News Articles

Disaster relief rejuvenating 50-year-old Louisiana church

RIVER RIDGE, La. (BP)–Churches at the forefront of disaster relief are easy to spot. They’re the ones with eight-foot-high stacks of bottled water dotting the parking lot and half-gallon jugs of waterless hand sanitizer on every table.

That’s exactly what Riverside Baptist Church looks like. The River Ridge church, just outside of New Orleans, has been feeding 1,500 to 2000 people every day for the past three weeks. Volunteers plan to continue feeding until November.

“We’ve got a crazy, eclectic group of people working here,” said Jim Caldwell, pastor of the church.

When Caldwell returned to the city and found the church’s facilities in fairly good shape, he envisioned the location as a food and water distribution center. He called the Louisiana Baptist Convention but help wasn’t immediately available in the post-hurricane days.

“But I knew we were supposed to do ministry,” said Caldwell, who had been pastor of the 50-year old-church for just three months when the storms hit. The next day he started looking for resources. A charismatic church, a biker ministry, a Texas restaurant owner and an interdenominational faith-based ministry volunteered to help the church set up a feeding ministry.

“It’s been a challenge,” Caldwell admitted. “I never had a course on driving a forklift, unloading trucks or ministering with all different personalities from different churches. We have very little in common, except that we all love Jesus.”

In the past three weeks the church has turned its gym into a food warehouse, its kitchen into an industrial-sized restaurant, church members into fulltime volunteers and a parking lot into a 500-seat restaurant.

Church members and other volunteers have tackled mundane jobs with willingness and creativity. The church had no showers but was housing dozens of volunteers every night. The North American Mission Board found a two-shower unit for them — everything else was already in use. But two showers didn’t cut it for as many as 50 volunteers.

“We had a construction crew here to help out [with hurricane cleanup] and they built four showers out of a fence that was blown down in the storm and leftover pallets. It’s got hot and cold water, too,” Caldwell said, proudly.

The church currently is booking construction and cleanup teams to work every week through the end of the year. Volunteers will clean out flooded houses and cut down trees and brush.

While the neighborhoods are being changed, Caldwell and church leaders also are making plans to change the face of Riverside church via a three-phase plan for post-Katrina ministry.

“First phase is food, water and meals. We’re doing that now,” the pastor said. “The second phase is reaching out from this physical plant for practical ministry. The third phase is to reassess who we are as a church. Our ministry will be different.

“This church has always been known for its music and drama and children’s programs. I’m sure we’ll reclaim that. But after 50 years, that ministry hasn’t made the impact in the community like this past month has done. People know we’re here now. They didn’t know us before.”

Church members already have embraced the beginning of change.

Jackie Bigler has been a member since almost the church’s founding. Before the storm, she and her husband came to church on Sunday mornings. Since returning after Katrina, the couple has averaged 13 hour days almost every day.

“I think it’s wonderful. Before Katrina we just came to church,” she said. “Now I see a lot more love and care.”

    About the Author

  • Sherri Brown