NEW ORLEANS (BP)–First Baptist Church in Covington, La., distributed $10,000 checks to 20 churches in greater New Orleans in mid-October.
First Baptist members raised the $200,000 by adding 10 percent to their tithes and offerings each week over the last year; if someone planned to give $40, they wrote the check for $44. The extra gifts went to a special fund.
“Our church has been tremendously blessed, and that’s why we want to give,” said Waylon Bailey, pastor since 1989 of the church where about 1,600 people gather each Sunday to worship.
The checks are going to churches that are striving to thrive despite the devastation wrought by last year’s hurricanes, the pastor said.
“To us this is a lot of money, but to them it’s just a drop in the bucket for their needs,” Bailey said. He should know. First Baptist, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, lost the roof to its worship center and had major damage to the facility’s contents during Hurricane Katrina’s Aug. 29, 2005, onslaught. And even while dealing with the damage, the church was ministering to thousands of people who heard word-of-mouth that First Baptist was distributing food, water, diapers and more.
Bailey mentioned Lynn Rodrigue, pastor of Port Sulphur Baptist Church, located midway down a fingertip of land about 50 miles south of the Superdome.
“Here’s a great guy,” Bailey said. “Lynn grew up in south Louisiana, serving a church in south Louisiana, being faithful to God. That’s why we wanted to give. We wanted to encourage them a little bit. We wanted them to know people are still praying and thinking and giving.
“I’d like to tell all Southern Baptists to not forget about all these churches,” Bailey continued. “The churches along the Gulf Coast have experienced unprecedented destruction. They have lost most of their property. Also, they have lost many of their leaders, but this tragedy is opening a door of opportunity to reach an area that has been resistant to the Gospel for all of its history. We want to make sure that we do all that we can to not fumble the ball.”
The Port Sulphur story is similar to that of the other churches that received $10,000 checks, Bailey said.
As Rodrigue recounted, “We were wiped out completely by the storm and most of our membership is gone, 85 percent. When we got back here, we didn’t know where to start, how to start. It’s hard to imagine losing everything. Where do you begin? No more building, no more hymnals, no more staff. When I came out the first time after the storm I passed right by the church; I didn’t even recognize the community.”
The pastor’s first thought was to move.
“But the Lord kept laying it on my heart: ‘The people are going to come back; they’re going to need a ministry here,’” Rodrigue said.
Over the last year Rodrigue and his wife Nicole established a food distribution center in a tent that still is in operation. About 35 people now are attending Sunday worship services, down by 50 percent of the pre-Katrina average — but at least half of the current 35 were unchurched before Katrina. Only four of Port Sulphur Baptist’s pre-Katrina members still live in town.
The Port Sulphur Baptist School also has reopened -– about a month after the public school started this fall -– with 23 students instead of the pre-Katrina enrollment of 100.
“We thought we never would have school again,” Rodrigue said. “But we were having parents getting food at the food distribution center, and they kept asking us. ‘If you don’t bring the school back, we’re not going to move back to the community,’ they said.
“About two months ago we got our third teacher to come back … and we have four now,” Rodrigue said.
Work continues with the rebuilding of the Port Sulphur church. The metal frame has been rewelded, and volunteer construction teams from across the nation have signed up to enclose the 7,000-square-foot building with tin.
“We were delighted to have [the Covington congregation] send that money to us to help in our rebuilding process,” Rodrigue said. “We don’t know what will be the final cost for the building but their giving will help meet that need.”
Of the ministry of the First Baptist in Covington and many other churches and volunteers who have helped since last spring, the pastor said, “If it weren’t for the Lord’s people, we wouldn’t be here.
Rodrigue said he marvels at “what Southern Baptists have done…. People come here -– groups of God’s people come and labor and toil -– and they feel used by God, useful to God. They tell other people, and the others say, ‘I want to be part of that too.’ And it’s still going on.”
The Virginia Baptist Mission Board recently supplied a modular unit now being used as the worship center and school, and a doublewide mobile home so the pastor and his wife and four children could escape the crowded conditions of a FEMA trailer.
Beyond its gifts to the 20 New Orleans-area churches, First Baptist in Covington excels in missions giving: more than $400,000 this year, including $167,000 through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ method of supporting missions and ministries of state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“About this time last year, we started recognizing that a huge mission field had been plopped down at our feet,” Pastor Bailey said. “It became very clear: 27 Southern Baptist churches completely destroyed and 29 pastors’ homes completely destroyed. We were just burdened about that.”
The congregation bought into the idea of giving 10 percent more than their tithe “just like Baptists all over the country have bought into ministering in New Orleans,” Bailey said. The $10,000 goes to churches as a gift, with no strings, no restrictions on its use.
“Not long after the storm I told our people that church had changed, that everything had changed, and the way we were going to do church had changed,” Bailey said. “We call it ‘rechurching’; we’ve used that word a lot and our people have bought into that concept…. We’re going to look for what God is doing in our midst.”
As the money in the “extra 10 percent” fund grew, Bailey started talking with church leaders about potential recipients and a list was drawn up.
“That list has changed since May,” Bailey said. “Some churches are doing so well they don’t have a need, and others not functioning…. We did the best we could with that. We tried to make good decisions and prayed about it and did the best we could.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.