NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The upheaval of Hurricane Katrina has turned Fred Luter into a circuit-driving preacher, journeying more than 9,000 miles in a Jeep Cherokee he started driving last fall.
When Katrina struck last fall, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans had more than 7,000 members, having grown from 65 members in 1986 when Luter was called as pastor.
The hurricane and subsequent flooding claimed the church campus, Luter’s home and virtually everything else in the Lower Ninth Ward community where he grew up.
But, being a pastor, the hardest part about Katrina “has been not being able to see our members,” Luter said. “… So many people are still displaced.”
In the aftermath of the storm, Luter and his wife Elizabeth began constant travels from Birmingham, Ala., where they resettled to live with their daughter, to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and other cities in an effort to reconnect with the church’s scattered membership.
Having found most of the members in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston, Luter began a “circuit-preaching” schedule in January, explaining, “We’re one church in three cities.”
On the first and third Sundays of the month, he preaches a 7:30 a.m. service for Franklin Avenue church members hosted by First Baptist Church of New Orleans. On the same afternoons, he travels over an hour away to Baton Rouge, where he preaches a 1 p.m. service hosted by Istrouma Baptist Church.
On the second and fourth Sundays of the month, he travels 11 hours from Birmingham to Houston to preach a 1 p.m. service hosted by First Baptist Church there.
To Luter’s surprise, the largest gathering has been in New Orleans, where already around 1,100 members have attended the 7:30 a.m. service.
In Baton Rouge and Houston so far, 600 to 700 people have attended
Luter is thankful for how the predominantly white churches have opened their arms to Franklin Avenue members, who are predominantly African American. “It is more of a blessing than they can ever imagine,” he said.
At the initial service in New Orleans, David Crosby, First Baptist’s pastor, tearfully welcomed Franklin Avenue members to the church’s facilities. By the hundreds, the congregation stood to give Crosby an extended standing ovation.
Luter described the affection he saw among Franklin Avenue members as “incredible.”
“The membership was crying, hugging each other and screaming,” he recounted. “It was like a family reunion.”
Still, the challenges haven’t been easy for the Luters.
Having completely lost their own home and belongings in the storm, the Luters are trying to pick up the pieces of their own lives in between their travels.
They are planning to return to the New Orleans area by the end of February, moving to an apartment in Kenner. “New Orleans is home,” Luter said. “I’ve been there all my life. I owe it to the church, the neighborhood, the city, to go back and help rebuild.”
Once back in New Orleans, Luter plans to focus more on the church’s physical property, where floodwater rose to about eight feet, according to visible stains throughout the complex.
“The whole bottom level was destroyed. Pews are thrown on top of each other,” Luter said in an earlier report to Baptist Press. “All the church offices were totally destroyed, the family life center, gymnasium floor, the classrooms there, the nursery, the bookstore, the library — all of those things were totally destroyed by the water.”
Thus far, those areas have been gutted and sanitized. Now Luter faces insurance issues and the hiring of contractors to rebuild the church, a daunting task considering the extremely slow economic recovery and lack of resources plaguing New Orleans.
Luter also serves on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, though his travel schedule has made his contribution a bit intermittent to the task force’s work in developing a master plan for rebuilding the flood-ravaged city.
Ultimately, Luter would like to see Franklin Avenue Baptist Church serve as a catalyst for stimulating activity in the area and aiding those whose lives were devastated by the storm.
“We’ll probably never again have the same numbers,” he said. “But I assure you, we’ll have a better ministry. From all the lessons we’ve learned from this thing, we’ll definitely have a better ministry.”
Luter acknowledges, however, that the Lower Ninth Ward, the area where most of the church members once lived and where he responded to God’s call to preach, will never be the same.
“There are just parts of the city that can’t be rebuilt — not like they were before,” the pastor lamented. Beyond their own home, the Luters’ parents also lost their houses.
“Some members cannot even locate their houses,” he added. “The foundations are there but the rest of the houses just washed away.”
The community’s close proximity to a breeched flood wall will prevent some people from moving back to the area, he said.
So, for now, Luter plans to continue traveling to Baton Rouge, Houston and other cities to minister to his flock.
Leaving Houston one day, he looked to Elizabeth and asked a pointed question about all the time on the road: “Do you think we can handle it?”
Nodding his head in affirmation, he answered his own question: “I’m going to stick in there. I love the folk and I wouldn’t miss seeing them.”
With reporting by Karen Willoughby.