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Katrina evacuee puts current, former youth groups to work

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP)–When Hurricane Katrina struck, Matt Tipton and his wife, Elaine, were living on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and he was serving on staff at a local church. They evacuated, lost everything they owned and had to start over with a couple of bags they managed to grab as they fled.

Tipton had been in talks with leaders at a Nashville-area church, ClearView Baptist in Franklin, Tenn., about becoming their minister to students before the storm hit. But he was deeply involved in his New Orleans-area church, Memorial Baptist in Metairie, where he was filling some key roles while the church was without a pastor. He and his wife were unsure which direction God was leading, and three days before Katrina they decided to stay in Louisiana.

For six weeks after the evacuation, the couple believed they would go back to New Orleans and continue to minister to the church family they had grown to love. But in various circumstances, God made clear His call to the position at ClearView, so they moved to Tennessee.

“One of the things that didn’t go away in all of this was our heart for the city of New Orleans and for the people there that we left,” Tipton, who graduated from New Orleans Seminary two years ago, told Baptist Press.

When spring break rolled around, Tipton took more than 30 of his new youth at ClearView back to New Orleans to help in the ongoing hurricane recovery efforts, in which ClearView already had been involved.

“When I came in they were very interested in partnering with the people that I have relationships with down there and doing some trips,” he said.

Tipton arranged for his youth at ClearView to work alongside his youth from Memorial in gutting houses, cleaning up yards and assisting at another local church from March 27-April 1.

“We worshiped together each night, and the worship band from our student ministry in Louisiana led our worship time,” Tipton said. “It was neat because a lot of the students from Louisiana have not really had a safe place to process what’s happened, and students from ClearView for sure don’t even begin to understand in this affluent area of Nashville even remotely what suffering is about and the benefits of that in our faith walk.”

The two groups of students had a lot to learn from each other, he said, and it added to the experience in helping New Orleans residents in need.

“There were encounters every day with people. There was a lady right before we left that begged us to come to her house and gut her house,” Tipton recounted. “She was in tears because she had not been able to find anybody to gut her house. That had an impact on our kids.”

Another woman the groups encountered was so desperate to save her neighborhood that she was trying to purchase as many homes there as possible, Tipton said. One day she circled up some of the students in one of her yards as they were working and asked for prayer.

“She told us that historically New Orleans is a very spiritual city but a very lost and godless city and that, in her view, the only people who have really come through for the city of New Orleans are the hundreds of youth groups that have come down and spent time over spring break and the last six months,” Tipton said.

“She said that when we put our hands in the dirt in New Orleans and as we pray and do the work, it’s as if we’re claiming ground spiritually for them to kind of set the tone for revival down the road,” he added. “It was neat how this lady helped our students understand that even though their role was to pull down trees and gut a house, their role was part of a bigger picture.”

The youth spent half a day walking around the French Quarter tourist-style, Tipton said, and a few people stopped them and asked what they were doing in town.

“It was remarkable to see the gratefulness of the city that kids would take their spring break and show up down in New Orleans,” he said.

Through the hard work and exposure to immense need, Tipton left New Orleans believing much had been accomplished.

“It was a great trip. I think a lot of times we go on a mission trip expecting to see people in an area where we’re going give their lives to Christ and it be some kind of big revival-sort of situation, but this was a very, very hands-on, sweating trip,” he said. “These [kids have] been on mission trips lots of times but never to a place where it seemed on the surface that it was just this physical sort of work. It was neat to see the kids view this work as people-work even though 90 percent of the work we did was in the dirt pulling nails and weeds.”

A week after Tipton returned from New Orleans, his home near Franklin was damaged by some strong weather accompanied by tornadoes that swept through Middle Tennessee April 7. His experience with Katrina has taught him to keep the latest storm damage in perspective, he said.

“The damage to our home from last week is somewhat significant, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal,” he told BP. “I choose to see it as a blessing: new roof, new siding and new gutters.”

Tipton also has noticed God working on his heart in regard to material possessions and their fleeting pleasures.

“I think that the biggest struggle that my wife and I have encountered since leaving New Orleans is the focus in this culture on people’s stuff,” he said, noting that he is originally from Germantown, Tenn., a Memphis suburb which he said shares a privileged culture similar to that of Franklin.

“During my time in New Orleans I realized how much of a barrier to the Gospel our stuff really is,” Tipton said. “People in New Orleans don’t have much; they tend to have a different set of barriers to the Gospel.”

The Bible clearly states that a Christian’s life is not his own, Tipton said.

“I ask myself: What fits into ‘life’? I would say everything, including my clothes, my furniture, my house, my family, my job and, yes, even my heart, soul, mind and strength,” he said. “All of this has heightened my awareness of things that are eternal. If you have been to the bottom of life, the speed bumps are not that noticeable.”

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  • Erin Roach