Gentilly Baptist Church met Sunday morning. Pastor David Arceneaux has turned in his resignation and will be moving to Houston. He wanted to assemble as many of his people as possible to meet, worship, fellowship, and make some decisions about the property. They met in our associational office building and Freddie Arnold from our staff attended. Some 10 or 12 Gentilly members were present. Pastor Dave preached and the members formed a board of directors to make future decisions about their buildings, with Freddie and me as members.
Originally, I had planned to make that meeting, but when we discovered that Port Sulphur Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish was meeting in a tent on their property, I wanted to be there. Pastor Lynn Rodrigue says this is their third Sunday for worship. “We packed out our tent the other Sundays,” he said, “but we lost some when the Catholic church down the street re-opened.” They had 35 or 40 for church this morning at ten o’clock.
It’s exactly 60 miles from my driveway to Port Sulphur Baptist Church. You cross the Mississippi River over the Huey P. Long Bridge, then on the West Bank Expressway take the LaFayette exit and drive south to the town of Belle Chasse. Keep going; drive another 40 miles or so downriver. On your atlas, you will see that state highway 23 mimics every turn of the Mississippi River downstream, all the way to the gulf. My map shows it as a scenic drive, which these days is a cruel joke.
The devastation from Katrina is still so evident beginning a few miles below Belle Chasse. Skeletons of houses and businesses still stand, gaunt, lifeless. Piles of trash, wrecked buildings, abandoned cars. Debris. Sadness. No stores open. Nothing but FEMA trailers.
Power company trucks and crews were out. The storm had wrecked the poles and lines, all of them leaning and twisted and useless, so crews have installed an entire new set of poles and lines on the other side of the road. Electrical power is gradually moving south.
“We are giving away food and water and materials here at the church,” Pastor Lynn Rodrigue said. “We’ve got the names of 3,000 people who’ve been by for help.” Where are they living? “In FEMA trailers.” On the drive south, I had noticed those little boxes in half the driveways, alongside mansions and shacks, and most incongruous of all, beside larger house trailers. “And we have a refrigerated trailer for the food we’re giving away.”
“We have a trailer now,” Lynn said, pointing to the little FEMA offspring in back of the ruined church buildings. “We stayed there last night for the first time.” Lynn and wife Nicole and their four small children, living in something like 240 square feet. “I’ve been commuting from where we’re living in Baton Rouge,” he said, “but now we’ll be down here so we can really minister to the people.”
The church at Port Sulphur was one of our two strongest Baptist churches in lower Plaquemines. They had nice buildings and a school which enrolled 95 students. Everything is ruined now. “A church in Virginia adopted us. They sent a team down to see our situation, including a structural engineer.” I’ll be surprised if anyone thinks these buildings are salvageable. The steel building’s girders are bent and twisted.
Looking over the congregation, I said, “Are all these your regular members?” “Yes,” he said, “except for two or three who were teachers in our school, they’re all ours.”
He told the worshipers, “Try to put up with our tent just a little longer. We’re getting two modular buildings soon.” Good. It’s not that the tent was uncomfortable. In fact, with its built-up floor and the carpet, it was quite comfortable. A breeze flowed through the open flaps from front to back, keeping the temperature down. But the flies. Big ones, persistent, annoying ones.
When I arrived, Lynn was lighting candles on a table in front of the tent. Okay, I thought, perhaps they like to use candles in worship. Most Baptists around here don’t, but to each his own. “These are supposed to keep the bugs away,” he said. I laughed. Just like Baptists to have candles not for worship but for the bugs and flies. If they helped, I couldn’t tell it.
I’m always interested in how pastors tie in the post-Katrina circumstances their people are living in with the sermon. Lynn began his message by reading from Romans 3:21-24.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That may be, but a personal viewing is worth a thousand pictures.” He said what everyone there has discovered, that not until people come down here and see for themselves the devastation left after the hurricane do they grasp the scope of the problem.
“The first time I came down after the storm, I passed the church up. I didn’t recognize anything. Imagine being lost in Port Sulphur.” I smiled, because I had done the same thing 30 minutes earlier. I had seen the church soon after the hurricane, but that was over 6 months ago and lots of houses have been cleared away, tents are up, and nothing looks the same.
“Pictures have power,” Lynn said, and referred to two scenes, the first one familiar to every adult. “If I mention a white Bronco traveling down a California highway with police cars behind, helicopters overhead, and people standing on the overpasses yelling and holding up signs, you know I’m referring to the O.J. Simpson episode from 1994.”
Then he described another scene. April 15, 1521, a man is riding in a covered wagon across cobblestone streets. Martin Luther is going to be tried for his teaching. He was raised in the Roman church. He loved that church. Loved its teachings. But he began to read the Scripture for himself and to ask questions. He began to see that what he had been taught was in contradiction with what the Word of God declares. So he is going to a council called the Diet of Worms where he will be tried. A man in a tower blew a trumpet and the townspeople gathered, just as they had done for O.J. Simpson. But these gathered to jeer. The next day Luther would be tried and excommunicated.
Lynn’s sermon was on justification by faith, God imputing righteousness to us. “On the cross, God transferred our sin to Jesus’ account. It was not a symbolic act, like when the priest pronounced the sins of the people on the Old Testament scapegoat. This was reality. God does not wink at sin. No easy grace.”
“That righteousness is outside of us. It is imputed to us. It comes through faith.”
“We are all naturally in trouble. With whom? With God. But now, as a result of what Jesus did on the cross and your faith in Him, God now sees you as His child and as His heir. Can somebody say ‘Amen’?”
“That’s the gospel. Everything was done for you.”
It was sound preaching to a people who have been hungry for the Word of God.
After the service ended, people visited and fellowshiped with each other before gradually dispersing. As I pulled out of the church yard into the highway, the sadness of this landscape was so overwhelming. I thought of pastors I know who preach in the finest buildings to large congregations dressed in rich clothing, the parking lot packed with expensive vehicles. Everything new and antiseptic and well-tended. They drive home down modern streets where impressive stores stare from every direction, and through classy neighborhoods where people dream of living. I actually do have friends who pastor churches in those neighborhoods, and people who live there do need churches and they need pastors. I thought of the contrast with Lynn Rodrigue’s situation.
It appears to me that Lynn and Nicole Rodrigue, moving into their 240 square foot trailer with their four children, may have to drive 30 miles to get to a service station or grocery. The children will have to be careful where they play because debris still clutters the landscape in every direction. Their little congregation is now comprised of 35 souls. They have no walls, no air conditioning, not even pest control. No organ or piano, and no place to put one if they did. This sad place reminds me of the old joke that “This is not the end of the world but you can see it from here.”
The pastor and his family are delighted to move back down there. Lynn is a pastor. A shepherd. Called by God to serve these people in this place. The salary and the living conditions have little to do with anything. God called him. He will take care of him for He has promised.
“Faithful is He who called you and He will bring it to pass.” I Thessalonians 5:24.
Inside the tent at the front, just behind where Lynn stands to preach, they’ve erected an old wooden cross perhaps 8 feet tall, salvaged I suppose from their ruined sanctuary. Carved into the woodwork is one of the Old Testament names for God: “Jehovah Jireh.” From Genesis 22:14, its meaning was never more important to this little congregation than it is today.
“The Lord will provide.”