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FIRST-PERSON: Sat. & Sun. back in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Margaret and I re-entered our home in the New Orleans western suburb of River Ridge Saturday night at 6:30 p.m., precisely four weeks and two and a half hours since we fled Hurricane Katrina. I revisited our house two days after Labor Day for an hour to retrieve some clothes and check on things, and I thought I knew what to expect on returning. Not quite.

FEMA has been here. They patched my roof with blue plastic to keep the rain from doing further damage. Since Hurricane Rita dumped more rain on this area over the weekend, this is no little gift. They also left my front door unlocked, a scary thought, although as far as I can tell we’ve had no losses.

Mold and mildew now decorate the walls of our den and the kitchen ceiling. The grass outside has not been cut in a month and the back fence is down, due mainly to the neighbor’s tree presently squatting across it. These are minor things. Some of our friends lost everything. Nothing that follows is meant to diminish my concern for their losses or to exaggerate our own suffering. Most of our pain is of the small variety, the kind that nags at you and eats away at your equilibrium. Like the fellow said, “I feel like I’m being eaten alive by a school of minnows.”

The first order after moving our bags into the house was moving the refrigerator and freezer out onto the lawn and cleaning them out. We have lots of company in this unpleasant chore. Drive down any street in this part of the world and you may have your pick of hundreds of nice looking appliances in every price range. Slightly used, of course, and forever soiled and spoiled by the decay and fermentation that occurs to organic material when left to nature without the retarding influence of ice or Freon.

How shall I describe the experience of cleaning out these units?

I have no experience in handling long-dead bodies, but this must be close. As a farm boy, I have waded knee deep in the kind of sludge found only in a hog pen and shoveled it and washed it down, then walked into the barn to repeat the process in the cow stalls. I know the kind of stench that camps out in one’s nostrils and will not go away. But nothing I’ve ever done prepared me for this. And we were wearing masks and rubber gloves.

Did you know the contents of one refrigerator fills two garbage cans to the brim? And the same for one average-sized freezer. We sacked and bagged and rebagged them, and they’re sitting inside sealed garbage cans which will be carted off to the dump as well. Still, the house and the entire neighborhood seem to reek of the offensive fragrance. However, since everyone’s yard smells the same way, we expect no problem with the local community association.

This part of metro New Orleans looks like a war zone. Every yard has piles of limbs in front, some have trees prostrate across the lawn or the roof, some windows are boarded up, perhaps half the residents have returned, and maybe a third of the stores are running at least for a few hours a day. After we finished with the appliances, I bathed and ran out to purchase some milk to put in the coolers we will use as our iceboxes until Home Depot delivers the new fridge on Oct. 4. It was only 8 o’clock, so no problem. Wrong. Big problem. Supermarkets had all closed, convenience stores had sold out. I finally bought a couple of pints of whole milk after an hour of driving around.

I was not prepared for how good it would feel to arrive home. Driving across the Pontchartrain Causeway, all 26 miles of it, my heart literally sang for joy. We’re coming home. For one who has nurtured a love-hate relationship with New Orleans for 15 years, this was a wonderful discovery. This is our place. It’s where we belong, where we need to be. Some who evacuated from Katrina will find residences in other cities and never return. Some will return long enough to put their place up for sale and clean out the house. But not us. This is where the Lord has sent us. We’d rather be here than any place else on earth.

I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get involved in the work going on in our various churches and to encourage pastors like the one who sent me a note Saturday night. His church on Carrollton Avenue was a total loss, but he’s looking forward to rebuilding, and in LaPlace, where his family evacuated, he’s already running 25 or more in attendance in his new congregation. That’s the spirit.

Today (Sept. 25) is the first Sunday since Katrina that our church, First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the New Orleans airport, has met. Only the 10:30 am service, no Sunday School, no night church, nothing else this week. Pastor Tony Merida welcomed everyone to sustained applause. “It feels like Christmas,” he said.

The church was about half-filled, including 20 Arkansans who are part of three feeding teams cooking hundreds of meals a day at three locations in the area. Tony said, “At one point it was announced that 92 percent of the meals being served in metro New Orleans were from Southern Baptist teams.”

The disaster teams are bedding down in our sanctuary, Tony announced. “They asked, ‘Can we sleep in the sanctuary?’ and I told them, ‘Yes, people do that every Sunday.'”

People were so glad to see each other. When the service started, they were standing around in clusters, hugging and chatting. After a couple of songs, when Pastor Tony asked everyone to turn around and greet a neighbor, the fellowship broke out again and could have gone on for hours. After the benediction, everyone picked up where they had left off. My family stood around visiting for another 30 minutes.

The response cards ushers handed out called for the usual information — identification, information requests, places to register decisions — but on the back were opportunities to volunteer for six new ministry teams. Tony said, “Our church has never had a chainsaw ministry until now!” You could sign up for the physical labor team for tearing out carpet and sheetrock, debris cleanup for clearing yards of trash and limbs, home improvement to work on the inside of homes, and hospitality to provide bedding and meals for visiting groups. On the bottom of the card the worshiper could register needs of his own.

“Today, we begin a new sermon series, ‘Life After the Storm,’ from the book of Job,” Pastor Tony said. When people laughed, he said, “I’m not playing. And it’s Job, long o, not job — which some of you no doubt need!”

From Job 37, the sermon was called “God and the Weather Channel.” This storm teaches us three things, Tony said. We should tremble at God’s power, recognize God’s purpose and submit to God’s prerogative.

Job 37:13 reads, “Whether for correction, or for His land, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.” Over these weeks, when people have asked Tony why God sent Katrina, he answers, “I don’t know. I wasn’t in on the panel that made that decision.” Referring to Job 37:13, he adds, “Here are three possible purposes in such storms: For the correction of the believer, for the good of the land, and for the display of God’s mercy.

“C.S. Lewis said suffering is often God’s megaphone.”

Toward the end of the sermon, Tony asked, “How then shall we live?” First, be flexible. “If you don’t like change, you’re here at a bad time. People are relocating, some ministries are ending and some beginning. We must be flexible.”

Second, be encouraging. “Not everyone grieves alike. Don’t preach to the fellow who just lost his home and his business. Be sympathetic. Provoke one another to faith and good works.”

Third, be of service. “I’ve never used a chain saw, but I’m going to learn. We’ve made up magnetic signs for the front door of your car. They say, ‘First Baptist Church of Kenner Community Services.’ We’re going to be going into the community asking people, ‘Can we clean your house?'”

Just before the end of the service, the assistant pastor, Rick Morton, announced that because the administration of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has relocated temporarily, he will be working out of Birmingham, Ala., and therefore was resigning his position with the church. The pastor announced that other members, including longtime deacon Mike and teacher Beverly Skiles, veteran Sunday School teachers Joseph and Martha Lee Palotta and choir member Laura Lane were all taking jobs in other cities and would be leaving the area. No doubt many others have similar plans.

After church, I drove to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in north Kenner looking for milk and a few supplies. The line stretched out the front door and around the building. Except for the quick parking space, I would have left. Guards at the front door were letting 15 or 20 customers in at a time, and within 10 minutes I was shopping. I easily found everything I needed with one exception. “We haven’t had an ice delivery in days,” the checker said. The line at the checkout line took 30 minutes to clear. The lady behind me — we had plenty of time to chat — said she manages a Region’s Bank in downtown New Orleans. “My home is totally ruined,” she said, “and all six of my tellers have called in, saying they are taking jobs in other states and won’t be back.”

Everywhere I saw boarded up businesses and tall buildings missing window panes. Some fast-food places were closed. The sign on the Wendy’s nearest our church announced hours of 10 to 5 p.m., drive through only.

On Monday (Sept. 26) St. Bernard Parish begins letting residents into certain segments of the city. I plan to begin the process of finding out which of our churches still exist.

If you see any of our New Orleans Baptist ministers, remind them we’re meeting Wednesday at 9 a.m. at First Baptist Church of LaPlace. It’s just off Airline Highway on Ormond, in the center of the town.

We’ve always needed one another, but never more than now.
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