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French Quarter ministry offers more than a meal to homeless

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“Amazing Grace” filled the French Quarter air as the poor and homeless met for worship under the oaks of Jackson Square in New Orleans. It’s a scene that has been repeated every Sunday since late February when members of Edgewater Baptist Church began offering worship services and breakfast in the Quarter.

The gathering is called “Church in the Square.”

“Our purpose is to bring the Gospel down into the city … to love on people and to minister to the homeless,” said Nick Taylor, an Edgewater member and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary student. “We bring food for their souls … spiritual food … and food for the bodies as well.”

On most Sundays, Taylor preaches a short sermon. When he is not available, Barry “Hoot” Busby, another Edgewater member and NOBTS student, fills in. The preaching is always biblical, always conveying a stirring message. After a short time of worship with singing and preaching, the group shares a warm meal with those who attend.

Even at 8:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the French Quarter is a challenging place to minister, even in finding a place to park. While city workers are feverishly cleaning up the trash from Saturday night’s partying, the artists and merchants are assembling their displays around the edges of Jackson Square. Tourists are beginning to shuffle by this central point in the French Quarter.

On a recent Sunday, no one seemed excited to see a group of 50 homeless and poor people gathered in such a prime location, except for the members of Edgewater. Small distractions cannot deter their mission: Just as Taylor finished preaching, the caretaker of the park at Jackson Square asked the group to move from the steps leading to the park. The group accommodated the request, moving a few feet over to finish the service.

Edgewater’s ministry to the homeless and needy looks much different today than it did at first, as the church continues to invest more and more time, money and effort in the Quarter.

“We started bringing food down on Mondays and Thursdays in November 2003,” Taylor said. As members began building relationships in the community, they wanted to do more.

The church slowly introduced a devotional time during the Monday and Thursday sessions. The Gospel was presented through short Bible readings and a prayer.

Spending time in the Quarter and ministering to the people led to the idea of a Sunday morning church service — Church in the Square, a ministry that may be untraditional but looks a lot like the ministry Jesus did.

“The Bible says that Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw people wearied and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd,” said Jim Shaddix, pastor at Edgewater and associate professor of preaching at NOBTS. “Church in the Square is categorically a Jesus kind of ministry. If Jesus were here bodily today, these are the kind of people He would hang out with.”

Reaching people in the city of New Orleans is impossible for a church that is content to spend all its resources inwardly, Shaddix said.

“Our people are being forced to get out of their comfort zones. This ministry is helping us stay accountable for getting our hands dirty,” he said. “We’re having to learn to take risks in order to take the Gospel to all people.”

Pulling off Church in the Square every Sunday is no easy task. Volunteers arrive at Edgewater at 6:45 a.m. to begin cooking a hot breakfast for 50 people. Taylor and the worship team leave for the French Quarter at 8 a.m. A separate team packs the meals in foam containers and delivers the food to Jackson Square. When the timing is right, the hot meals arrive just as the service concludes.

After the Sunday morning meeting, Taylor and the other volunteers stay around to talk with those in attendance. They also offer the people in the Quarter the opportunity to attend Edgewater Baptist Church’s Sunday morning worship service. A number have responded, giving the church as a whole additional opportunities to minister.

Much of the ministry still happens on Monday and Thursday afternoons. On these days, church members have more time to develop relationships with those who attend.

The church plans to make these afternoon sessions even more meaningful, Taylor said. “We are switching the emphasis of the Monday and Thursday meetings to more of a Bible study format,” he noted. “That way we can really beginning to disciple some of the guys. We want to move toward discipleship.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GOOD NEWS IN NEW ORLEANS and PRAYER FROM THE SQUARE.