NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It is a beautiful Saturday morning in New Orleans — summer has not yet arrived full force, the sky is blue and the sun is warm.
Outside the Baptist Friendship House near the French Quarter section of the city, Dan Wuerddan kneels in front of a basketball backboard he is assembling.
A few minutes later, he climbs into the bed of his pickup truck and begins to attach the backboard to the basketball pole already in the ground.
Wuerddan easily is tall enough for the job — he played for the St. John Red Storm, a major college basketball program.
Now, he is a scout for the New Orleans Hornets professional basketball team. His ultimate goal is to coach.
However, today, he assembles the basketball goal for someone else — children and youth who participate in Baptist Friendship House programs.
His effort is just a part of an overall Hornets project at the New Orleans ministry. The team recently provided resources — and personnel — to renovate the ministry facility operated by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.
By the time the project was completed in late May, the ministry featured renovated bedrooms for homeless women and children in need of shelter, a renovated dining room and a gymnasium redone to provide meeting space for regular training and education classes.
The project included new paint on walls, new flooring and new furniture.
All in all, the Hornets donated more than $21,000 in materials and countless hours of labor, says Kay Bennett, director of the Friendship House. On the first day of the project, 28 persons showed up to work, followed by 24 people on the second day.
For two weeks afterwards, four or five persons from the Hornets organization traveled to the ministry site each day to put final touches on the project.
How did the National Basketball Association team match up with the Baptist Friendship House for the effort?
It began with the visit of a group of women from First Baptist Church of New Orleans — a group that included Denise Shinn. The group went to the center to cut soup labels for the ministry. While there, Shinn was introduced to the work.
“I quickly saw that it’s a great, great home for desperate women,” Shinn says.
She also saw needs of the ministry — and decided to do something about it.
That is where the Hornets came into play. Shinn’s husband, George, owns the team — and his wife was convinced this was a perfect project for the club.
The commitment was made for the Hornets organization to undertake — and underwrite — the renovation project.
“Everybody just came together and donated their time …,” Shinn explains.
“It’s been just such a transformation. It’s just so bright and happy and cheery. It’s more like a home.”
Shinn talks about the project — and its results — in excited fashion.
“I know the Lord led me there,” she says.
For that matter, the Lord also led her and her husband to First Baptist Church, she adds. George Shinn is a longtime Baptist, while his wife grew up a Methodist.
When the couple arrived in New Orleans with the Hornets a few years ago, they began visiting churches, everything from Presbyterian to Methodist.
“Then, we visited First Baptist Church and truly fell in love with the church family and pastor (David) Crosby,” Shinn explains. “We just both knew that was where we belonged.
“So, I was baptized into the church. I am a Baptist now…. It just makes you feel good to be part of a church family.”
Shinn says the Baptist Friendship House effort was perfect for the Hornets organization. “It was a great opportunity for employees to get to know each other,” she says. “They really enjoyed it.”
Meanwhile, Bennett talks just as excitedly about the impact of the project on the ministry. “We could not have done this on our own, and I don’t know too many churches that could have provided this kind of materials and labor …,” she notes.
“People who see it now just cannot believe it. They are so excited.”
Bennett is excited because of the impetus it gives the ongoing ministry of the Baptist Friendship House.
For 61 years, the ministry has focused on an encompassing mission purpose — to meet the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of homeless women and children of New Orleans with love.
The ongoing ministry involves a host of offerings, including:
— Emergency aid through such things as a ministry clothes closet, food distribution, rent/utility assistance and help with baby supplies for women.
— Job readiness training for women, including help in developing skills, preparing resumes, applying and interviewing for jobs and setting vocational goals.
— Health education through such things as nutrition classes, health screenings and fairs, health counseling, wellness programs and distribution of hygiene items.
— Education help through such things as literacy training, computer labs, GED preparation, tutoring and training in life skills and parenting.
— Transitional housing through the providing of shelter and programs to help women develop needed life skills.
Of course, an overarching focus is spiritual growth. To that end, the ministry offers regular Bible and discipleship studies, counseling services and chapel services.
It also distributes Bibles and other Christian literature and conducts after-school and summer programs for kids.
“We touch on a little bit of everything,” Bennett explains.
However, the transitional housing program is a key ministry. It features 24 beds for homeless women and children. Usually, the women are fleeing abusive situations — sometimes from another state even — and end up staying at the Baptist Friendship House for two to five months.
During that time, ministry workers get the children placed in school or daycare, then begin working to help the mother develop employment and life skills.
The ministry helps find employment and housing for the women and provides them an ongoing mentoring program.
Bennett says several of the women helped by the ministry now have come to give back to the program in some way.
Meanwhile, Bennett and her co-workers continue to explore ways they can minister to their community.
Currently, they are conducting a pilot program known as Project H.O.P.E. — Helping Others Prepare for life by Equipping them with knowledge and practical skills. During a four-week period, some 30 girls age 11-18 are attending the summer program, where they focus on developing various self-esteem and life skills.
The ministry also conducts a weekly Street Reach to homeless persons.
Just blocks from the Baptist Friendship House, as many as 200 homeless persons gather at night near a seawall.
Each Thursday night, workers and local church volunteers walk down to the site, where they distribute coffee and other items — and share the gospel. “There’s always an opportunity there,” Bennett says.
Also, the ministry is preparing for its annual Back-to-School Party, at which 300 or more backpacks of school supplies are distributed to area children.
This year’s party is set for August 6, but the ministry still is working to find persons and groups that will donate the backpacks and supplies.
Such help always is needed, Bennett acknowledges. The North American Mission Board provides funds for her salary and some necessities. However, operating funds come through donations each year, making finances a constant need.
Volunteers are needed as well — from local churches that can supply cooks or workers for such efforts as Street Reach to out-of-state teams that wish to travel to the ministry and stay at the ministry site while engaging in various efforts.
“And of course, everybody can help out through prayer,” Bennett notes.
Meanwhile, Bennett and her co-workers will continue to offer the kind of lasting hope and care that she heard one ministry participant acknowledge recently.
The woman had arrived for a ministry program, only to see the work performed by the Hornets to renovate the site.
“I heard her talking about what had been done,” Bennett recalls. “And she said, ‘They did all this for us?’ And it just brought tears to my eyes.
“What a great way to let people know they are cared for.”
This story was written and published by the Baptist Message, news journal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention and is re-printed with permission.