NEW ORLEANS (BP)–A thin edge of normality veils the emotional trauma of living for the last year in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which has been called the nation’s worst-ever natural disaster.
As Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page noted after being in New Orleans July 17, “I quickly realized that there is no way to see the absolute scope of devastation without visiting there personally. Literally, mile after mile of devastation greets any visitor.”
A year into Katrina recovery, the situation in greater New Orleans remains acute, and some pastors are to the point of emotional exhaustion.
“The hardest thing about being in New Orleans at the present time is seeing the devastation every day. It’s still an awful sight to drive through the flood zone,” said David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.
“Another hard thing is saying goodbye to your friends, weekly,” Crosby said.
Despite a city-imposed Aug. 29 deadline for home repairs to be started or contracted for, only about 10 percent of the population has returned to the neighborhoods around First Baptist, Crosby said. Only about 35 percent of the population has returned to the neighborhood around Gentilly Baptist Church, which, in the absence of its members, is being used by Elysian Fields Baptist Church, which lost its building in the post-Katrina flooding.
“Entire neighborhoods of this city have not begun to come back,” said Elysian Fields pastor Ken Taylor, who also is professor of urban missions at nearby New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “There’s the Lower Ninth Ward, where nothing has come back, and in Gentilly you’ve got brick homes with front doors hanging wide open. Some of those have a FEMA trailer out front. Some haven’t even been gutted.”
Nearly 60 percent of homes and businesses still do not have electricity or natural gas, the Associated Press reported in mid-August. Only three of nine New Orleans hospitals are open; only 56 of 128 public schools.
Before Katrina, there were 140 Southern Baptist congregations; now there are about 85 and several of those are merging or worshiping together.
Southern Baptists’ steadfast response over the last year to the great need in New Orleans has meant as much emotionally as it has physically, several pastors and leaders said.
“God’s people have created their own floods of healing for New Orleans,” Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, noted. “Since last Aug. 29 , there has not been a single day -– not one -– when teams of disaster relief workers and church volunteers could not be found in this city, serving Christ by doing whatever the situation called for.”
In the days and weeks after Katrina, Southern Baptist volunteers listened, consoled, mourned with and prayed with countless thousands of area residents. Only God knows the number of people who have reached out to Him as the result of Southern Baptist volunteers, McKeever said, and only God knows how many showers were taken, loads of laundry washed, children cared for, yards cleared of brush and downed trees, homes gutted and meals served.
Southern Baptists continue to have several major projects underway throughout greater New Orleans.
Operation Noah (New Orleans Area Hope) Rebuild is the North American Mission Board umbrella under which many volunteer groups are working. Their goal is 1,000 homes and 20 churches rebuilt over the next two years, and volunteers are needed to help gut several hundred homes. Their greatest need at the moment is for licensed electricians; electrical work needs to be done before sheetrock can go on the walls, construction coordinator Steve Gahagan said.
Southern Baptists have boosted relief and recovery efforts in New Orleans as well as in Mississippi and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast through a $12.5 million beyond-the-budget allocation of Cooperative Program gifts from the past fiscal year. In an initiative of the SBC Executive Committee, the overage has been allocated in three ways: New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 50 percent; relief needs being met through the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama conventions, 25 percent; and North American Mission Board disaster relief operations, 25 percent.
A new Baptist initiative in New Orleans — dividing the city into 27 zones -– aims at making it easier for churches, associations and state conventions across the nation to partner with New Orleans-area churches and help meet the needs the local churches have identified.
Baptist Crossroads, meanwhile, is the largest residential construction project in the city. In the planning stages for two years before Katrina, it is a joint project of Southern Baptists and Habitat for Humanity. More than 3,000 volunteers built 30 homes this summer, and that’s just a start, said Crosby, who had the vision for the project.
“Every generalization you make about this city applies somewhere,” McKeever said. “It’s ruined in places; it’s fine in places.”
Good Shepherd Baptist Church is one of several positive church stories. They’re reaching out to Mexican laborers and growing, with at least 500 in Sunday morning worship. They’re buying property and expanding.
First Baptist Church in Kenner is starting a mission in the uptown area which escaped flood damage, while Vietnamese Baptist is starting a mission in East New Orleans.
Celebration Church merged with Crescent City Baptist two weeks before Katrina and now is meeting in the Crescent City facilities. They drew First Baptist Church Arabi under their umbrella and then Woodland Community Church in La Place. Celebration’s pastor, Dennis Watson, works with a coalition of about 200 Protestant pastors; they brought in Josh McDowell for an Aug. 21 luncheon and Anne Graham Lotz for a Just Give Me Jesus rally Aug. 26.
First Baptist New Orleans is hosting the sizable remnant of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church which meets at 7:30 a.m. each week and maxes out the space available. Franklin Avenue members also dispersed in great numbers to Baton Rouge and in Houston, with pastor Fred Luter holding services in each location.
“A lot of our churches are just trying to survive,” McKeever said. “A lot of our churches are reaching out and making a difference in this city.”
First Baptist New Orleans has a goal of 1,000 homes gutted by the end of the year; so far -– and with the help of numerous groups from across the nation – they’ve done 750. SBC President Frank Page and pastor David Crosby stopped by one house that was being gutted by a group of a dozen teens and their sponsors from Springhill, Mo. Page noticed that the house probably had been in “condemmable” condition before the storm.
“We don’t do this work for the houses,” Crosby noted. “We do it for the people.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.