We’ve Entered a Different Phase Now

In the weeks and months following Katrina–next August 29 will mark the third anniversary of this hurricane–we all said something like the following to one another around here:

“We’d better do all we can while we still have the nation’s attention. People are notorious for short attention spans. The next major hurricane will draw the focus and resources in that direction, and we’ll be deserted.”

The remarkable thing is that two-and-a-half years later, that still has not happened. First and foremost, no hurricane of any size has hit the U.S. mainland during this period, so no great disaster has supplanted New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to siphon away the focus and resources.

Secondly, our nation’s leaders–many of them at any rate–are determined to make the federal government keep its promises to this region. And thirdly, the churches of America still have us on their hearts and continue to send teams of volunteers this way to rebuild homes, restore communities, and revive dashed hopes.

We’re grateful, make no mistake.

The glamour has gone off by now, however. And that’s not all bad.

At first, this was the place to be. Television networks were broadcasting their news programs from here, and heroes of the storm were regularly being featured and honored. The various state conventions of Southern Baptists set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist their churches in coming this way to work and minister. Congregations told exciting stories of how mobilizing their troops to work in this city brought residual blessings to their people. In some cases we know of, dying or plateaued churches were given new life and energy by their investments in our situation.

But that was then, and this is now.

If the earlier stage was “of faith,” then the present period is “by sight.” Formerly, people who had never been to New Orleans or never seen what a hurricane of this magnitude and flooding of this extent can do to a major city were eager to come. They returned home with scary tales and heroic feelings. At first, they were not sure their small churches could mount a campaign to travel that distance, pay all the expenses, and do the hard work of gutting out houses and rebuilding them. They had great vision, sacrificed to achieve it, and accomplished what seemed to them superhuman achievements.

Now, however, they know they can do it. They’ve been here, done that, and as the saying goes, have the t-shirts to prove it.

But we still need them, and will for a long time to come.

This week, one of our workers said something that gives me hope about the future involvement of churches continuing to come. “It’s easier now,” he said. “They’ve been here before, and they know the routine. They know where they’ll be staying, what the conditions will be, and how to get around in the city.”

These days, our denomination, the Southern Baptists, have four well-established and primary focal points for the rebuilding going on throughout metro New Orleans.

First, we have Operation NOAH Rebuild, the presence of the North American Mission Board in our city. The office still resides in the red house behind Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers. David Maxwell is the chief coordinator of the work, and his wife Wanda manages the office. They’re always at work, overseeing and coordinating church volunteer teams from around the nation coming this way. A huge white board in the office lists the church groups in town at any given moment, and those with reservations for upcoming weeks and months.

Most of the groups working under NOAH are staying at Hopeview Baptist Church on Judge Perez Drive in St. Bernard Parish, which has been completely turned into a hospitality center. Before long, however, the Household of Faith on Interstate 10 at Read Boulevard will be furnished and opened, and will accommodate three times as many volunteers.

We are forever grateful for the faithful work of the NOAH folks. Their office phone is 504/362-4604.

Second, we have the Baptist Crossroads Project, a ministry of several groups, working under the direction of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. Volunteers are constructing new homes in the tragic Ninth Ward, working under the direction of Habitat for Humanity. Their website is www.baptistcrossroads.com.

Third, a constant stream of volunteers are working with Baptist Builders in erecting the all-new First Baptist Church of Chalmette on the St. Bernard Highway. This will be the largest new construction effort for any of our churches in the post-Katrina era. (Franklin Avenue Baptist Church will be the largest rebuild project.) Most of our congregations that have built or rebuilt their worship centers are much smaller. Pastor John Jeffries emailed us this week that he and his wife Ginny are making contacts with the Lord’s people in Virginia and Tennessee, I believe he said, encouraging volunteers to come this way, and of course to help pay for the building. Volunteers stay at Hopeview.

Fourth, in lower Plaquemines Parish, down the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico, Virginia Baptists are working with the Port Sulphur Baptist Church in rebuilding that church and restoring homes. Recently, they have decided to revive the Venice Baptist Church. Looking at your map, you will see that this is where State Highway 23 ends. I’ve not been there lately, but Freddie Arnold says there is a strong population living there, primarily off shore workers and their families. Housing accommodations for church teams have been set up at Port Sulphur church.

As you glance at the map, you may wonder about the town of Buras, halfway between Venice and Port Sulphur. Pre-Katrina, we had three churches there; now we have none. Why aren’t we rebuilding a church there? Freddie Arnold said last week, “Because Buras is empty. Almost no one lives there.”

Our chief partner in all the above is the Louisiana Baptist Convention. David Hankins, our executive-director, and Mike Canady, director of missions and ministry, have knocked themselves out for us, and continue to mobilize our Baptist churches throughout the state to continue focusing on rebuilding this city. There are no words to adequately state our appreciation.

Two more ministries need to be mentioned here.

MissionLab is an arm of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary which enables a church to send its volunteers this way, and the seminary’s leadership will handle all the details of whatever kind of work they wish to do, whether construction, block parties, or whatever. And by “all the details,” we mean just that. The Nelson Price Center on campus houses volunteers, the seminary’s cafeteria feeds them, and seminarians provide devotionals, Bible studies, and direction for ministry. The seminary’s website is www.nobts.edu and the phone is 504/282-4455.

One more. David Rhymes in our associational office has become invaluable in assisting churches around the country that want to send their people, not for construction, but for “people-ministry.” He is always asking our churches to dream big in their neighborhoods, because David can send in Baptists who will be happy to put on a backyard Bible club, help the church with its own vacation Bible school, canvass the neighborhood, hold a block party, or a hundred variations. David is a NAMB missionary assigned to us as an evangelism strategist, and we are blessed to have him. His email address is drhymes@namb.net and our associational office phone is 504/282-1428.

Added to all the above is the on-going work of so many of our churches in the metro New Orleans area. Their partner-churches around the country send teams this way, stay in the local church building, and fan out into the community to serve. And most often, this work is done without any other group or agency knowing about it or recording it. This may be the most amazing work of all.

Finally, we have been supported so generously and faithfully by our state paper, the Baptist Message, and by the voice of the SBC Office of Communications, the Baptist Press. We could not have asked for better friends or stronger support than they have rendered in keeping our plight before Southern Baptists in particular and the nation in general.

So, we say to our church friends throughout the country, come help us. We still need you and frankly, we’ll be needing you for a long time to come.

The good news is we have air-conditioning now–something that was missing in those early scorching days and weeks following Katrina–also showers and good beds. Since you’ve already been here, you know where the good restaurants are, and where to find the best po-boys.

New Orleans locals have a saying that goes, “Laissez les bons temps roulez!” Let the good times roll.

We’ll say it here, because to us, when God’s people from around the country come to help us rebuild this city and share the gospel with our people, it doesn’t get any better than that. That is the very essence of the “good times.”

Twelve hours after I posted the above….

The headline in Saturday morning’s Times-Picayune read, “More than two years after Katrina, a steady flow of volunteers still heads to New Orleans to help with recovery.” The article, written by our friend and long-time religion writer Bruce Nolan, pays tribute to the college teams who devote their spring break to help us.

“Certainly the number is well below the 10,000 volunteers per week who surged into the area in 2006, when Katrina was fresh and agencies could throw hordes of willing bodies into the relatively brutish, unskilled work of gutting scores of thousands of ruined homes,” Nolan writes. “But because the need long ago shifted from simple gutting to more complex rebuilding work, relief agencies find they cannot effectively manage so many workers as before.”

Kimberly Durow, who heads a conglomeration of faith-based relief agencies under an umbrella called the Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership, is quoted as saying, “There still isn’t any Katrina fatigue.” The various agencies are “maxed out” through September, one said.

And what is responsible for the unrelenting inflow of volunteers this long after the hurricane? Word of mouth, apparently, because the nation’s media is no longer covering what for them is an old story and the presidential campaign of both parties seems to find the New Orleans situation irrelevant.

People who have been here to help us want to come back, and they bring additional volunteers with them.

What a terrific situation this is.

In fact, some observers say the successful image the city has protrayed to the nation in hosting the BCS championship and the NBA all-star game, among other big events, has sent a false message to the nation that New Orleans is all finished, that we’re through down here. “Outside the state, people think we’re done…. And on TV the city looks great.,” says one.

One other thing in Saturday’s paper needs a mention. Robert Cerasoli, the new Inspector-General for New Orleans, spoke yesterday at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. We’ve mentioned him before, so pleased that the city now has filled the position and done so with such an experienced and capable person, one who has identified himself to me privately as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. His job is two-fold, to help the city prevent corruption by the re-writing of its policies and to uncover corruption already existing.

Cerasoli told the group of about 30 in the auditorium that he has run into obstruction almost continually since arriving last September. He had to persuade the city council to give him a budget big enough to hire a staff, he was told that he could not have an attorney on his staff (he fought that and won), and a few days ago, one of our strange state senators who shall remain unnamed, sponsored a bill that would have made Cerasoli and his staff subject to criminal prosecution if they made public any information on corruption in officials other than their “final report.” Thankfully, the senate trashed that bad bill.

The first two areas Cerasoli is targeting, he says, are the city’s policy on take-home vehicles for employees and whether the city’s hotels and motels are paying all the municipal taxes they should.

So far, he has filled only two slots on his staff, with nearly two dozen to go.

The article then gives a bit of information that I find discomfiting. Cerasoli is becoming a celebrity in this city which specializes in diverting its leaders into the foolishness of public spotlights and a touch of glitz. He’s speaking to this group and that, and now has become a star player in a theatrical production by the Cripple Creek Theatre Company at the Rampart Community Center in the French Quarter. Apparently, it’s some kind of spoof on the city’s well-deserved reputation for corruption.

Mr. Cerasoli, please—do not be diverted. Let the mayor and Ed Blakely, the so-called recovery czar, make the rounds of these celebrity stations. Stay on the job. We’d like to see your staff complete and your work being done. You told me four months ago you were interested in checking into the city’s policy on take-home vehicles, and you’re still talking about it.

Sir, if you’re not careful, this city will intoxicate you with its favor and overwhelm you with its pleasures until you forget what brought you here in the first place.

As with all the others who come to our city to help, we want you to enjoy New Orleans–there’s a lot to love–but don’t lose sight of your goal: help us build a new and healthy city.

2 thoughts on “We’ve Entered a Different Phase Now

  1. Bro. Joe you missed mentioning the Arkansas Housing and Rebuild Center at Gentilly Baptist Church. They are housing about a 100 each week since reopening in February.

  2. Joe:

    Sorry I missed this last month. I usually keep up with my reading, but have been very busy. I would like to explain the genesis of newspaper coverage of this play. First, let me begin by saying, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments of not being diverted from my task. Last fall when I spoke at Loyola University, I began my speech with a metaphor, which referred to the satiric play “The Inspector General” written by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. I commented that I always think of this play whenever I first meet someone and they exclaim,”What does an Inspector General do?” I originally used this in a speech I gave at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton Universtiy in 1996. At the end of my speech at Loyola I was approached by a young woman who informed me that a theatre company was producing the play in the winter, here in New Orleans. She asked if I would play the role of the Inspector General in the play. I responded, “Absolutely not!” I am fully aware of my public position and would not act in a play. I informed the young woman that the Inspector General never appears in Gogol’s play. In fact, this is why it is a satiric farce. The last words spoken in the final 10 seconds of the play are by a sentinel who says “The Inspector General has arrived from St. Petersburg with instructions from the Government! He is here!” The Inspector General marches into the room as the curtain falls. He never appears in the play. All of the corruption has taken place before he arrives. The young woman understood my explanation. Two months later I was approached by the Producer of the play and he asked if I would agree to conduct a talkback session at the end of the play each Thursday evening in March. This session would provide a connection between art and reality by explaining the modern context of the Inspector General and its purpose and function in present day New Orleans. I thought this an appropriate use of my time, since it would serve an educational and community purpose at 10 pm in the evening. When the producer advertised the play he took poetic license by implying that I would be acting in the play. If you read the advertisement very carefully, it provides an implication, but in fact, it said no such thing. Unfortunately, the media initially read it the same as you did. I called the producer and expressed my dissatisfaction and he apologized for trying to use my name to boost attendance. I completed four talkback sessions in March and I believe they were enlightening and full of audience participation. Afterall, I did commit to addressing all communities here in New Orleans. The play was best attended on the nights that I gave the talkback session. I truly believe that this was the case, because attendees were interested in the role of the Inspector General in New Orleans and they wanted to hear about it first hand. Of the 16 performances I only did four talkback sessions. I hope this addresses your concerns, because I care about them, and value your guidance. I would also like to add that I have no bashfulness in publicly proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ as my saviour. Without faith in God I could not have made it this far. This job is much too dificult to accomplish without his help.

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