People want to be together

Sunday morning, I drove 75 miles and attended the first post-Katrina worship services of Edgewater Baptist Church in New Orleans, the combined church services in Chalmette at the high school, and Poydras Baptist Church further downriver. The weatherman called this the coldest day of our winter, but the sun was bright and it was a wonderful day for the Lord’s people.

“Kevin preached from Revelation 21,” said Cheryl Ray. “About the hope God’s people have. That’s in line with the sign we’ve put in front of Edgewater, that this is a place of hope for people right now.” I had run by the church site on Paris Avenue at least a half hour before they began services. Already a dozen people were working around the tent in the front yard, testing the sound system, straightening chairs, getting ready for worship. “We ended up with nearly 60 present,” Cheryl said in the afternoon. Did they freeze? “It was cold. We closed two sides of the tent, but left part of it open so we’d get some sun.”

“One of our members drove in from Mobile. We had some seminary students who had stayed over from Saturday classes to go to church with us. And several people in the neighborhood, working on their homes, came over and worshiped with us. Other than that, we had about 50 Edgewater people. Everyone was so glad to be there. People want to be together.”

This must have been my tenth “first service since Katrina” and she is so right.

New pastor Kevin Lee has arrived from Denver, where he was on the staff of Riverside Baptist Church. “I’ve found a place to live in Metairie,” he said. Brave, courageous man. In November, I met Pastor Le Ngoc Thuong who had just moved from California to serve the Vietnamese Baptist Church in Gretna, and called him the bravest man in town. However, Pastor Le has a healthy church building and an intact congregation. Kevin Lee has a gutted church, a devastated neighborhood, and a dispersed congregation. Brave indeed. I prayed with him the promise God gave me two years ago after I left the pastorate to become director of missions for the Baptist churches of the New Orleans area: “Faithful is he who called you, and he will bring it to pass.” (I Thessalonians 5:24) We’re going to need a lot of courageous leaders to get through the days before us.

In St. Bernard Parish, the Baptist churches of Chalmette-Arabi-Meraux were combining their efforts in a joint worship service at the Chalmette High School cafeteria. “We ran out of printed programs,” Freddie Arnold said. “I ran off a hundred, and thought I was being optimistic at that.” They counted 178 people, which included a representative of Samaritan’s Purse, two Missouri Baptists with a disaster relief crew, and a praise team from Metairie’s Celebration Church. David Howard from the now-officially-disbanded First Baptist Church of Arabi welcomed everyone, and asked where people had come from. One from California, several from Mississippi and Alabama, and most from around here. Paul Gregoire from the Saint Bernard Church and John Jeffries of FBC Chalmette shared the preaching. I left early to drive the eight miles to Poydras; they were meeting at the same time.

“It’s Jesus’ church and He will build it,” said John Galey of the Poydras Baptist Church to some 60 in attendance, not counting the half dozen from Walker, Louisiana, cooking jambalaya in the parking lot. John preached from Matthew 16 on the victory that belongs to the church. Pointing around him in the fellowship hall where we were meeting, he said, “Missouri Baptists hung that sheetrock. They laid these tiles, and painted this room. But Jesus Christ will build this church.”

At one point, John said, “We’re going to do things differently around here. We will never again spend two hours discussing whether to spend 15 cents a month on call waiting.” A chorus of amens rose up. “We will not bring up in business meeting whether to put a knob on the nursery door. We have bigger tasks before us.”

Danny Decker represented the Missouri Baptist Convention which has adopted this entire parish. Their people have been all over–not just in St. Bernard–since the hurricane, and we owe them such a debt of gratitude. NAMB’s Joe Williams, who has been counseling our pastors and their wives, was present. When Danny prayed the benediction, he said, “When the toe hurts, the entire body suffers with it.” Later, as we shared jambalaya and beans and brownies, I drew off a map of Louisiana and showed him exactly where we are in the toe of the “boot” which our state is said to resemble. “We’re the underside of the toe,” someone said. Anyone who has ever had a blister on that spot knows the truth of Danny’s prayer. Everyone hurts. We’re so thankful for these who hurt with us, and have come to share the burden.

Danny was headed to Gadsden, Alabama, after lunch for an On Mission Celebration in the Baptist churches. I asked him to take a message from this native of Winston County, a few miles west of them. “Tell them to pray big,” I said. “Tell them the Lord loves this city, Jesus died for it, and Satan has had it long enough. Pray the Lord will take it back and do a big thing here.”

Freddie Arnold and I have snatches of conversations in passing these days. Even though we work out of the same office, our paths often lead in different directions. In fact, he’s attending a DR meeting at Shocco Springs, Alabama, this week and leaving out this afternoon. He had two interesting items to share.

“That four wheeler is being put to good use over at Algiers at our disaster relief unit.” Dr. Craig Price of the seminary staff had told us of a friend in Texas with a four-wheeler to give if we needed one. “Do we ever,” Freddie said. Craig made arrangements for a friend to haul it to New Orleans, and we’re now employing it in the Lord’s service.

“I met yesterday with the people from Port Sulphur Baptist Church,” Freddie said. These scattered members of the destroyed church met at the FBC of Belle Chasse. “They voted to work with the others down river and for Plaquemines Association to merge with BAGNO.” Great. I hoped they would. There are no Baptist churches at all remaining below Belle Chasse, and we need these small, dispersed congregations to work with us as we try to re-establish the Lord’s work down there.

While official Washington looks at the mayor and governor and state legislature to see if we’re going to be able to work together, on another level, our Baptist leaders across the country look to all of us–pastors, churches, scattered congregations–to see if we are willing to cooperate with each other.

I think we all are. Our people are finding that we need each other. Before Katrina, a mainstay in my message to our local churches was the following:

“I’m told that out in California, the giant sequoia trees that live for thousands of years actually have very shallow root systems. A strong wind could blow one down. So how do they live so long and grow so large? The answer is, they grow in groves and their roots intertwine. They hold on to each other. The only way the wind can blow one of them down is to blow them all down, and no wind has ever been able to do that.”

“That’s a metaphor for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The members hold on to each other, refusing to let the weak and elderly and hurting go. They grasp the doubters and the sinners in their congregation and bring them back. Scripture says we are knit together in love (Colossians 2:2). And that’s how the Lord’s church grows to be the mighty force in the world that it has become.”

We have a little motto for the churches in our association that was never more true than it is today: “We are better TWOgether.”