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In Louisiana, Baptist leaders convey messages of hope & faith

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)—Amid the challenges left behind by Hurricane Katrina, “I think a good prayer would be, ‘Please Lord, don’t leave me here the way I am,’” Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch said Sept. 6 in Baton Rouge, La. “‘Use me.’”

Welch joined Southern California pastor Rick Warren and several other Baptist leaders in addressing an afternoon gathering of pastors, pastors’ wives and church staff members displaced by the hurricane and its flooding. The leaders also spoke at an evening disaster relief worship rally open to Baptists from throughout the state. Both sessions were held at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church.

Warren, taking a cue from the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, told several hundred pastors, pastors’ wives and church staff members at the afternoon session that “rebuilding the city is always harder than building the city. The same is true of lives.”

Earlier in the day, Louisiana Baptist Convention leaders and Welch met with associational directors of missions and later with several SBC entity heads and state convention leaders.

Louisiana Baptist Convention President Philip Robertson told about 15 of the state’s associational directors of missions (DOMs) that Louisiana churches must mobilize for weeks and months of recovery.

“They’re the lighthouses in the community,” said Robertson, pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church in Pineville. “And if ever they needed a lighthouse it’s now.”

With state conventions, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Louisiana Baptist Convention working together, “we’re going to take care of our people,” Robertson added.

“Our Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The resources are there.”

Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director David Hankins told the DOMs about the North American Mission Board’s plan to launch two initiatives, ADOPT A CHURCH and HOUSES OF HOPE, in response to Hurricane Katrina.

ADOPT A CHURCH will include pairing churches with serious damages or destruction with churches able to help with mission trips, rebuilding, care packages, appropriate financial support and staff support.

NAMB President Robert E. (Bob) Reccord wrote in a Baptist Press column of HOUSES OF HOPE: “(W)e are asking for churches with facilities that can be converted into temporary housing for evacuees to become Houses of Hope. Our encouragement would be to begin with an initial commitment to house evacuees for 30 days, with a subsequent review for an extension if needed and appropriate.”

Florida Boulevard, with a membership of 2,000, has become one of the central relief points in a city whose population has swelled by an estimated 250,000 people in the last week as evacuees have crowded shelters, hotels and homes.

Welch told attendees at the evening rally of three lessons he has learned as a result of Hurricane Katrina:

First, disasters don’t discriminate against certain individuals but they affect everyone, Welch said.

He emphasized that the love of Christ must not discriminate either; Southern Baptists must show love to every person in need.

“Many organizations can bring them food, electricity and water they need,” Welch said. “But we can bring them Jesus.”

Second, earthly treasures are tricky most of the time, he noted.

Welch said that certain individuals treasured their earthly possessions before Hurricane Katrina, only to have them swept away at a moment’s notice by the storm.

“While treasures are tricky, the love of Christ is trustworthy and always there,” he reminded.

Welch added that because of the hurricane disaster relief response, he has never been more proud to be a Southern Baptist. He said that people need money and supplies, but they also need a cold cup of water in Jesus’ name provided by disaster relief teams.

Third, Welch said that hardships have a way of becoming holy because the love of Christ can capitalize on catastrophe.

“We may be dealing with holy stuff here,” he explained, “because the love of Christ can capitalize on catastrophe and make something glorious.”

He closed his message by urging the attendees to voice a prayer that would change their lives.

In the afternoon session, Welch described the post-Katrina challenges as akin to a bad wreck. “We’re going to pass through this in a little while, but know that God is going to use us for the sake of Jesus’ name.”

Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., said Christians are to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. “But when you receive that cup of cold water, receive it in Jesus’ name, because [the volunteers’] hearts are tender too.”

Alluding to his challenge for Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people in a year, Welch said, “I believe that Louisiana and Mississippi may be poised, themselves, to witness to, win and baptize 1 million people in a year.”

Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, recounted to the crowd a reporter’s question following a tornado that hit Wichita Falls, Texas, when he was a pastor there –- whether Chapman planned to change his Easter sermon. “I’m not going to change it,” Chapman said he told the reporter. “And it’s going to be called ‘The Dawning of a New Day.’

“We know and you know this is going to be a long-term process,” Chapman told the crowd. “Pray for [denominational leaders] who are making decisions” and also for local churches assisting in relief efforts. “We believe God is going to lead Louisiana and Mississippi to a new day.”

Chapman said his heart broke as he saw pictures of the devastation after returning from South Korea several days earlier. Amid the crisis, the message of “our resurrected Lord” must be proclaimed, he exhorted.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley, in his comments, reported, “Well, good news, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is up and running.

“And we’re here to stay,” Kelley told the crowd to applause and cheers.

Classes will resume in mid-September off site, and no students’ degree progress will be altered because of Katrina, said Kelley, who has been working from temporary offices in the Atlanta area. He evacuated the New Orleans campus the weekend before the storm, taking his wife, a computer, one suit and a handful of pants and shirts. Everyone in the seminary family appears to be safe, he said.

The front portion of the campus suffered no flooding and the back two-thirds, “from the back of the chapel to the back of the campus,” took in from two inches to six feet of water, Kelley said.

Initial plans are for the campus to offer some classes on site in January and to have a full schedule of classes in New Orleans next August. Meanwhile, “There will be a December graduation,” Kelley said. “It may be on an ark somewhere, but we will have graduation.

“God was not surprised and God is ready to see us through.”

Warren told the afternoon crowd that there are three stages following disasters: the rescue stage, the resuming stage and the rebuilding and relocation stage. The latter is the longest and most difficult part, he said. “And that, my friends, is the duty of the church.”

Warren said in Nehemiah 2:17-18 that Nehemiah took note of the devastation of Jerusalem by saying, “Let us rid ourselves of this shame and rebuild.”

“God loves to bring good out of bad,” Warren said. “He loves to turn crucifixions into resurrections. Every obstacle is an opportunity. Every problem has potential. Every crisis is an opportunity for ministry. Every hurt God wants to use for His glory.”

With more than 1 million people displaced, the long-term solution is churches reaching out with maximum effort and giving hope to hopeless people.

Warren, who arrived after visiting Houston, Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss., said, “Every single person I talked to didn’t know where every member of their family was…. You can go weeks without food. You can go days without water. You can go a few minutes without air. But you can’t go one second without hope. You gotta have hope to cope. And that’s what our job is — to build hope.”

Warren echoed Welch’s earlier comments to the crowd that during a tragedy people’s hearts are often open to the Gospel.

“During the next 90 days, people are going to be more open to the Gospel than in years,” said Warren, adding that God uses trials to soften hearts. “It is God’s responsibility to make people receptive; it is our responsibility to sow the seed.”

Warren said the answer to questions about God’s purpose in tragedies is unknowable on earth. But the “what question” — what churches should do — is knowable from Jesus’ life.

In three years of ministry, Jesus planted a church, equipped leaders and assisted the poor, Warren said.

“Jesus came to preach the Gospel to the poor,” Warren said. “I don’t know about you, but for a long time I had blinders on about this. I went to a Baptist college and two seminaries and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I asked, ‘How did I miss 2,000 verses about the poor?’ I just didn’t see it.

“Does God have favorites? Yes, he does. God loves the poor more. He does. He says it very clearly in his Word. He loves the poor.”

Warren also pleaded with believers to pray for children who may be traumatized by Hurricane Katrina and its flooding and to encourage people to be honest with God about their emotions.

“The reason [people] have emotions is because we’re made in God’s image…. It’s OK to complain to God. He can handle it. It’s called the book of Psalms.”
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Brian Blackwell of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, contributed to this article.

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  • Jerry Pierce