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Baptist church at the end of Louisiana keeps on ministering

GRAND ISLE, La. (BP)–Grand Isle, La. sits at the end — or the beginning — of State Highway 1, depending upon which way one is headed.

Surrounded by gulf marshes, the pancake-flat island is home of a United States Coast Guard station, a state park filled with rabbits and commercial and sports fishing outfits.

There is an oil company outpost, some restaurants, a couple of convenience and bait stores, five churches and eight bars, plus 1,500 permanent residents.

There is not a lot to do for the children and young people who live on the one-mile wide, five-mile long strip of land surrounded by “water, water everywhere.”

The closest Wal-Mart is 45 minutes away, and the nearest movie theater is about an hour’s drive by vehicle. When children and teenagers get out of school at the end of the day, they do their homework, play in the streets or watch television.

First Baptist Church of Grand Isle sits one block off the only highway in or out of town and sees the conditions in the area as a major opportunity for ministry. For several years, they have maintained a dynamic and still-growing ministry to the children and young people of the entire Grand Isle community.

“There are approximately 134 students enrolled in our kindergarten through fifth grade school,” pastor Herb Cowan explains. “As of today, we have 112 enrolled in our Team Kids Club. That is up from 80 last year. We also have about 30 teenagers in our Teen Bible Study.”

The teenage Bible study is led on Wednesday evenings by the church’s part-time youth minister, Annette Robin, who also is a public school teacher.

Cowan and his wife, Sharon, have been with First Baptist Church for six years, starting their seventh summer of ministry there. Team Kids was started during the Cowans’ first year at the church.

The Cowans enlisted workers from within and without their church who have grown in their commitment to the ministry.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 40 children streamed into the church’s activity room for an hour and a half of games, Bible studies and refreshments. Some 50 children had been there the previous week. The Cowans, who have two grown children, enthusiastically led the opening activities that eventually became a time of songs and large group Bible study.

Then, the children were divided into groups according to their school grades and led into classrooms. Teachers led the children through learning handcrafts, Bible memorization and Bible study.

The Team Kids activities are led according to curriculum by that name published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Genesis Ballard, a church member since 1986 who became “active again” nearly three years ago, is now one of the co-leaders of the ministry. When asked why she gave her time in the ministry, she said, “The Lord told me to work with the children. I’ve been a teacher in Sunday School for three years now and working with Team Kids for two years.”

Her interest in working with children came when her third child was born, she says.

“We have two boys, 23 and 20,” she said. “And we have one who is 7. Yes, you heard right.”

Now, the Galliano — up the bayou from Grand Isle — native, whose husband runs a string of offshore crew boats and transporters, is sold on the ministry.

“Seeing the love that was needed down here, the way the children respond back to our love …. There are homes down here where pets are treated better than the kids,” she notes. “We took two children home after Sunday School one Sunday, and their parents were not home.”

While the rewards of the ministry are great, so are the demands. “It will take as much time as you will give it and more,” Ballard says. “But we care, so we put in the time.”

The motto of Team Kids is: “Learning about God. Using the Bible. Living for Jesus.”

The weekly meetings help the children in each area.

Children are rewarded with “Team Kids Dollars” for several accomplishments they can make each week, such as learning Bible verses, reading certain passages, good behavior and bringing new kids to the weekly meetings. Periodically, leaders provide a “Team Kids Store” for the children to exchange their “dollars” for small items for themselves and gifts they can buy for their families.

“It is just a way of encouraging them and rewarding them for what they do,” Sharon Cowan said.

First Baptist Church has been a constituted, independent church for 53 years. In 1939, a lady gave two lots upon which a church could be built. Actually, a group of Christians began meeting as a church in the home of a Coast Guard couple who were Pentecostal but later became Baptists. Then, a 16 by 16-foot canvas building was put on the two lots.

In 1947, the Gulf of Mexico oil patch brought people from the northern part of the state, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. Those newcomers were a boom to the church. A wooden structure building was built in 1949, but in 1982, Louisiana Baptist Convention church builder Ed Jelks led in constructing a new, modern structure that meets the present hurricane-influenced building codes of the area.

When the oil industry declined, many of the church’s members lost their jobs and moved away, leaving a diminishing congregation with a building debt with which they struggled for 17 years but paid off a year ago. Presently, the church has about 50 active members. They are not exactly sure of their membership because “whoever kept records moved and kept them,” Cowan said. “We have about 30 to 40 in Sunday School most of the time.”

In the summer, the island changes. The population swells from 1,500 to as many as 10,000. Many of the “camps” with names such as Storm Runner, Pass Time, Papa’s Dream and Doc of the Bay that stand vacant most of the winter fill with people during this time of the year.

The biggest event of the year is the Annual Tarpon Rodeo, held the last full weekend of July. Boats from around the world converge on the island as fishermen try to boat the largest tarpon. The island becomes so crowded the drive from one end of the island to the other takes at least 45 minutes, rather than the normal 10 minutes.

“The city gives us a place for our tent right in the middle of activities,” Herb said. “We give out water and tracts and witness to people when the opportunity presents itself.”

For the last 11 years, the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board and the Louisiana Baptist Convention have provided summer missionaries. The college-age missionaries help with the tarpon rodeo outreach, Cross Point sports ministry, Vacation Bible Schools, day camps and other resort-type ministries. This year, the church is scheduled to have four missionaries during the summer months.

Churches from other parts of Louisiana and from as far away as Indiana assist the church with summer ministries as well. The congregation still receives “a small supplement” from the state convention to assist in taking care of the missionaries’ living arrangements and other expenses.

As in any other part of South Louisiana, hurricanes are real possibilities during the summer season on Grand Isle. Current building codes require any kind of human habitation in the area, including churches, to be built at least 10 feet above ground level.

Sharon Cowan admits habitual evacuation alerts are trying.

“Three times last year, we had to lock our house and drive off, leaving everything we own,” she says. “That is tough, but it is part of life down here.”

Nevertheless, the Cowans confess great appreciation for the work on the island. “The kids, and even their parents, are starving for someone to love them,” Cowan says.

The Cowans and other members of First Baptist Church strive to provide spiritual sustenance to satisfy that hunger, regardless of the person’s age or need.

Indeed, Grand Isle may be the end of Louisiana State Highway 1, but it is where the ministry of First Baptist Church begins — and continues.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ENJOYING A SNACK.

    About the Author

  • Lynn P. Clayton