Throughout Scripture, God’s favorite invitation was always, “Come and see.” Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Come and see. Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Come unto me.
Over a year ago, Dennis Weems was comfortably residing in California. He knew of the devastation Katrina had wrought on this part of the world and had thought of coming this way to help. One Sunday he was visiting Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, CA, and heard of the church’s plans to bring a construction crew to New Orleans. He joined them. And never left.
Pastor Jeff Box of Suburban Baptist Church said, “He came in April of 2006 and has been here ever since.” His arms swept over the new sanctuary which was being dedicated this morning and he said, “Dennis Weems designed everything you see before you today.”
Now, I’ve been going to a lot of church dedications and rededications lately. But I have to say, this is the most beautiful rebuilding I’ve ever seen. In the courtyard, the walkways are large flat stones spaced appropriately and greenery is everywhere. “Who did this?” I asked Jeff. “Dennis Weems.”
“So, how did this happen?” I asked Mr. Weems. He told how he had come down with the Highland group, planning to stay one week. “We were redoing a pastor’s home. There was so much work to do, I decided to stay another week or two. Then Pastor Jeff asked me to look at Suburban Church with him.”
They had walked around the hurricane damaged buildings, structures that Jeff had wept over and which he had privately decided would have to be torn down. When he met Dennis Weems and learned of his expertise in construction, he asked him to walk around the building with him. “What do you think?” Jeff asked. “Tear it down?”
Mr. Weems said, “Five or six contractors had turned Pastor Jeff down. They all thought it was a total loss.”
One year later, Suburban Baptist Church is a miracle. A lighthouse in New Orleans East. A lovely oasis in the midst of a depressing stretch of highway.
I have never figured out the difference in Gentilly Boulevard and Chef Menteur Highway. It’s also U.S. Highway 90, the street Margaret and I drove that U-Haul It truck down in June of 1964 when we moved from Birmingham to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary’s address is 3939 Gentilly Boulevard. However, a few blocks east of the campus, the signs all say “Chef Menteur Highway.”
Travel perhaps 3 or 4 miles east on Chef Highway and you come to Suburban Baptist Church. For reasons I do not understand, they’ve always announced their address as 4521 Schindler Drive, even though no one knows where Schindler is and everyone knows Chef Highway. I noticed today the church bulletin lists their address as 10501 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans 70127. Finally!
(I told Pastor Jeff that when I came to FBC Kenner in 1990, I was struck by the odd fact that the church’s address was listed everywhere as 1313 Clay Street, even though Clay is a tiny lane and the sanctuary fronts on the well-traveled Williams Boulevard. We checked with the post office and changed the address to 1400 Williams Boulevard–but not before we learned of a medical student and his wife who had driven from downtown New Orleans out to our church, crisscrossing every side street in town trying to get to 1313 Clay! You would think that people-loving churches would at least make the address as easy to find as possible!)
A quick note or two about Suburban Baptist Church. The neighborhood used to be upscale suburban–as the name implies–but began its descent into deterioration many years ago. These days, post-Katrina, the drive from Interstate 10 east to the church is a depressing sight. Trash still litters vacant lots, strip malls are still boarded up, fast-food restaurants are shut down, and only occasionally do you see a store open for business or a church with a dozen cars in the parking lot.
Suburban is ethnically mixed. Translation: it seems to be about 50 percent white and 50 percent black. The choir of 18 members had 10 of one and 8 of the other. Jeff Box, the white guy, co-pastors the church alongside Jeffery Friend, the black dude. David Braden, Anglo, is the youth pastor. Beyond that, I have no idea the makeup of the deacons or other leadership. Until recently, the church has met in its fellowship hall and I’m confident they’re still in a crisis mode and probably not worrying too much about establishing traditional committee structures.
The congregation of 100 or more today included a number who had driven long distances to return to their beloved church for this special day. However, they will not be present next Sunday.
Jeff Box preached the well-known text of II Chronicles 7:14, “A Promise from God.” He began by referring to how extraordinary days often began as ordinary days. December 7, 1941. September 11, 2001. August 29, 2005.
“When we were able to get back in New Orleans East,” he said, “I walked around this church plant and thought ‘It’s all over.’ Yet, here we are today. Suburban Baptist Church has risen from the rubble of Katrina.”
“Solomon was dedicating a house of worship. As he spoke, God answered. II Chronicles 7:12 and following.”
I. Recipients of the promise: My people, called by my name. Jeff told how he and Kristy had gone to the courthouse this week to finalize the adoption of their son Colby. He said, “And we changed his name to mine.” He said, “He’s ours now, just as much as Dalton and Matthew.”
“Adoption is a wonderful picture of the Lord taking us into His family and making us His and giving us His name.”
II. Conditions of the promise: humble, pray, seek God’s face, turn from wicked ways.
Jeff told of “Little Peanut,” a 7-year-old who was a pre-Katrina member and lived with his grandmother who did not attend church. “Peanut wanted to be a preacher and when he got home, he would preach the sermon to his grandmother. So even though she didn’t come, she heard the sermon!” He continued, “He and his grandmother were stuck in New Orleans and ended up in the Super Dome. We lost him. I didn’t know where he was. Then he called me one day from New York City where they had landed. This 7-year-old kid found me. And he said, ‘I know why Katrina hit New Orleans.’ I said, ‘Why, Peanut?’ He said, ‘Because God’s people don’t pray enough.'”
III. Blessings of the promise: hear, forgive, heal.
“As you look around this facility, no one can say, ‘Look what Jeff did. Look what Brother Friend did. God did it. He resurrected this church where many thought one would never live again.” He paused and said, “I hear people saying, ‘How are we going to fix New Orleans?’ I answer, ‘Get your life right with God and let Him fix it. We can do nothing of ourselves, but all things are possible through Christ.”
Those are my notes from the rededication today. And here is one afterthought.
When Dennis Weems said Pastor Jeff asked him to look at the damaged buildings and advise him, I thought what a wise way of approaching the matter. Let him look at it and then see if the Lord laid it on his heart.
I’ve mentioned here how, some years ago, the pastor of FBC Kenner’s little mission at the Dixieland Trailer Park–last stop on the way to the poorhouse–approached me about a problem. They had no place to hold worship services or meetings of any kind at the trailer park and the lady who runs it had given him an old trailer to use if he could get it repaired. Mitch said, “Brother Joe, I don’t have a clue how to get that thing repaired.” I said, “Here’s what I want you to do. Call A. J. Brignac. He’s a member of our brotherhood. Ask him to come out and take a look at the trailer with you. Don’t ask him to do anything. The Lord will take it from there.”
A couple of weeks later at our first-Sunday-morning-of-the-month Baptist men’s breakfast, A. J. stood and said, “Guys, Mitch here has been given a broken down trailer to hold worship services in at Dixieland. It needs a lot of work. I figure that we need about 300 dollars right now. The basket is on the table here. And we’ll need a half dozen of you to come help me this Saturday morning at 8 o’clock. We’ll meet here at the church.”
That’s how it started. The next month, A.J. asked for more money–the men promptly opened their billfolds and gave the required amount–and for more helpers. Soon, Mitch and his wife Traci were gathering the children of Dixieland into that trailer and reaching them for the Lord. In time, their work flourished to the point, we (Mitch, Traci, our church, and the association) put a nearly-new double-wide trailer in that park for their use. It is a success story in every way. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the double-wide with a tree across one end, and none of the families returned to the park. Yet, during those years, a lot of people–particularly children–were loved and blessed and reached for Christ.
And it began with the invitation from Mitch to A. J. to “come and see.”