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New Orleans faculty experiences ‘oasis’ at sister seminary

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary welcomed the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary faculty with open arms Sept. 9-11 for a working retreat. The outpouring of love included welcome signs, numerous gifts and, most of all, a place for the NOBTS faculty to reconnect.

“We are profoundly grateful for what the Southwestern Seminary family did this weekend,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said. “They helped launch our process of healing and made it much easier to focus on our future. We left Fort. Worth on Sunday ready to go back to work.”

All Kelley had requested of Southwestern was space for a meeting, but the gracious welcome from the SWBTS family created what he described as “a secure oasis of peace, love and encouragement.”

“God is going to use this [the disaster recovery] in an incredible way,” Southwestern President Paige Patterson said during his greeting to the NOBTS faculty. “We’re honored to have an opportunity to be a part of it.

“If you need anything while you are here, act like you own the place. After all, you really do,” Patterson quipped. “We’re just glad to have you here.”

While the “NOBTS Parting the Waters” retreat focused primarily on the seminary’s plan to resume classes on Oct. 3, the first evening offered faculty families a chance to fellowship and grieve over their losses.

The most heart-wrenching moments for the families came just after dinner. As Kelley shared news and photographs from the flooded campus, the crowd gasped at the sights and wept over what was lost. Despite all the struggles facing the group, the room was filled with hope, joy and, at times, laughter.

Kelley then spoke of the hope he has found in the midst of the great tragedy. For him, the disaster is an opportunity for the seminary to refocus on its original task –- “being a lighthouse as well as a schoolhouse.”

“In 1917, Southern Baptists decided to start a seminary and put it in New Orleans,” Kelley said. “We were just a whisper in the noise that was the city of New Orleans.”

The Southern Baptists who founded the seminary saw New Orleans as a strategic city with countless opportunities for ministry, Kelley said, noting that, from the beginning, the seminary has faced an uphill struggle to share the Gospel in the city.

The country was reminded of the city’s importance as gas prices rose in the wake of Katrina, Kelley said. Television images of hopelessness and human suffering reveal the need for long-term Christian service to address the poverty and sin of the city.

Kelley said he sees an opportunity for ministry in the seminary’s time of loss.

“I believe God is going to use the price we have paid to give us an open door in New Orleans,” Kelley said to the faculty families. “God is not going to waste what we are doing.”

The courses NOBTS faculty members teach about the Bible and the church are taking on new urgency, Kelley said. As the city rebuilds, many seminarians will be called on to immediately apply what they are learning in the classroom. The seminary family, he said, will play a vital role in the “new” New Orleans.

“God has given us an opportunity for significant influence, clear proclamation of the Gospel and powerful service that we could never have if we weren’t sharing the same loss as the people of our city,” Kelley said.

Kelley also touched on the task of restructuring courses for the semester. He praised the faculty’s creativity and willingness to find solutions, saying that they are uniquely equipped to face the challenge of a non-traditional semester.

“If you come [as a faculty member] to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, you have to make a commitment to learn to use educational technology and to do theological education in non-traditional as well as traditional ways,” Kelley said.

“We will have a semester,” he continued. “And you guys are going to make it happen because you have been practicing the kinds of things we’re going to do.”

Early the next morning, faculty members focused on a plan for completing the semester. During the first session, the entire faculty met together to hear the overall continuation plan from Provost Steve Lemke.

Next, the graduate and undergraduate faculties divided to work out the planning details for their specific areas. The meetings culminated with meetings by each of the school’s five divisions.

The work will not be easy. Most professors lost all of their textbooks and lesson plans. Over the next month, these men and women have the monument task of reconstructing their libraries and class notes.

However, during the meetings, time was provided for faculty members to use the Southwestern library and visit the LifeWay Christian Store to address this concern. LifeWay gave each faculty member a $100 gift card to help them begin rebuilding their personal libraries. The store also provided a textbook replacement allowance of up to $250 to help them purchase the books needed for this semester.

Hosting the faculty retreat represented only one facet of Southwestern Seminary’s response to NOBTS and other victims of Hurricane Katrina. Immediately after the hurricane, students and faculty at SWBTS began thinking of ways to help the NOBTS family.

“The first day that we heard about the possibility of a hurricane hitting the campus down at New Orleans we all decided that this would be an opportunity for us to be ministers to our sister seminary,” said Gregory Tomlin, director of public relations at SWBTS.

Tomlin and Greg Kingry, vice president of business services, began making plans to assist those affected by the storm. They also began mobilizing students to participate in disaster relief teams sponsored by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Initial plans for assistance included the possibility of housing displaced NOBTS students if needed and offering them the opportunity to take courses at SWBTS. They even hoped that NOBTS credit could be earned for the coursework.

“It turns out, most of that was not needed because Dr. Kelley did such a good job of reconstituting a ‘seminary in exile’ in Atlanta,” Tomlin said. The students were communicated with in a timely manner [by NOBTS], so we didn’t have a large number of students who have taken us up on that offer.”

Tomlin also arranged disaster relief training sessions for SWBTS students who wish to travel to Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help. Eighty-four students attended the first session on Sept. 10. Three additional training dates are planned.

“We are trying to spread ourselves as thin as possible and at the same time be as effective as possible in relief,” Tomlin said. “We look forward to the day when we can send an army of students to New Orleans and help the seminary recover.”

Perhaps the most touching and Christlike displays of love for New Orleans came during Southwestern chapel services on Sept. 6 and 8. On Sept. 6, Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, spoke in chapel. The speaking engagement, planned long before the hurricane, came when Luter was dealing with aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Tomlin said Luter shared a powerful message about Jesus calming the storm. The students responded by taking a “boot offering” -– a Southwestern tradition that involves using cowboy boots as offering plates. Seminary students, most struggling to get by themselves, filled the boots with $5,300 for Luter’s church.

Two days later, Patterson asked the students in chapel to respond again with a “boot offering” for NOBTS students. The same students who had given sacrificially earlier in the week dipped into their pockets again. This time they gave even more –- $7,000 for student relief.

SWBTS students and Dallas-Fort Worth-area churches also donated clothes and shoes to help faculty, staff and students rebuild their lives. Southwestern officials plan to deliver the items to New Orleans Seminary’s North Georgia Campus in Decatur, Ga. later this month.
New Orleans Seminary offices in North Georgia may be reached at 1-800-662-8701. Donations can be made online at www.nobts.edu or by mail at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, P.O. Box 1608, Decatur, GA 30031 or New Orleans Seminary Hurricane Relief Fund, Southern Baptist Foundation, 901 Commerce St., Suite 600, Nashville, TN 37203.