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Commencement at New Orleans: a testimony to God’s provision

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It would be difficult to overstate the importance of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s 88th commencement exercise May 13. The ceremony not only marked the first graduation on the main campus since Hurricane Katrina, it served as a joyous testimony of God’s grace and provision.

“Hearing the stories of what God has done to see everybody through is just a reminder that there isn’t a circumstance in which God cannot work,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said following the service. “There is no heartbreak so great that God cannot mend and heal and we’re celebrating that mending and healing today.”

Once again the campus teemed with activity as graduates and their families packed Leavell Chapel. The pain and hardship of the past nine months was softened with joy and thankfulness.

A total of 241 certificates and degrees were awarded to the group of graduates who will always be known as “the Katrina class.” Many in this group were forced to evacuate just days before the hurricane hit Aug. 29, 2005. Most have moved more than once since the storm.

These students were forced to learn in new ways even as they struggled to recover from deep personal losses. In the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, members of the Katrina class finished their ministry education though scattered throughout the country.

During his charge to the Katrina class, Kelley wore a casual shirt instead of his academic regalia. The shirt was one of only a few shirts Kelley packed when he evacuated before the hurricane — a small reminder of the challenging 2005-06 school year.

“I want all of us to remember that we have been through a time of unspeakable tragedy,” Kelley said. “But when I think about what we ought to take away from this experience, there is one thing I hope all of us have discovered anew and afresh –- that God is intentional.”

God always tests those who are preparing for ministry with life events, Kelley said. The goal of this testing, he said, is to find out if His followers believe what they know about God.

Kelley related the story of Paul and Silas’ experience in the Philippian jail recorded in Acts 16. Despite the fact that they were severely beaten, chained and thrown in prison, Paul and Silas continued praising God. Songs and prayers rose from their dark cell.

“They believed what they knew about God,” Kelley said. “They knew that He is a redeemer –- that He has the power to take any circumstance and transform it for His glory and the good of His children.”

As Paul and Silas sang, an earthquake shook the jail. The doors flew open and the chains fell from the prisoners. The jailer was about to take his own life, but Paul and Silas stopped him. Through the experience they were able to share the Gospel and the jailer, along with his family, accepted Jesus.

“They believed what they knew about God,” Kelley said.

To illustrate this point, Kelley used a personal story from his days in college.

As he packed to leave for a trip with a friend, Kelley began watching a college football game on television. One team raced to a huge early lead only to lose the game on a last-second play.

Kelley’s traveling partner had not seen the game. As they left in the car, his friend came across the same football game on the radio. It was a tape delay.

As one team built a lead that seemed insurmountable, Kelley’s friend began to insult the other team.

“I said, ‘I believe in those guys,’” Kelley recalled. “‘I believe they have what it takes. I believe they can do it.’”

Slowly and surely, Kelley’s team began catching up. In the end, they scored the winning touchdown on the last play of the game. Kelley’s friend was astonished.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Man, you really did have faith,’” Kelley said.

“He’s right … more right than I realized at the time,” he said. “Faith isn’t what we hope or wish. Faith is what we know God is going to do.”

Students in the graduating class earned degrees from 31 different programs, including 13 specialized master of divinity degree programs. Fourteen graduates earned doctoral degrees.

Though they were unable to attend the ceremony, the class also included a special group of certificate graduates –- 10 Uzbek and Russian students who earned certificates in pastoral ministry. These students marked the first graduates of Leavell College’s ongoing certificate training program in Ryazan, Russia.