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Learning lessons in crisis

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–We will return two of our seven trailers this month. We are seeking to consolidate our storage into one container and planning to remove the port-o-lets. The eight outside shower stalls built by volunteers will be disassembled at summer’s end.

Nineteen months after Hurricane Katrina, we are gradually moving out of emergency mode at First Baptist New Orleans.

Not that the crisis is over, mind you, or that we have completed our relief efforts. Among the thousands of structures in our church neighborhood, only 20 percent have electrical service. A quarter of a million people are still not back home. We are facing years of clean-up and recovery.

Our church will continue to minister to people in need as we have done for generations.

And we are gearing up to take point on an enormous rebuilding effort in our city that will require the help of 30,000 volunteers during the next five years. As I write this we are in the process of building 10 homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. We are planning a charter school. And we are forming partnerships that will help hundreds of homeowners demolish or rebuild their properties.

We are not near done with the good work that puts a face on love in our city.

But I’ve been telling our people that they cannot live forever in crisis mode, that they must discover and implement a “sustainable lifestyle” in the midst of their new realities since Katrina. The human mind and heart cannot forever be dealing with crisis.

We must also make this shift as a church. We must develop a pace that we can sustain as a staff and congregation through the years ahead. I know this is necessary for our health and success.

However, I am not finding the transition as easy as I first imagined it might be. I lament the inevitable decline of some emotional and spiritual components that were a delightful dimension of this era in our lives.

The camaraderie of crisis is a beautiful gift in the midst of trouble. Friendships are formed quickly and deeply. The emergency needs dominate the mind and heart and discussion. Lives at risk around you take precedent over all other concerns.

Crisis reveals our common denominators. Differences are set aside by new partners so that shared needs may be addressed and individuals may be rescued. Issues that once divided us are of little consequence in the wake of the storm.

Personal energies are diverted and channeled into the work at hand. Trivial pursuits are put on hold indefinitely. Life and work develop a fine point, a clear focus. The power of such concentration of time and talent is startling and inspiring.

The power of coalitions becomes evident. New teams emerge in crisis and rapidly accomplish enormous undertakings. Many people work hard to achieve the same ends. Millions of meals are fixed. Millions of water bottles distributed. Thousands of sanitation kits are assembled. Resources pour in to enable the work on the ground. Volunteers from everywhere put their shoulders to the wheel.

Therefore, I feel a sense of loss as we move out of crisis mode. I know that I may never again experience the same ease in forging friendships and alliances. The ordinary difficulties of congregational life, submerged and postponed by the flood, are likely to emerge and demand my attention and energies.

I also fear that we may forget the lessons learned in crisis, that we may go back to squabbling over trivia or hording worthless trophies or frittering away our time caring for the stuff instead of caring for one another.

Crisis reduces life to its bare essentials — loving God, loving each other and working for the common good. I hope that some of the attitudes and behaviors forced upon us by the flood will become a permanent part of our being. Surely God intended to effect some positive changes in me through this disaster.

And I trust that people who lead faith-based initiatives will be deliberate and determined in preserving the outstanding relationships, attitudes and behaviors that mobilized us in the wake of the flood and baptized our astonished residents in the love and kindness of strangers.
David E. Crosby is pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.

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  • David E. Crosby