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FIRST-PERSON: New Orleans’ future: Tears, fellowship, love

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Have you ever suffered from sensory overload? You are talking to so many people, both cell phones are ringing, someone else needs your attention — and pretty soon you do not remember what you said to anyone. “Did you get my call?” someone asks. “I suppose,” you answer. Anyway, this is where I have been while recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

After a day of meetings in Baton Rouge Sept. 6 to discuss what to do once we’re all able to re-enter metro New Orleans, I spent the night with a cousin, then left town early the next morning, bound for my community in Jefferson Parish. The authorities were allowing residents four days this week to get in to check out their homes and pick up any necessities. My son Neil and his wife Julie did it Monday; Wednesday was my day.

The 70-mile drive from Baton Rouge took four hours. My wife had sent along a list of things to retrieve and a flashlight so I could see inside the closets. Only a wife would have thought of the light; it had never entered my mind.

Our neighborhood looked rough. All the trees were not down, but all were damaged. The streets had been cleared of downed trees, so somebody had been working. Shingles from the rooftop littered my yard. If it rains before we can return, I’m in a lot of trouble. And no, I decided not to empty the scary refrigerator or freezer. What’s the point? They’re ruined anyway. By the time we return, the electricity will be on and the spoiled things will be refrozen, making it safe to remove them before discarding the appliances.

I spent an hour driving around our part of town, checking on the status of various Baptist churches.

If we were allowed to return home tomorrow, the first order of business for our office would be to find out which churches still exist. Many have been washed out of existence and their members scattered so severely that the church will never be reassembled — at least, not on earth.

Our people in New Orleans have heard it from me time and again that our churches are isolated and therefore our people are insulated. The members of one church do not know the members of another, leaders do not know other leaders and everyone feels alone and lonely. Whenever a prophet arises and speaks up and calls for God’s people to break out of their cocoons, their shells of isolation, and get into the community and get to know their neighbors and to minister in Jesus’ name, he is met by stares of despair that seem to say, “You don’t know my situation. I’m so busy with my committee meetings and church programs and classes. I don’t have time for my family now, and you’re trying to put more jobs on me.”

So what did the Lord do? He shut the whole business down. He closed all the churches in the New Orleans area, every last one of them. Then, He sent the pastors home to rest and be quiet and pray. It’s as though God is giving them time to reflect on what they would do if they could start their church anew, from scratch, from the ground up.

I heard a lady in a shelter being interviewed on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

“I’m here with my four children,” she said, “and we feel just fine. This is nice.”

The reporter said, “Wait a minute. You just lost your home and everything you had, and you said this is fine. How can you say that?”

“Because,” the mother said, “we had lots of problems back in New Orleans. People were selling drugs in our neighborhood. It was a scary place to bring up children, and now all our problems have just disappeared.”

That lady’s perspective reminds us of the good that can come from this storm. Everyone has walked outside after a summer storm and noted how clean and fresh the air seemed. To be sure, there has been an incredibly tragic side to Katrina and in no way am I diminishing that. But families who had lost all hope have been handed a miraculous opportunity to go somewhere else and start all over.

I had a phone call from a religion writer for the Associated Press. He’s doing a story on all the funerals — perhaps thousands of them — some are predicting will have to be conducted once we get back home. How does a minister deal with that, he wanted to know. I said to him, “In two contradictory ways. On one hand, our heart is breaking with sorrow over what has happened. On the other hand, God has called us to be here where we can really make a difference in people’s lives, and frankly, we’d rather be here than any other place on earth.”

That’s also our story about Katrina. There are plenty of tears ahead. But we remember a line from Hebrews 12: “Who for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame.” We will get through the tears and find the joy just on the other side.

I received an invitation to go to Dallas later this month for the semiannual meeting of all the Texas directors of missions and invite them to come to New Orleans and help us rebuild. I predict that when they get there, they’ll find brothers and sisters from all over the nation working alongside them. What sweet fellowship that will be.

My other prediction is that nothing in New Orleans is ever going to be the same. Let’s pray for that. It humbles me so much to think that our city may receive more love than any in history.
Adapted from daily logs posted by Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, at www.joemckeever.com.

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  • Joe McKeever