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FIRST-PERSON: One constant in New Orleans: change

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Last September, on the first Sunday back from evacuation, pastor Tony Merida told the congregation of Kenner’s First Baptist Church, “If you don’t like change, you’ve come at a bad time.”

The single constant in metro New Orleans over this past year has been change. Everything is different — the population, the businesses, the scenery, the atmosphere, the politics, everything.

Every church has changed. Some have disappeared off the earth, losing their buildings and entire neighborhoods. Others that remained high and dry have lost members. A number of pastors have relocated; several new ministers have arrived.

Every neighborhood has changed, as longtime residents relocated out of the area from necessity or for jobs, family or peace of mind. New citizens have arrived, particularly thousands of foreigners eager to assist in the rebuilding of the city.

Every resident of the city has changed. You cannot live here and deal with the massive devastation of your beloved hometown and remain unmoved. There’s a soul-sadness reflected in the eyes of almost everyone you meet, even those trying to drown their pain in a bar, stifle it in a casino, smother it in a fancy restaurant, or deny it in the doctor’s office.

The other day, Calvary Baptist Church pastor Keith Manuel called on the cell phone while my wife and I were doing business in the bank. “I’m writing an article on what our pastors are experiencing right now,” he said. We spoke of the burden of seeing your membership diminish, your neighborhood in flux, and your key leaders being transferred out. “Depression is a real problem,” I said to him. My wife was overhearing the conversation and said, “One more thing. There’s nothing pretty anymore. You have to drive a hundred miles to see some inspiring scenery.”

The crime rate disappeared for a few months, then returned with a vengeance. Almost every governing council on every level has struggled with infighting and divided purposes. The news arriving in our homes through daily papers and the electronic media has been all Katrina, all the time. Only now, one year after the storm, are owners of devastated homes beginning to learn how to apply for the substantial financial help which Congress voted on last January.

On one level, it’s to the point where when an outsider begins a phone conversation with, “How are you doing?” we wonder if he’s trying to pick a fight. Better not to ask.

And yet, it’s not all bad. A thousand inspiring things are happening. On every side we get reminders that God is here and at work, even if local governments are struggling to find their way.

God’s people have created their own floods of healing for New Orleans — pouring into the city from every state in the union, deluging us with encouragement and financial gifts, breeching the barriers of race and prejudice and fears with their loving labors and uplifting witness. Since last Aug. 29, there has not been a single day — not one — when teams of disaster relief workers and church volunteers could not be found in this city, serving Christ by doing whatever the situation called for.

Before the storm, our Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans counted 140 churches and missions. Immediately following, we were able to find only 35 operating. These days, the number hovers around 85. Some are gone forever; some will return as soon as their neighborhood comes back.

A number of our churches are merging. In a few cases, as the diminished congregations gather in a restored fellowship hall, they share two pastors of different races. Two churches in the area have petitioned to join our association after being impressed by the influx of Baptists come to help. “We already knew what you believe,” one pastor said, “and want to be part of such a dynamic group.”

Before the storm, our monthly pastors’ conference might draw 15 or 20 reluctant participants for an hour. Since last September, we have met every Wednesday morning for two to three hours, with attendance varying between 40 and 125. “I could not have made it without the association and the state convention,” several testify. Others add, “I was never much of a denominational person. But this has convinced me!” Churches that gave mostly lip-service to support of the Cooperative Program before are now some of its strongest advocates.

We’ve noticed that the congregations that resumed operations earliest after the storm and threw themselves into community service have had the greatest growth. The old ways are gone forever, they announce. “Never again will we spend an hour in a business meeting arguing over spending 15 cents for call forwarding!” they have said. “From now on, we are working in our community.”

A one-year anniversary for New Orleans does not mean the end of anything. It’s not even halftime, to use a sports analogy. It might, however, be the end of the first quarter. With the start of the school year, the lessening of the influx of volunteers and the arrival of the portion of the hurricane season that has historically inflicted the most damage on our region, there is a lot of ball game ahead.

We Southern Baptists in New Orleans are going forth with confidence, glad to be part of a winning team.
Joe McKeever is director of missions of the Greater New Orleans Baptist Association.

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  • Joe McKeever