me to read the prayer of Daniel.” What prayer? “The one in chapter 9. Here he is, perhaps the best man in all the Bible, and he’s confessing the sins of himself and his people.” We looked it up. “O Lord…we have sinned and committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments; neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, who spoke in thy name to…all the people of the land.” She added, “I’m not saying we don’t deserve God’s judgment. Just that Christian people ought to be like Daniel and not point their fingers. We’re all sinners and all need God’s grace and mercy.”
Four. “I keep waiting on these know-it-alls to turn to John 9. The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Who sinned–this blind man in his mother’s womb for him to be born this way, or his parents?’ Jesus said, ‘Neither one. But this is so the works of God may be displayed in him.” Or Luke 13 where Jesus tells about some tragedies in the news. He said, ‘Do you think these people were worse sinners than you? I tell you, ‘no, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'”
I don’t hear anyone saying we’re so righteous God would not dare judge us. They are not saying this city is the paragon of virtue. We have more than our share of politicians in prison, and every week we hear of others entrusted with the public’s welfare abusing it and being hauled off to prison. There is corruption aplenty in our city and our state. All we’re saying is God’s people should be slow to pronounce God’s judgment. If the Lord starts calling us to account for our sins, who will be left standing? (Psalm 130:3) Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7) When I stand before the Lord, I’ll be needing all the mercy He can give me, so I sure want to be generous with it now.
Before moving on and telling you about Saturday with the reporter from the Baptist Press, may I make a final observation on this. While the winds of Katrina were indeed a destroying force on the Gulf Coast, the Wind of Heaven is mobilizing God’s people to minister and love, to give and to serve. There is more ministry going on in this area in the name of Jesus than ever before.
The wind of Katrina blew apart; the Wind of Heaven is bringing together. God’s people are laboring alongside one another without checking each other’s orthodoxy or brand label. A Baptist church down the street has teamed up with a local charismatic church to serve their neighborhood. In their kitchen cooking meals and under the tent handing out supplies, you will find a full array of Christian denominations.
The wind of Katrina tore down; the Wind of Heaven is building up. The first killed; the second gives life. If this is God’s judgment, your city should be so honored.
Jesus said, “The thief comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy. I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
“I must get on to the campus of the seminary and I have to see Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Other than that, I’m open to whatever you would like me to see.” Sherri Brown of the Baptist Press arrived in town Friday afternoon to do followup stories on our situation, particularly the students and faculty going onto the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to retrieve whatever is salvagable of their belongings before the homes are stripped to the walls or even demolished. Motel space is non-existent these days and Sherri was willing to sleep on some church’s fellowship hall floor, but Margaret invited her to take our guest room. I think I saw relief in Sherri’s face when she saw it had an actual bed.
Late Friday, Sherri interviewed Jim Caldwell, pastor of Riverside Baptist Church, in his place as always in front of the offices loading never-ending lines of cars with bags of food and cartoons of water. He’s down there 18 hours a day giving the world an incredible example of servanthood. “My wife and children are in Atlanta,” he said, “otherwise I couldn’t be up here all the time.”
At Highland Baptist Church in Metairie, Pastor Scott Smith is turning his church into a distribution point for clothes and groceries for his neighbors. Several WMU ladies–from Missouri and from the headquarters office in Birmingham–were on hand to work with Scott’s people. Although we have many churches involved in this kind of ministry, this is the first where we’ve seen our Women’s Ministry taking the lead. “I don’t know how I got on Rotary Club’s list,” Scott said, “but they’re sending a truckload of supplies for us and we’ll be giving them out tomorrow. We’re ready.” Watch for Sherri’s stories at www.bpnews.net.
On Saturday, we brought along our masks, rubber gloves, and lysol spray for our visit to the seminary campus. Sherri interviewed Professor Bob Stewart and his wife as they and a dozen volunteers were bringing out everything from their house, trash in this pile, good things inside the truck. Bob has respiratory problems, I was told, and wore a special respirator mask. “As if this is not enough,” he said, “I’m the interim pastor of Edgewater Baptist Church.” A total loss, if I’m any judge, by the polluted floodwaters.
Sherri interviewed the Stewarts and John & Christi Gibson from across the street and then a student couple. Volunteers roamed up and down Seminary Place, assisting anyone bringing belongings out of apartments or homes. A group of National Guardsmen lounged nearby on their vehicles. “They really helped us,” one professor said. “Strong bodies for carrying heavy things and they have a great attitude. They are the finest.”
We ran into President Chuck and Rhonda Kelley, and then sat in their living room for a half hour while he patiently told Sherri–and the world through her–of what God is doing in this seminary family and the plans that are unfolding for the future. Tears welled up as he spoke of the faith and calmness of the faculty families going back into their devastated homes to take what’s left. “No one is angry,” he said, “I’ve heard nothing from anyone but assurance that God is in control and we’re looking to Him.”
One of the feeding teams working at Calvary Baptist Church on the West Bank had brought lunch to everyone on campus and set up on the sidewalk in front of the new William Carey College addition. When it became apparent that this building had power–the only one on campus; perhaps from a generator–the bathrooms inside became popular places. “Joe, we need to do something for the first responders.” Pastor Marc Daniels, a professor at Carey and pastor of Avondale First Baptist Church, said, “I’m talking to Jay Adkins from Westwego, and we want to do a banquet or something to thank the fire and police departments, the military, the emergency people–the first responders–who did so much in those early days after the storm.” Great idea. They’re going to talk this out and tell the other pastors on Wednesday at our meeting in LaPlace.
Marc said, “I went up to a National Guardsman* and said, ‘Because of what you all did, my home was saved, and I just want to thank you.’ He said, ‘You’re the first.'” He added, “We have such an opportunity to bear witness to these people who have done so much for our communities.” (*I think it was the NG.)
In the afternoon, Sherri took pictures of Coliseum Place and Valence Street Churches, our two oldest Baptist structures, both of which suffered a lot of damage. We drove around First Baptist Church of New Orleans, grieved over Lakeview Church again, as well as Elysian Fields Avenue Church. Franklin Avenue Church was locked, but we walked around and she took her pictures.
We found the Acme Oyster House open on Veterans in Metairie and the Baptist Press’s Sherri Brown, resident of LaGrange, George, chowed down on a huge po-boy sandwich. After that, she was done for the day.
Sherri had said she wanted to attend a Sunday worship service that was “authentically New Orleans.” When I asked what she had in mind, she wanted a cross section of the community. “And no coats and ties,” she said. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find coats and ties in church anywhere around here these days. Part is the changing culture of churches and part is the fact that everyone is hard at work, stopping just long enough to worship.
I gave her a number of choices and she ended up choosing First Baptist Church of New Orleans, primarily because today was their first Sunday back since the storm. The power is still out in that section of New Orleans, but the scattered members are so tired of trying to meet in distant cities, they rented a huge generator for drying out the mildewed walls and ran the fans and lights in order to have their first service. “Dress casually,” Pastor David Crosby cautioned in his announcements. “No air-conditioning.”
Associate Pastor Scott Carlin said, “We didn’t know how many to expect–fifty? I think we have three hundred.” That was also my guess. Pastor David said, “How many of you are now living in Texas? Mississippi? Alabama? Florida? Georgia?” Hands went up every time. The people were so glad to be back together, even in a warm sanctuary. Every time there was a pause in the service, people were hugging and greeting one another. After serving the Lord’s Supper, David preached on “Living with uncertainty.” In a week that saw many of the members cleaning out their homes and packing trailers and making plans to move in with relatives in other states, the congregation was a perfect embodiment of uncertainty. “Our God is the only certainty,” he said. “Trust Him.”
“What did you think of Pastor Crosby?” I asked. Sherri said, “I think he’s wonderful.” My sentiments exactly. An outstanding preacher with one of the greatest pastor-hearts I’ve ever known. It blesses me to see how enthusiastically his congregation agrees. Alas, I wish that were true in all our churches.
Immediately afterwards, we ran by Vieux Carre Church in the French Quarter where Greg Hand is pastor. He and his wife Wren live in Pass Christian, Mississippi, (and yes, their home was blown away; they lost everything) but have a great heart for this city, the lost of the French Quarter in particular. The sign in front of their building on Dauphine, one block over from Bourbon St., announced services today at 10 o’clock. When we arrived at 11:30, Greg was just concluding. His total congregation had been Wren and one other lady. I noticed how clean and welcoming the interior appeared, a vast transformation from a year ago when someone else was giving only half-hearted leadership to the work there. The Hands walked in one day saying God had laid this city on their hearts. We believe it and thank God for His grace.
Some of our state Baptist leadership will be meeting with Greg Hand tomorrow, seeing what it will take to bring Vieux Carre’s guest housing up to par so church groups can stay there while ministering in the Quarter. Sherri, whose husband pastors a church in LaGrange, left saying, “If it’s up to me, I know which church our congregation will adopt.” She loves the idea of reaching the homeless and down-and-out. That’s the kind of person we have writing for Baptist Press.
The mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, a puzzle if the Lord ever made one, now wants to turn downtown Canal Street into casino row. It’s the only way to generate the kind of tax money our city needs to come back, he said. This week Nagin was quoted in the paper citing Scripture, amazingly the II Chronicles 7:14 passage about repenting and turning from our evil ways to get God’s healing. Now he calls for widespread gambling. Gambling–the last corrupt idea of a dead brain cell. “Oh? We can’t get any legitimate businesses going? I know–let’s gamble.”
Thankfully, in the Sunday paper, city council leaders were saying it’s the first they’ve heard of it and that it’s truly a bad idea. Ironically, what may keep that from happening is Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal. They actually have a guarantee that they will be the only land-based casino in the city, otherwise the state loses $60 million in annual taxes. Stay tuned.
A few minutes ago, the last time I checked, the Green Bay Packers were smearing the New Orleans Saints. Well, finally, things are beginning to return to normal around here.