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At a debris pile in N.O., Welch & visitors look heavenward

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Aboard a private jet, a rescue helicopter and a layman’s SUV, SBC President Bobby Welch made his third visit to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Accompanying Welch into New Orleans, when half the city was still under water, were David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention; Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans; and Stephen Trammell, pastor of Florida Boulevard Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

Arriving by car at Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner, the visitors walked into the church’s family life center to see about 100 state troopers, city police and other law enforcement officers from across the country being housed at the church for their post-Katrina operations.

Across the street was Troop B headquarters of the Louisiana State Police, which also doubled as the command center for law enforcement operations inside New Orleans and its suburbs.

Billy Frame, a deacon and a retired fireman who has known many of the troopers for years, used his personal connections and expertise as an electrician to install a police-owned generator at the church’s family life center, thus giving more than 300 law officers an air-conditioned place to eat, shower and sleep.

“It’s heartening to me that the gathering place of shelter and the launch point of compassion in such a time of need is this and other Southern Baptist churches,” Welch said of the efforts at Williams Boulevard and numerous other churches involved in disaster relief.

“Yes, it’s not a matter of whether our partnership methodology will work — it is working,” Hankins replied. “It is working.”

One high-ranking police official commented to Welch and others, “When these Southern Baptists get together, they can get the job done.” While noting the lack of cooperation in his own denomination, the police official expressed appreciation and awe at the camaraderie and generosity of Southern Baptists.

The official told Welch that he was seriously considering a change of religions, but Welch told him “religion is not what you need.” When the man asked what he needed, Welch shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the man prayed a prayer of repentance, committing his life to Christ.

Thanks to the California Highway Patrol, Welch and others boarded a rescue helicopter for an aerial survey of New Orleans-area churches hit by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. When Luter saw the church where he is pastor, he cried. Both Welch and Hankins consoled Luter, later assuring him they would lead their respective conventions to do everything possible to restore churches in Katrina’s path.

After the aerial survey, Welch and company piled into three SUVs for a firsthand look at area churches. Led by Paul Blonge -– a former law officer, current police chaplain and recently resigned pastor from Metarie -– the entourage cleared several police and military checkpoints on their foray into the city.

“Here’s where we spent two days and nights,” Blonge told Baptist Press while seated in the sweltering attic of his former parsonage. The water rose so quickly that Blonge and his wife barely had time to place a few belongings on top of beds and dressers before shoving a mattress up in the attic.

“I brought a chain saw up here, too,” Blonge said. “I wasn’t about to drown in an attic.”

Because certain streets were not yet cleared by law enforcement, Welch’s party took a circuitous route into downtown New Orleans, driving right past the Superdome. Heaps of debris and silt-stained, wrecked cars lined the roadway, many with windows shattered.

A few blocks east of the Superdome, Welch, Hankins, Luter and Trammell planted a Christian flag — from First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach where Welch is pastor — in a huge debris pile and prayed for spiritual awakening in New Orleans and for revival and renewal among God’s people there.

“We believe that You’re here in this city, Lord, and that You’ve never forsaken her,” Hankins prayed. “Lord, I pray for Your churches to be revived and re-established in this place. Lord, we’re hurting right now. We’ve been knocked down, but we have not been knocked out.”

Hankins prayed for all the Southern Baptist ministers who had dedicated themselves to New Orleans area and that they’d see it “rise again, and that Jesus would be glorified.”

“We need a revival, we need a renewal, we need a resurrection here,” Luter prayed. “And, Master, we know you can do it.”

“We pray for the spirit of Nehemiah to be resurrected in this city,” Trammell prayed, asking God to “put a burden on the hearts of men and women to want to rebuild New Orleans.”

“And I pray that this rubble that is stacked up will represent sin that is purged…. Father, I ask You to send forth laborers to this harvest field,” Trammell said.

“Father, this pile of junk reminds me so much of my life before You came into it,” Welch prayed. “Yet, there’s nothing in this pile of mess that equals the ruin of our lives without You. Lord, if You can take us, and make something worthwhile out of us, then You can take what’s left of this city and glorify Your holy name.”

“We pray this prayer for the sake of souls, and for the soul of this city. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen,” Welch concluded.

Not wanting to leave the flag in a trash heap, others helped Blonge ascend what was left of a billboard support pole. There he used duct tape to affix the flag, where it waved the hope of the cross above the surrounding devastation and heartbreak.

The next morning, Sept. 13, Welch boarded the Daytona Beach-based private jet and flew to Slidell, La., where he met up with his co-pastor, David Cox. Cox was among the first group from First Baptist to drive from Daytona Beach to Slidell to help in disaster relief efforts at First Baptist Church of Slidell.

Welch and Cox spent several hours visiting Southern Baptist churches in the Slidell area. Among the many churches visited, Welch made note of one church that was doing a great job of handing out food, water, ice and paper products. But he was saddened to see the station where Bibles and tracts were being given to victims had been abandoned. Another emergency had called away the person manning the station, and no one else had stepped in to fill the vacancy.

“Southern Baptists’ willingness and ability to fill the desperate needs is both commendable and worthy of heaven,” Welch said. “But we must not lose sight of the opportunities we have for the Gospel to go forth in these ministries. A cup of cold water is only that, unless we give it in Jesus’ name.”

While commending the disaster relief efforts of Southern Baptists in the Gulf Coast region, Welch said that a hot meal and a cold drink will only satisfy for the moment. “We need to continue in sharing the Bread and the Water of life, which will satisfy now and throughout eternity — and that is Jesus Christ.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller