Okay, while I was out. Attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC this week. More about that below. But first, catching up on the local New Orleans happenings.
Out in the eastern section of New Orleans, the area almost totally underwater in the days following Katrina, 13 percent of our local electrical company’s customers now have power. Some 4,500 sites in that portion of our city are back in their well-lit, fully-powered homes. Businesses make up 140 of those 4500 customers. Not much, but 100% better than it was; it’s a good start.
A drought continues locally. That, plus the stifling heat, makes life miserable for residents, employees, and volunteers who are gutting out and restoring houses and businesses. One leader of a church team of volunteers told me they get to work as early in the morning as possible, and knock off shortly after noon and call it a day. The heat gets worse as the day wears on. While New Orleans was suffering temps of 95 or so this week, Greensboro’s highs were in the 70’s if you can believe it, due mainly to the rain. Beautiful, wet, lovely, refreshing rain. I used an umbrella most of the time but my spirit was buoyed by everything about this falling water and even enjoyed the couple of times I was drenched running from the parking lot into the hotel.
Tax collections in Jefferson Parish–the Metairie/Kenner/Marrero/Gretna portion of metro New Orleans–are soaring above the same time period in pre-Katrina 2005. These days, Jefferson Parish basically has a monopoly on retail sales in the area since so many businesses in N.O. proper are still closed down.
In Congress, the Democrats voted Thursday to strip our congressman William Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Friday, the full House in a voice vote, ratified that action. Jefferson vows he will prove his innocence of the charges against him and maintains there is no precedent and no House rule for the action being taken against him. He was staying on in this key position, he declared, because New Orleans needs his influence and his vote on that influential committee. Nevertheless, most of the voices I hear around here, including the editor of the Times-Picayune, have called for him to step down. I am not his judge and do not presume to condemn him, but the evidence against him is certainly overwhelming and if he beats these charges, you will know you have seen a modern-day miracle. The one thing New Orleans does not need is one more corrupt politician. We’ve had enough of those to last the next millennium. Mr. Jefferson announces he is a candidate for re-election this November.
Skip this part if you are familiar with the charges against Jefferson. Briefly, the government says it video-taped him receiving a briefcase with $100,000 in $100 bills. On audio tapes recorded with a cooperating witness, Jefferson allegedly said the money was to bribe the vice-president of the African nation they were trying to do business with. Later, he said in a phone call he had given all the money to that official. However, when the FBI raided his house the next day, they found $90,000 of the money–the bills were marked, so this is not guesswork–inside a freezer in convenient foil-wrapped packages. Two of Jefferson’s aids have pleaded guilty to crimes associated with this venture, and they testify that the congressman’s family controls businesses which received more than $400,000 and stock certificates in return for his help in the African ventures.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority has released a survey which indicates that 57% of the displaced New Orleanians would like to return home but are skeptical or ignorant of the plans and programs available to make it possible. Those living inside the state were more likely to plan to return, the percentage being sixty-three. Only 39% living outside the area think they are likely to return.
Almost every day this week, the national news has announced charges of massive fraud connected with FEMA’s distribution of Katrina money. Anyone who knows anything about human nature is not surprised by this, but Louisianians especially groan over such abuses. A number of people who did not live in the area at all or who used to live here but had moved away, claimed hurricane damage and received their $2,000 checks. Prisoners in various penitentiaries across the country pulled the same stunt. One newscast said an address on one application for funds turned out to be a cemetery plot. It’s wrong, it’s to be expected, and it must be dealt with, but unfortunately it also reinforces what some people think about the corruption in Louisiana. As though we had a monopoly on sin.
This week the secretary of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced his plan for the public housing projects the department oversees in our city. HUD intends to have 1,000 units open for tenants by summer’s end. However, the heart of the federal plan is the demolition of several housing developments, including the notorious St. Bernard development in Gentilly, C.J.Peete in Central City, B. W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte near the Faubourg Treme. The plan is to turn these areas into mixed-income communities. This, I might add, is what some of our people who live in or near these developments have longed to hear. Others, however, are decrying the plan and wanting to return to the projects just as they left them. HUD has a three-year timetable, which newspaper columnist Lolis Eric Elie says guarantees that many of our former residents will never return.
Here’s a bit of trivia: what individual grave in the United States draws the most people to its site each year, second only to Elvis Presley? Answer: the burial place of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Marie who? This patron saint of local voodooism was buried in 1881–some say on June 15–in St. Louis Cemetery No.1 on Basin Street. So on that day each year people flock to her tomb and offer up their prayers. One has to wonder what possible benefit worshipers expect to derive from praying to a dead person. Christians rejoice that Jesus Christ is their “living hope” (I Peter 1:3). A dead hope is surely an oxymoron.
This week in North Carolina, Southern Baptists dedicated a large sculpture of Evangelist Billy Graham, standing boldly with a Bible in one hand and the other outstretched to an imaginary audience. A cross twice his height stands behind him. The artist titled it “There’s Room at the Cross for You.” While I did not see them, the media reported that a small group of protesters were picketing us for “worshiping” this statue of Mr. Graham. It’s possible someone will, although highly unlikely, but I suggest the protesters drop in on Marie Leveau’s burial site around Halloween if they want to see what idolatry looks like. When it comes to Billy Graham, Southern Baptists are simply heeding the Biblical admonition to “give honor to whom it is due.”
Saturday’s religion page of the Times-Picayune featured two photos from the SBC meeting this week, the one depicting the statue of Billy Graham and one showing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice receiving our ovation. What’s particularly satisfying to me is that the only other figure in the photo with Rice is my long-time friend Larry Black, who led the worship at the convention this week. Larry retired last year after 34 years as minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, and now holds the same position in an interim capacity at the FBC of Daytona Beach, FL, where SBC President Bobby Welch serves. I’ll let you read news reports of Dr. Rice’s message to the convention in other sources, but will simply say she was incredible, knocked the ball out of the park, and connected with this group as few others ever have or could. As she walked off the stage–I was sitting on the main floor–a group in the seats to my right, which would be about the 50 yard line, broke out in song. “God Bless America” was half-over before we could hear it through the deafening applause. The crowd picked up the last few lines, then Larry Black stepped up to the podium and says, “Let’s sing it again, all together.” He told me later that whoever started the song in the grandstand had chosen just the right key. The spontaneity of it was the best part to me.
We’re all familiar with the dumb crook stories. This one is a double feature, however, with both the victim and the perp being challenged mentally if not in other ways. A 29-year-old father, whose name cops mercifully kept back, had arrived at a day care center with his three children around 9 am Monday. He left the motor running with his 3 month old child inside the car, still strapped to her carseat, and walked his two older children into the center. Meanwhile, 20-year-old John Griffin was walking by, saw the car with its engine running, and jumped inside intending to drive away. One problem: it had a manual transmission and being a modern kid, he did not have a clue what to do with that. The grinding gears alerted the father who rushed to the car and apprehended the would-be thief. There’s enough dumb in this story to go around. I would hate to be there when the mother of the baby hears what happened. Wonder what he’s getting for Father’s Day next Sunday.
This week at the convention in Greensboro, several speakers with New Orleans ties told the 11,000 attendees (we call them messengers, not delegates) that this city is more open to the witness of Christian people than at any time in its long history. While that is surely true, the devil is not loosening his grip without a fight. We are in the midst of a crime wave. A police officer was killed in the area this week and another was wounded. The papers are filled of stories of fights and robberies, thefts and shoot-outs.
Frank Page of the FBC of Taylors, SC, was easily elected president of the SBC this week, to the surprise of a lot of people, evidently, but to no one I know. In the weeks leading up to the annual meeting, some good men announced for the office and several denominational leaders went public endorsing one or the other. Another denominational leader rebuked them for taking sides and pointed out that in their capacity as seminary presidents or whatever, they serve all Southern Baptists and should not be partisan, which surely sounds right from here.
The defining issue of the election, most will agree, was not theology but missiology. In this case, that means whether a candidate’s church was giving to the national financial plan which we call the Cooperative Program at a sufficiently high rate. All six of our SBC seminaries, both our mission boards, and other entities depend on the CP for the bulk of their income. Yet many of our mega-churches give a pittance relatively speaking through this means and choose to designate or spend their mission money in ways of their own. Over the last two decades, several of our elected leaders have led such churches and one result is that the giving percentage of our churches has been on the decline. A blue-ribbon panel reported this week to the convention recommending a reversal of that trend. Originally, they had recommended that we choose only national leaders whose churches were giving at least 10 percent through the CP, but the Executive Committee stripped that from the report before it reached the messengers. An attempt was made from the floor to reinstate the requirement, which failed. Later, I located some friends from Alexandria, Virginia, and squeezed into the one vacant seat near them, only to hear the man to my left–a complete stranger–still angry at the very notion that leaders’ churches should be required to set the example in CP giving. “Making it a matter of dollars!” he muttered. I could not resist. “Jesus said, ‘Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” Uh oh. Shouldn’t have done that. I had the privilege of listening to him muttering bluster (that’s the only way to describe it) for the next few minutes while the convention program blared throughout the coliseum. This was one time I was grateful to have a hearing problem.
Bobby Welch, president of the SBC for the last two years, is a graduate of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and former pastor of the FBC of Norco, a few miles west of the airport. Larry Black, who led the worship, graduated here and was minister of music at the old Mid-City Baptist Church downtown. David Crosby, pastor of FBC-NO, spoke movingly on Tuesday morning. Later, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley gave a stirring report on the status of the seminary, and that afternoon, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church pastor Fred Luter brought the crowd to its feet again and again with his inspired preaching. Later, I told some friends that during David’s sermon I hurt, during Chuck’s report I cried, and during Fred’s sermon I laughed. The full gamut of emotions.
Unfortunately, David Crosby’s motion to bring the 2008 convention to New Orleans was not well received. The Order of Business Committee chose to simply refer it to the Executive Committee which has a sub-committee responsible for choosing and recommending where these meetings should be held. The plan now calls for the 2007 meeting to be in San Antonio, 2008 in Indianapolis, and 2009 in Louisville. The soonest the convention could return to our city would be 2010. I said to Vice-President for Convention Affairs Jack Wilkinson, “Even though the motion for 2008 was shot down, I hope we can still host the convention in 2010.” He indicated it was still a possibility. I said, “Although, I’ll admit I have enjoyed these conventions in middle-sized cities like Nashville last year and Greensboro this year.” He laughed and said, “New Orleans is now a middle-sized city.” You got that right.
We hosted the convention in 1996 and 2000, and I had the privilege of chairing the Local Arrangements Committee each time, working under the direction of Jack Wilkinson. He has always been a great friend to us. If we can bring the Southern Baptist Convention here in 2010, the messengers might see a brand new city, unlike anything New Orleans has ever been before, on display before them. God grant.
Most of us have had the experience of thinking of a great verse of Scripture a day after you needed it. The Resolutions Committee of the SBC, chaired by the outstanding Dr. Tommy French of Baton Rouge’s Jefferson Baptist Church, brought many fine resolutions, including one against the use of alcohol. It stated the traditional position of our people on the subject, so I was surprised when people began lining up at microphones to oppose it. “Jesus turned water to wine,” one said, “so how are we smarter than He?” “Paul told Timothy to ‘take a little wine for your stomach’s sake’.” “We Southern Baptists have long fought for the inspiration of the Bible, and yet we’re taking a position against what Scripture says.”
I sat there taking in what the speakers were saying, but remembering the devastating effect of alcohol in my own family as well as my church families through the years, and knowing there is no way the Lord Jesus Christ endorses that. I leaned over to my son Neil who had surprised me by walking into my room on Monday afternoon–he had come to sing with the Seminarians, the NOBTS men’s chorus–and said, “In those days, if you got drunk the worst that could happen was you’d fall off your camel. These days, you get in a high-powered automobile and take out an entire family.” That puts this serious issue outside the domain of a single proof-text verse.
Next day, long after the debate ended and the resolution had passed, I thought of something from the Word. Paul, quoted in the convention as endorsing the use of alcohol, also wrote this to the Romans, “It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” (Rom. 14:21) Drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages not only makes one’s brother stumble, but it destroys homes, ends marriages, devastates the lives of children, ruins health, costs billions of dollars in health care each year, and easily causes a hundred other bad effects in our society. The only responsible position for a Bible-believing, Christ-loving people is to have nothing to do with any of it.
Friday, driving toward New Orleans along I-10 in Southern Mississippi, we saw carriers hauling away the flooded cars from our city. Finally, something is being done to get these dead vehicles off the streets, following one fiasco after another. At one point, Mayor Ray Nagin announced his plans to pay $22 million to a firm to remove the cars. That’s when it became public news that a Texas firm had volunteered to take the cars and pay the city $100 each. The community rose up in arms when they heard this and the mayor’s plan fell apart. Later, he signed on with another company and another plan which went bust when the company could not get sufficient bonding to repay the city if it failed to finish the job. The city trimmed its estimate of the number of flooded cars from 150,000 to 100,000 and let bids once more. DRC Inc. of Mobile was low bidder and that’s why the trucks hauling away the ruined cars were headed east toward that city yesterday.
Finally. A federal security analysis reported Friday that New Orleans is woefully unprepared for a major hurricane or other kind of disaster, including terror attacks, tornadoes, etc. On a scorecard listing measures cities need to have in place in order to respond properly to catastrophes, New Orleans was given a grade of…ready for this?…four percent. We made a 4 out of a possible 100. It was, the newspaper reported Saturday, the lowest possible ranking.
And what’s going on in your neck of the woods today? Happy Father’s Day.