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FIRST-PERSON: A good rebirth would be in order in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–I spent all day Sept. 29 with three good friends, and it was one of the worst days of my life.

We were finally able to get into New Orleans and begin the process of checking on our churches. Freddie Arnold from our associational office had secured a pass that got us past police checkpoints, and with church builder Ed Jelks and his wife, Glenda, we spent the day visiting more than 20 churches.

I’ve been worrying about how to tell this. We confined our visits to Orleans Parish, the portion of our city which is officially New Orleans. We drove down deserted streets with no traffic lights, with destruction on both sides, downed trees everywhere, homes boarded up, every store and every business closed. Not some and not most — every last one.

From the time we entered New Orleans at 9:30 a.m. until we moved into Metairie more than seven hours later, we did not see one place to buy a Coke or go to the restroom.

No birds were singing. One or two stray cats showed up and ran away. We saw an occasional worker cutting trees or stringing electrical lines. I think we saw a homeowner or two working in their yards, but nothing more.

The silence was eerie. This had been a major city populated by hundreds of thousands of people, but none were around that day.

Every house and business wore racing stripes — lines to indicate where the water had risen and stopped, then lingered. The fortunate homes wore their lines low; most sported them like belts, at mid-level or even higher.

Then there were the churches. Some of them appeared to be in good shape. Ed Jelks wrote in his notes NAD — no appreciable damage. Those were the rare ones, like Beacon Baptist Church behind the French Quarter. Most had some damage, such as missing shingles or a couple of windows out, and many had taken a few inches of water inside.

But there were also the catastrophes, the churches with two feet or more of ugly toxic water that washed in and stayed for days or weeks — Franklin Avenue, Elysian Fields Avenue, Carrollton Avenue, First United, Lakeview and Gentilly. They were so sad I want to cry even now just thinking of it. Freddie and Ed wore their boots and explored the buildings, taking pictures and making notes. I hovered around the edges and ventured a few feet inside before retreating into the sunlight.

The last two we saw were the ones that tore my heart worst. Edgewater and Pontchartrain churches were the most depressing examples of what standing floodwater can do. Edgewater Baptist Church on Paris Avenue has a congregation made up primarily, I’m told, of seminary students and faculty, all of whom have now departed and will not be back until next fall.

But the church had mud several inches thick in the sanctuary, and windows were blown out. Standing at the front door, the stench was unbearable. I lifted my head and noticed the water level marked several inches above the door. It got that high and remained there for days. All the grass and shrubbery is brown from the deadly effects of the salt water. In the median of the boulevard in front of the church, people had parked their cars on what was surely the highest spot and safest place. The water covered their cars. A fine silt blankets each car; they are ruined forever.

I stood on the sidewalk in front of Edgewater and phoned Gary Richardson, who pastored that church in the 1990s while in seminary. I caught him on vacation in Orange Beach, Ala. Describing what had happened to the church, I said, “I am well aware I’m ruining your day. But I just felt that at the death of this fine lady, someone who loved her ought to know.”

He said, “You called the right person.”

And there was Pontchartrain Baptist Church. Margaret and I were members of that little church in 1964 when we first came to seminary. Classmate Vaughan Pruitt was pastor, and I led the singing and taught a class. Little has changed about it since then, including the size of the membership. The canal that gave way after Katrina, sending mountains of water into New Orleans and ruining entire neighborhoods, ran right beside the church property. In fact, one side of the sanctuary is bent inward where the wall of water impacted it.

Inside, it was the same story: awful stench, blackened carpet, jumbled chairs and deadness. I wanted to cry.

We saw the beloved and bedraggled New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, locked down and guarded by a company of police. Professor Endel Lee, who had just returned from six months of Marine chaplain duty in Iraq, was there with the black-shirted law enforcement corps. What has he been doing?

“I’m working with the Coast Guard and will be for the next several weeks,” he said.

Where was he living?

“In that green car over there.” Kathy and the boys are evacuated, living in another state.

Mrs. Jelks wanted us to drive by the Gentilly Apartments, a complex which the seminary bought 20 years ago as living space for married students. She has friends back at home, seminarians who left their apartment just ahead of the storm and wanted us to check. Standing on the front sidewalk, she called them.

“Honey, you don’t want to come back here. There’s nothing left. The insulation is hanging out of ceilings, mud is everywhere, furniture is destroyed, everything is jumbled. It’s gone, dear,” she said.

At their request, Ed Jelks took the license plate off his friend’s ruined pickup truck in the parking lot to convince State Farm the vehicle no longer needed to be insured.

In our visits on the West Bank Sept. 27, Ed and I saw churches that were up and running and ministering to their communities. Two days later, we saw church buildings that are almost out of business. No one lives in their neighborhoods, nor will they for some time. Some houses can be gutted and rebuilt, but others will be bull-dozed. The same goes for the churches. I’m a preacher and not a builder and cannot tell you which of these sad cases can be salvaged. I hope they all can, but I’ll be greatly surprised if Lakeview and Gentilly and Franklin Avenue are able to save their present buildings.

Wednesday when the ministers were meeting in LaPlace, the restrooms were also used by children and workers at the day care. In the men’s room, a poster featured Noah and the ark with a lovely rainbow in the background.

It read: “A rainbow is God’s promise He will never flood the world.” I know the Scripture and know what it means and I’m grateful for the promise. But right now, try telling that to a lot of people in New Orleans, people whose world was their neighborhood and whose world is now flooded.

We have so many reasons to pray.

Parts of New Orleans are now open to residents. So the streets, which were already jammed, are beyond crowded.

If you know of someone who drove into the city to look at their property, when they return give them a big hug and do not ask what they saw. What they saw was a corpse, death itself lying all over their property. What they felt is beyond words. Just hug them and say, “Welcome back.” When they feel up to it, they’ll talk. And cry. And soon, they’ll decide what to do. But today, they just don’t feel up to it.

Try to understand.
Joe McKeever, on the Web at www.joemckeever.com, is director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Adapted from his daily post-Katrina reflections.

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  • Joe McKeever