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FIRST-PERSON: Hope at New Orleans Seminary

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–I can now say I’ve eaten goulash, although I’m still not sure what it was.

I’m certain I wasn’t the only one at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Nov. 10 who was thoroughly enjoying my Red Cross lunch, even though I didn’t know what to call it.

“What is this?” I asked someone across the table.

“Goulash,” they replied.

Fine enough, although that didn’t help much. I knew, though, that it was delicious. From what I could tell it was a mixture of chicken, noodles and vegetables — and it was a hearty portion at that.

But the point here is not that I was eating goulash. The point is that 400 other people were, as well. Yes, less than three months removed from Hurricane Katrina, 400 people are eating every day on the New Orleans Seminary campus. Most of them are workers and volunteers, busy cleaning up and repairing this storm-ravaged campus, which for years has been a shining beacon for Christ in the Crescent City.

New Orleans Seminary’s campus is on its way back. Commuter classes are set to begin on campus in January. Housing is scheduled to re-open in April. And, next August, the entire campus will be, in the words of seminary President Chuck Kelley, “back to normal.”

Of course, the seminary itself never closed, even if it temporarily lost its campus. Its offices moved to Georgia, and students continued taking classes online and at extension centers. Amazingly, 77 percent of the seminary’s students who were enrolled stayed enrolled. And next month, in December, the seminary will hold its graduation at the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.

“We’ve made amazing progress,” Kelley said. “… We just haven’t looked back.”

The wind and rain from Hurricane Katrina itself did only moderate damage to the campus, but the flood that followed did significantly more damage, bringing debris and sludge with it. Faculty houses had to be gutted, as did many of the first-floor student and staff apartments.

Thankfully, tests showed the campus is safe to inhabit, which makes the gritty work of cleaning up and rebuilding much easier. And on this day, there was plenty of gritty work taking place. Nearly everywhere you look, someone is working on something. Much of the work this day involved debris removal. Through Nov. 4, workers and volunteers had removed 189 tons of debris. (Yes, 189 tons.) While touring one gutted-out apartment complex, I spotted a pile of debris out front that included an assortment of items — a mattress, boxed foods and a baby toy. Water-logged and worthless, the items were tossed outside into a pile following the flood and were awaiting removal.

New Orleans Seminary students have learned life lessons they will never forget. For one thing, the material “stuff” we all accumulate and hold dearly has no value in eternity.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned is that there’s something worse than losing everything,” Kelley said. “It’s never losing anything and finding out when you stand before God how little you sacrificed for His Kingdom. We’ve been given a crash course in the importance of holding things loosely and holding tight to the hand of God.”

Students have learned about suffering, sacrifice and God’s sovereignty — all in a few short weeks.

In early October, students and staff members returned to campus to salvage whatever personal items they could.

“I spent three days during our move-out period, walking up and down the streets, talking, praying, crying and weeping with our seminary family, students and staff and faculty. Hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Kelley said, tears in his eyes.

Those students worked “through the shock and the grief” and by “the end of the day [they had] come back to that confidence — God is going to see us through this.”

Kelley calls the current group of students the “Katrina Class.” That class has a chance to impact the city for Christ in ways unimaginable before the hurricane. The city itself is slowly coming back to life, although the seminary appears to be ahead of the curve. The Chevron station across the street from the seminary is still closed. The Walgreens is, too. Ditto for the Burger King. The traffic lights along Gentilly Boulevard — where the seminary resides — don’t work. They have been replaced with stop signs.

Nevertheless, people are coming back to New Orleans. In my short drive from the airport to the seminary, I actually got stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate.

“One of the most famous cites in the world,” Kelley said, has been “basically swept clean and is starting over again.”

Southern Baptists have made a difference. The yellow shirts that Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers wear, he said, “are becoming quite well known.”

“I don’t think anybody is doing anything on the scale of Southern Baptists in the city.”

Southern Baptists also have come together to assist the seminary. Every entity, Kelley said, has contributed in some way. The response has been “Southern Baptists at their best — that is, everybody rallying to where the need is.”

That means New Orleans Seminary will be back to normal faster than some may have thought possible — and in turn be able to reach the city for Christ.

In the weeks following Katrina, Kelley said, the light from the seminary’s chapel steeple was the only light visible at night in the surrounding community. There’s much symbolism there. Since it was founded in 1917, the seminary has been shining the light of Christ in the darkness of New Orleans, sharing the Gospel in places many of us would dare not go.

Before I headed back to the airport, I decided to take one more drive through the campus. I drove by the apartment complex I had visited earlier — the same one that had a mattress, boxed foods and a baby toy out front. Workers were now hauling that pile off, too.

New Orleans Seminary’s campus is on its way back.
Michael Foust is assistant editor at Baptist Press.

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