WHITE CASTLE, La. (BP)–As Super Bowl week dawned in New Orleans, Greg Wilton’s face and a tarnished replica Saints helmet graced the front page of the city’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
Wilton, 27, tried to quell the buzz from family and friends, but this is no ordinary football helmet.
And Wilton, bivocational pastor of First Baptist Church in White Castle, La., a town of 1,946 where bayous and sugarcane fields likely outnumber people, is more than, as he puts it, “a guy with a helmet.”
He’s a guy with a message to share.
First, about the helmet, which Wilton hopes someday to return to its owner. Rewind to the spring of 2006, seven months after Hurricane Katrina. Wilton, then a new graduate student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, joined a group of collegians working through the seminary’s MissionLab program during spring break to gut houses in New Orleans’ devastated Upper Ninth Ward, one of the Crescent City’s hardest-hit areas by post-Katrina flooding.
As they plodded through the muck and mire, a bulldozer chewed through debris left in Katrina’s wake. From the jaws of the dozer popped the replica Saints helmet. It bounced on the pavement.
For Wilton, who had grown up in New Orleans and was a Saints fan before his family moved to South Carolina, the headgear was a treasure plucked from the mire.
“I couldn’t believe they would throw away a Saints helmet, one damaged by Katrina,” Wilton said. “I asked our supervisor if I could keep it.”
The boss agreed. It’s been in a Styrofoam cooler in the back of Wilton’s car ever since.
The old gold helmet is no ordinary souvenir. The autographs of former Saint players Deuce McAllister, Aaron Brooks, Michael Lewis and others are still visible through the muddy residue.
But there is a more powerful signature, left behind by the most devastating hurricane in American history. The waterline of Katrina’s floodwaters has etched a permanent signature on the helmet, visible through the grime just below the tip of the team’s logo, the fleur-de-lis, a mark that tells a storm story all its own.
“From the helmet, you can actually gather that the helmet floated in the water, muck and mire and had developed its own waterline, actually visible on the helmet. That’s the thing that makes it very valuable, at least to me,” Wilton said. “It is a visible reminder, especially of the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.”
On more than a few houses, the indelible mark of the flood is still visible, nearly five years after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm. But such a mark isn’t so common on things like football helmets.
“It’s full of dirt and a little bit of grime still,” Wilton said. “I have not done a thing to it. The dirt and grime are where the value is. Yes, it was a Saints helmet covered with signatures [of Saints players]. But this helmet has the signature of Hurricane Katrina.”
And then there is the message: For Wilton, who grew up in New Orleans, as well as his brother Rob, the call of God was clearly to stay in New Orleans and southern Louisiana.
“Always, I’ve had a passion and desire to be a part of something that is much bigger than myself,” Wilton said. “And there is nothing greater than the Gospel and the proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. This is a thirst that I’ve had.
“By God’s grace, that thirst led me to New Orleans, as it did my brother. It gave me the opportunity to be reunited with my hometown, and it also gave me the opportunity to advance the Gospel,” Wilton said.
In the days, weeks and months immediately after Katrina, flocks of volunteers swarmed the Crescent City to provide physical relief, meet physical needs and share whatever encouragement they could. Wilton felt a different call.
“What pressed on my mind, and my brother’s mind, and the minds of so many others was that we needed as many or more people addressing the spiritual needs of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That’s what led me back…. You go where God leads. I was grateful that God opened up a door through Katrina.”
For Greg Wilton and his wife Abby, the calling has carried them from work with Mission Lab, to the heart of New Orleans French Quarter at Vieux Carre Baptist Church, to Vintage Church in Uptown New Orleans, and now to White Castle, a town with one red light.
“I just rejoice in God doing all this. He’s bringing triumph in tragedy.”
And, he finds joy in serving in a small church, where some 40 to 50 gather to worship each Sunday.
“The foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention is the small church,” Wilton said. “If we can just be a little part of God’s overall agenda, we’re just happy and grateful to be serving.”
The water-lined, weather-beaten helmet is a symbol of the struggles of a team, and a region. While White Castle avoided Katrina, it suffered from 2008’s Hurricane Gustav wrath.
“The helmet has been something our region can connect with,” he said. “It’s a great representation of the unique bond that the Saints have with the city of New Orleans and the Gulf region. It illustrates the struggle that we have gone through together. For a franchise to have struggled for 43 years, and for a region to have gone through hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Gustav, there is a unique connection.”
But the helmet also brings a connection to the transformative message of Christ. Like the memories of Katrina, the gunk and grime left on the helmet will take hard work to remove, and for the treasured headgear to be restored.
“Often I share with people that Hurricane Katrina has left a lasting residue on the city of New Orleans that will not go away easily. But for us, Jesus has done the hard work of removing the residue of sin that is in our lives. He’s done the hard work on the cross to remove the residue of sin that prevents us from having a right relationship with Him.”
The helmet has also been used on other avenues of ministry. Wilton is a substitute teacher at White Castle High School and serves as the chaplain for the Bulldog football team.
“I’ve talked about how Katrina left a big mark on the city of New Orleans. But whenever Jesus truly intervenes in a person’s life, He leaves a lasting impression that forever changes people.”
Gratitude courses through the story of the guy with the helmet.
“Our church is just grateful to preach Jesus through any means necessary,” Wilton said. “If that’s using our culture to relay the message of Jesus who hits us in all levels in all ways, so be it. We’re just real grateful that God has spoken to us in this way.”
The past four years since the young pastor returned home to New Orleans have left their own impact.
“The impact of ministry post-Katrina down here has reminded me to always put my faith into action. It’s reminded me that my heart, my mouth, my hands and my feet need to be united for God’s purposes in the Gospel.”
While the eyes of White Castle, New Orleans, Louisiana and the world will be fixed on Super Bowl XLIV, Wilton, a lifelong Saints fan, tried to bring some perspective Friday on his Twitter and Facebook pages. He wanted to make sure that his own fan frenzy doesn’t become idolatry.
He wrote: “Who Dat. But may the NOLA Saints be cursed if we the called Saints don’t exalt He who made us saints. We have a greater goal than the Super Bowl.”
“In all this euphoria that our region has experienced, I consider it all a loss, including a Super Bowl victory, compared to people knowing Jesus Christ, in whom there’s life eternal,” Wilton said.
So, win or lose on Sunday, Greg Wilton, his wife Abby (who’s expecting their first child this summer), will minister with the helmet in tow, as they search for the treasure’s true owner.
“I’m not just a guy with a helmet. I’m a guy with an illustration of the greatest message of all.”
Paul F. South is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.