NEW ORLEANS (BP)–For the 400-member “Carolina Mission Team” in New Orleans -– Operation NOAH Rebuild’s largest group of volunteers ever -– changing the world might not seem so tall an order.
“Sometimes kids don’t think they can change the world until they have the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than they’ve ever imagined,” said Jeff Gray, youth minister at Willow Ridge Church in Lexington, S.C., one of nine Carolina churches represented on the trip.
In an initiative as big as the team itself, the group worked with NOAH — the North American Mission Board partnership with Louisiana Baptists to rebuild homes and share the Gospel in New Orleans –- to tackle dozens of work orders, taking on everything from painting to roofing.
“The Carolina group did a tremendous amount of work for our homeowners,” said Steve Gahagan, NOAH construction manager, who originally is from Greenwood, S.C. His wife Dianne serves as office manager. “The Carolinians came prepared with field supervisors, runners and the skills needed for the task.”
Under the banner of Carolina Mission Team for the first time, the group was led by L.E. Williamson, minister of students and students’ families at First Baptist Church in Mauldin who has coordinated several groups of several hundred students.
The key is relationship, Williamson said. With 32 years in ministry, including 18 years at Mauldin, he has known most of his students literally all of their lives. Youth ministers from four of the churches -– First Baptist and New Hope in Hickory, N.C., First Baptist in Mooresville, N.C., and First Baptist Newberry, S.C. -– were part of Williamson’s ministry as youth.
“Kids grow to trust you when they see you practice your faith in front of them,” Williamson said. “It’s fulfilling to help them mold their lives and sell out to God.”
Other South Carolina churches involved in the July mission trip were First Baptist and West Side Baptist in Simpsonville and First Baptist in Laurens.
While the team almost single-handedly filled to capacity NOAH’s “Volunteer Village,” the housing unit at the World Trade Center in downtown New Orleans, Williamson said their focus was not on numbers.
“This is about helping these kids become the leaders that God can use for the next 30 or 40 years,” Williamson said. “We are totally about growing closer to God and sharing the faith.”
Glenn Oubre, a Willow Ridge youth leader who came to Christ as an adult through the influence of a Christian employer, said the mission trip to New Orleans reflected his desire is to help youth transition to adulthood with their faith intact.
“It’s powerful for a kid to see other youth who are passionate about their faith,” Oubre said.
In New Orleans, where NOAH mobilized 10,000-plus volunteers in its first year to rebuild homes and share the Gospel, the city is taking notice of Southern Baptists.
Betsey Holmes, 15, from First Baptist Laurens, said a man on the street in downtown New Orleans noticed their shirts and asked if they were a mission team. When the group said yes, he gave them a “thumbs up” to show his approval.
“The people know that we didn’t have to come, but that we wanted to,” Holmes said. “This shows them what Jesus can do.”
John L, Yeats, the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s director of communications and Southern Baptist Convention recording secretary, noted, “Before the 2005 hurricanes ravaged the Louisiana Gulf shoreline, the people in this region never gave Southern Baptists a thought. Now, Southern Baptists are known as the people of compassion who know how to get the job done. Throughout our long history, we have never experienced the open doors of evangelistic witness like we do now. And it’s because of the investment of time, skills, energy and testimonies by thousands of volunteers.
“Thank you for coming,” Yeats said to the thousands who have ventured to the city for ministry since Hurricane Katrina.
Beyond New Orleans’ city limits, others have noticed as well. Curt Shaw, a mechanical engineer for a company with international offices, said a French colleague was amazed that Shaw’s family of four would spend a week of vacation time helping others.
“‘Go’ is an important part of the Great Commission,” Shaw said. His wife Paula added that “you never know what God will use to plant a seed.”
The trip to New Orleans, Gray said, was an opportunity for students “to live outside their normal lives” and a part of something making a national and even global impact. With the world’s eye on New Orleans, God is “rebuilding lives and pouring out His grace through others.”
After an evangelism team led the homeowner to faith in Christ at their worksite, Jan Stanley, a youth leader at First Baptist Mauldin, said her team was energized to work harder and share the Gospel with the neighbors, even those who were unresponsive.
Scott Hall, youth sponsor from the Mauldin church, reminded his crew one morning that God will use their interests to reach others. Later that day, Hall’s own passion for Duke University basketball became a conversation-starter with an unchurched neighbor.
“We may never see the results of what we do here,” Hall said, “but we’ve done what we were called to do.”
Marilyn Stewart is a correspondent for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications team. For information on how to help rebuild New Orleans, contact Operation NOAH (New Orleans Area Homes) Rebuild, sponsored by the North American Mission Board, toll-free at 1-877-934-0808. To volunteer for a church building opportunity call Louisiana’s mission building strategist, Jeff Woodrich, at 225-975-0848.