“RISING AGAIN” in St. Bernard Parish

Bruce Nolan is the religion writer (editor maybe) for the Times-Picayune and a friend to all our churches. In Sunday’s paper, he focuses on the churches of St. Bernard Parish and the First Baptist Church of Chalmette in particular. Here’s the article.

The excavator’s heavy mechanical bucket pulled down a huge chunk of wall in what was once First Baptist Church of Chalmette’s educational building. A shower of broken drywall, bricks an flailing electrical wiring tumbled to the ground as the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Dee Jeffries, looked on from across the street. Soon a new church complex will rise on the same lot.

“So, is this a good sight or a sad sight?” someone asked him recently.

Jeffries, 58, considered for a moment. “Bittersweet,” he said. “Bittersweet. Now, months ago, when they had to chain saw the pews into pieces to haul them out of the church. That was bad.”

He paused again. “I’d prayed over those pews. Before services on that Sunday, before the people came, I’d put my hand on one and pray to God to bless the people who were coming and who’d be sitting there.”

“So, yeah, that was bad.”

But now it appears that Jeffries and his current flock, down to 75 from 350, have turned a corner in a long, rugged road.

Soon construction workers will pour the slab for a new $3.5 million church and education complex for the 58-year-old church that stands on St. Bernard Highway, in the shadow of a refinery.

A new education building and fellowship hall will be attached to a restored sanctuary where three feet of black water swirled for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

No less than other institutions, all of St. Bernard’s churches are struggling to recover. Most were demolished by the hurricane, which damaged or destroyed every building in the parish.

Sixteen months after the storm, six of seven Catholic parishes remain dormant, their parishioners gathering at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette, St. Bernard’s one functioning Catholic church.

Three of St. Bernard’s seven autonomous Southern Baptist congregations were destroyed, the remaining four continue to pray together, although none in their old sanctuaries.

Much of the rebuilding at First Baptist will be done by 600 to 1,000 volunteers. They will be funneled into the job between May and August by Builders for Christ, a Southern Baptist construction ministry that, like Habitat for Humanity, takes willing workers and organizes them into teams under skilled supervisors.

These volunteers will follow an architectural plan devised by Alexandria architect Jeff Sampson, who donated part of his time. And the work will be overseen for free by Gary Morrow, a Baptist layman who, with his wife Marily, closed their Marshall, MO, contracting business to come live in New Orleans and rebuild its churches.

At least some of the money from materials comes from donations across the country. A gift of $50,000 came from a Baptist church in Lynn Haven, FL, whose pastor, the Rev. Bill Montgomery, helped rebuild the Chalmette church when he was its pastor after Hurricane Betsy in the mid-1960s.

Another $25,000 came from a church in Texas whose pastor passed Jeffries a check over breakfast, moments after meeting him for the first time.

And that does not count the Baptist congregation in Sarasota, FL–strangers all–who put Jeffries on their payroll a few weeks after the storm.

“This is a God thing,” Jeffries says frequently in re-telling his story of loss and rescue. “The body of Christ all over the country has responded to this and heard his voice to get this done.”

Jeffries remembers that on the day before Katrina hit he stood before only a dozen worshipers instead of the usual 350. The storm was bearing down; most of the city had already emptied.

They sang ‘Because He Lives I Can Face Tomorrow.’ Jeffries cut his message to 5 minutes. He dismissed them and encouraged them to get out of town.

Twenty-four hours later, their church, like virtually all of St. Bernard Parish, lay destroyed. Two members drowned.

Jeffries and his wife Genny found themselves in Livingston. His church members were scattered all over the South, their homes gone and their lives in disarray.

A few weeks after the storm, Genny suffered a brain aneurysm, then a serious stroke.

Members of First Baptist were not reunited for four months, until hundreds of displaced St. Bernard residents from many churches began meeting on Saturdays in Baton Rouge to worship together, then to participate in town hall meetings on their parish’s future.

Today members of First Baptist join others from St. Bernard Baptist Church, another Southern Baptist church, in weekly cafeteria worship at Chalmette High School, Jeffries said.

Jeffries hopes they will be in their rebuilt church this fall, with his recovering wife at his side.

His story of the past 16months is filled with gifts of the blue, with chance encounters that led him to critical help at moments of need–whether the discovery of a volunteer trucker to haul food and water right after the storm, or his later chance discovery of Builders for Christ, who will rebuild his church.

Jeffries describes his church’s continuing recovery as a series of moment-to-moment encounters for which he could not have prepared, and which would be hard to teach to another pastor.

“There’s no traditional way of doing this,” he said.

But a friend mentioned something that stuck in his mind and keeps coming back, he said.

“In the beginning, all miracles are messy.”

(Thank you, Bruce Nolan. God bless you, John Dee Jeffries and FBC Chalmette. Thank you, God, for Southern Baptists.)