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N.O. church sees new life in 4 months rather than 3-4 years

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The nondescript church blends into its surroundings in a working-class neighborhood on Elysian Fields Avenue a few miles from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter and just south of the still-menacing vastness of Lake Pontchartrain.

Iglesia Bautista Getsemani (Gethsemane Baptist Church) consists of a small two-story education building and a worship center next door. Iron-gated security doors greet visitors before they walk inside, where Pastor Alberto Rivera warmly greets visitors and is passionate about preaching the Gospel.

But, like the other buildings in the neighborhood, Iglesia Bautista Getsemani was not spared Hurricane Katrina’s wrath last Aug. 29. Few buildings in the neighborhood were flattened but every one sustained significant water damage, including the church. Large trees were pulled up by the roots and toppled and cars were tossed around like children’s toys.

But, thanks to the hard work and servant spirit of people from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and other church groups, Getsemani’s buildings are just about ready to hold services again. Two groups of Southeastern students, faculty and supporters traveled to New Orleans from Wake Forest, N.C., as part of Southeastern’s Operation G.R.A.C.E. program.

The Southeastern group did a “mud out,” which consisted of tearing off the walls, cleaning out debris and bleaching every square inch of the buildings. Nothing was left inside, including the wiring.

“When I first came back into the area after Katrina on Sept. 19, there was nine feet of water in both of the buildings,” Rivera recounted. “It was heartbreaking. I wept all the way home. It wasn’t for the structure but I wept for the people. A lot of our congregation is low-income people. I’ve been ministering to them, helping them in their homes. That was the biggest reason my heart felt broken.

“The whole floor [of the education building] was under water. We had a piano that sat right there that floated across the educational building [as he pointed to a corner in the fellowship hall].”

Rivera felt helpless. He moved his family to Brookhaven, Miss., two and a half hours from New Orleans, to escape the storm. They still live there while Rivera goes back and forth between his two “homes.”

“I’ve been asked over and over, ‘Why go back to New Orleans?’” Rivera said. “My answer is God called us to New Orleans. If God calls you, you obey. A storm will not take you away.

“To be honest with you, a month after Katrina, I had some uncertainties. My family live two and a half hours away and have had a difficult time with this. I’ve had the desire to say, it’s over. It’s time to go. There was not much going on. I asked God, ‘What do you want us to do? I had people scattered in 10 different states. We can’t work on the building. Am I supposed to be here?’”

But, like anyone who is faithful, God answered Rivera’s prayers. He met up with Bob Jackson, the director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s MissionsLab, who helped coordinate the meeting between Rivera and Southeastern Seminary’s group in December.

Of the 110-plus students, faculty, staff and Southeastern supporters who went on the mission trips in December and January, about 30 each trip worked on the church buildings. The first group gutted both buildings, clearing away everything, including the kitchen sink. To go along with the stench of the mold and other things the floodwaters brought to the church was the discovery of a dead body in the back of the education building.

The second group’s task was to tear out the old wiring and rewire both buildings in one week’s time. A seemingly impossible task?

“When I first thought about it, I was like, ‘No way,’” said Lee Jeffreys, who is an electrician for Southeastern’s facilities management department as well as a student and pastor at Holy Grove Baptist Church in Spring Hope, N.C. “Then I thought, ‘There’s a way. There’s always a way.’ We started praying. I told people on our team I have two things: 1. Be constantly in prayer; 2. If there is any negativity to walk off and pray about it. Don’t bring anyone negative. Be optimistic about everything. All 29 people did that and this is why stuff was accomplished.

“We came over here Sunday afternoon and assessed the whole job. Wow. Nails were everywhere [in the walls] from the last group. I didn’t think we’d have time to pull them out. Imagine about 50 million nails and every one had to be pulled out so the next crew can hang sheetrock and put in insulation.”

Jeffreys, who was one of three group leaders and was the “superintendent” of all three work crews at the church, showed patience with the vast range of experience. Among the three groups working at the church, there were master electricians, carpenters and a large group of Southeastern servants willing to do everything from sweep floors to pull wires and cut boards to replace the rotted ones.

What was done at the end of that January trip could be best described as a “God thing.”

Joy Forrest, a seminary student who was on her second trip to the Gulf and helped create a new sign for the church, said, “The Lord really put together a good blend of people. Those who weren’t as skilled helped clean up. Everyone used their gifts well. Not one person skimped on anything. It was wonderful.

“I saw what happened here on the news but there’s no way you could experience what really happened unless you came here and saw it firsthand. On our first day, we saw the Superdome and the devastation around it. I’m really glad the seminary had this trip.”

By the end of the week, Southeastern’s team had most of the wiring done in the education building. The main focus was the worship center so Rivera could have services. All he needed was something to sit in, carpeting and paint.

Rivera didn’t know of Southeastern’s January trip. He was contacted on a Thursday by David Armstrong, Southeastern’s comptroller who was helping to lead the trip, and asked to come by the church the next day to see what the group was doing.

To say Rivera was stunned when he stepped into the worship center was an understatement. The tears didn’t flow until he toured both buildings and then had a chance to think about what he had just seen and how far the church had come since Aug. 29.

“We are where we are by the grace of God,” Rivera said with tears flowing down his cheeks. “Thank you for being faithful to the Lord. The grace of God brought Southeastern here. I hope in years to come we can celebrate the harvest together.

“I walk these halls. And I remember there were two inches of mud on the floor. Water was dripping. Everything was wet. I said, ‘Man, it will take three or four years to clean this up.’ And here we are, brother, a little over four months and look at what has been done. To the glory of God, here we are. It may not mean a whole lot to a lot of people but this is where we worship the Lord on Wednesday nights. This is where we come as a family of God. I’m excited. This is the answer to prayer. This is just awesome. It just overjoys my heart.

As Southeastern’s final Operation G.R.A.C.E. trip of this school year left March 4 for New Orleans, Rivera said a group from Greenville, S.C., visited and finished the electrical work and all he is waiting on is an inspection from the city.

With Southeastern’s reputation secure as a mission-minded institution, it’s a poignant testimony that the seminary worked on this particular church. Back in 1965, a young New Orleans Seminary student named Paige Patterson who was working on his master of divinity and doctorate degrees spoke at a meeting and then was named pastor at Bethany Baptist Church, a small church that had just split due to the charismatic movement.

Forty years later, a group of people from the seminary he helped grow to prominence helped raise up a congregation –- now Iglesia Bautista Getsemani that is in desperate need. It was a message Patterson preached and taught frequently to his students at Southeastern.

“I had a wonderful ministry there,” said Patterson, now president at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “We had a little gray building on the corner and we built the brick building that is now the educational building. It’s a different church now than I was there.

“But, I am very grateful Southeastern Seminary students had a part in rebuilding it. I’m grateful to their witness for God. Southeastern has continued on a vitally important path. I’m so delighted to hear they were involved in this church.”

    About the Author

  • Jerry Higgins