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NAMB’s Hammond returns to New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Youngsters from Rachel Sims Baptist Ministry Center in New Orleans sent hand-drawn cards and letters to Geoff Hammond last summer after he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

They were messages of welcome to Hammond — and thanks for all that NAMB has done in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in August 2005 and Rita ravaged it again less than a month later.

“Thank you for your kind words,” Hammond said to the youngsters clustered around him on Saturday, Jan. 12. “They made me very happy.”

Returning to greater New Orleans was something he had looked forward to, Hammond said later. Less than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, he and media missionary Brandon Pickett served with disaster relief volunteers from the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, where Hammond was senior associate director.

“We went down to tell the story of how God was using Virginia’s disaster relief crews to minister to thousands who were now homeless,” said Pickett, who now serves as NAMB’s communications team leader. Pickett’s award-winning video of that 2005 visit -– called “Disaster Relief: For Such a Time as This” (at www.baptistcommunicators.org/awards/year.cfm?year=2006) -– captures the raw-edged destruction of the storm and the heartfelt devotion of Virginia volunteers to minister however they could.

“I just felt an urgency to help,” one volunteer said while stirring an oversized pot of beans in September 2005, and another volunteer echoed the words while moving boxes of food. The video was shown many times around Virgina in the months after the storm to encourage more volunteer participation in disaster relief.

Hammond relived that visit of two years ago when he returned to the area this January at the invitation of First Baptist in Slidell to be the keynote speaker for the church’s annual Global Impact Celebration.

“The hardest thing was finding a bathroom that worked,” Hammond said Sunday morning, Jan. 13, to the appreciative laughter of the Slidell congregation, many of whom remembered all too clearly the difficulties of the early weeks after the storm when there was no electricity, no water and no good news — except for what Southern Baptists and other Christians were dispensing as they spread God’s love along with food, clothing, showers and more.

“Where you saw victims, you saw the yellow shirts of disaster relief volunteers,” Hammond said. “I had the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder with them on the feeding line and count them as unsung heroes.”

As Hammond visited greater New Orleans with his wife Debbie and son Nick, he recalled car dealership lots filled with vehicles still sitting in water, an entire section of Interstate 10 that had been snatched away by hurricane winds, blackness at night for miles around instead of an urban area’s streetlights. He revisited moments of connection with people who had lost everything and who were as grateful for kind words, warm smiles and big hugs as they were for the food they wouldn’t have had if it hadn’t been for Southern Baptists.

“As I looked around the campus of First Baptist Slidell, I praised the Lord for a church that is alive and thriving after such a tragedy,” Hammond said. “But I also saw as I drove around Slidell and New Orleans there is much more work to do and Southern Baptists need to be a vital part of the rebuilding.”

In addition to preaching in Slidell and stopping at the Rachel Sims Baptist Ministry Center, Hammond visited the Brantley Center and Friendship House ministries and the offices of Operation NOAH Rebuild (New Orleans Area Homes Rebuild), an initiative of NAMB, the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans and local churches to reach the city for Christ via post-Katrina renovation efforts as well as personal witness for Christ. As he visited NOAH rebuild sites and drove to various locations in greater New Orleans and the Northshore, he visited with people whose homes had been rebuilt, and on Monday morning, Jan. 15, with a group of pastors and missions leaders.

He spoke with the Louisiana Baptist Message about NAMB’s continuing commitment to the needs of greater New Orleans. New Orleans holds a special place in the heart of Southern Baptists, and it has since the inception of the SBC in 1845, Hammond said.

“New Orleans still is a national disaster,” Hammond said. “It’s going to take more than one state convention can do to bring it back, and to take advantage of the opportunity to share the greatest hope of all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The scope of the destruction, the strain on the United States to have a port city unable to hold up its economic viability, the displacement of people across the nation -– all are parts of what keeps New Orleans a national disaster, the NAMB president said.

“And the receptivity to the Gospel here,” Hammond added. “That also makes it important to us.”

In meeting with several pastors and missionaries Monday morning at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Hammond said, “I wanted the pastors and staff to feel valued and to let you know that we are here for you, and to find out some of your stories about how NAMB has helped in your ministry.”

Jay Adkins, pastor of First Baptist Westwego, spoke of calling for a feeding unit after Katrina and said the church has a number of new and active believers as a result of the feeding ministry.

Dave Maxwell of NOAH spoke of a group of Southern Baptist volunteers coming to the area who felt terrible about the fact that the only thing they thought they could do was cut grass. God used that group to lead someone to Christ, Maxwell said.

Scott Smith spoke of the fact that he could not still be pastoring his church were it not for the “Adopt-a-Church” partnership NAMB created to help Gulf Coast congregations after the storm. That church has paid his salary since the storm and is the only reason he can still lead his flock, Smith said.

John Vandercook of Global Maritime Ministry said that even though New Orleans churches and ministries have been the recipients of a great amount of sweat and labor, there is still a dire need for financial help with struggling ministries in the area. Pre-Katrina, these ministries were supported by local churches, yet since the storm the churches themselves also are struggling financially.

“Dr. Hammond was gracious and attentive,” Adkins said. “I was thoroughly impressed with how he listened to each of us and was that much more appreciative to know that he would take time to come to see us and get a direct picture of what we presently face.

“Although I was scheduled to be at [Louisiana’s] Inaugural Prayer Breakfast and hated to miss the chance to shake hands again with our new Gov. Bobby Jindal, I was honored to be asked to meet with Dr. Hammond and I am happy to have made the choice to meet this godly man,” Adkins continued. “… I am looking forward to many years of successful Kingdom work with my new partner in ministry.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.