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New Orleans pastor views Katrina’s toll: ‘We’re gonna rebuild’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Tied to a safety harness, Fred Luter leans toward the rescue helicopter’s doorway and scans the water-soaked horizon for the New Orleans church he has led since 1986.

Joined by Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch and David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, Luter and his companions have faces that express wary curiosity.

“I’ve heard 6 feet. I’ve heard 20 feet,” said Luter, answering a question from Welch about the extent to which Franklin Avenue Baptist Church had been inundated.

The trio of Southern Baptist leaders and others in the helicopter skimmed across houses with water up to the eaves; silt-covered vehicles scattered askew, gas tanks exuding a rainbow-colored sheen on the dank water; and the eerie site of several boats aground in a line on the freeway.

At 500 feet in the air, the stench was palpable.

“There it is!” Luter said as he pointed down from the chopper.

Luter’s wary curiosity turned into woeful crying as they circled the church twice Sept. 12.

Both Welch and Hankins placed hands of quiet consolation on his shoulders as Luter declined to fly over his nearby home.

Little of the devastation the chopper flew over subsequently interested Luter as the 40-minute flight drew to a close and returned to its makeshift helipad near the Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner.

“It was tough” to look at the church buildings, Luter told Baptist Press. “I’ve got 19 years of my life invested there. But we’re gonna rebuild. We’re gonna rebuild.”

According to visible stains left on church vans and buildings, flood waters intruded the multi-story 7,000-plus-member church at an estimated height of 7 feet.

Luter faces a twofold problem common to many pastors and churches in the path of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. Repairing and rebuilding church facilities is one thing. Re-gathering members is another.

“Our members are in shelters in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Memphis … they’re all over” the Southeastern United States, the pastor said. “We’ll get as many of them together as we can, and we’ll have a new church start.”

Luter said one of “the good things out of this is that I’ve gotten calls from pastors and churches from [throughout the Southern Baptist Convention] who’ve said, ‘Man, when you’re ready to get back in there let us know. We’ll send you ministry teams and missions teams. We’ll do whatever we can to help you rebuild.’”

Trying to squelch tears, Luter said the Lord is teaching him that “life is like a vapor on this side of eternity. What you have today could be gone tomorrow. You can’t put your trust in earthly things.”

Referring to other churches and their members, Luter said, “The Lord is also teaching me the genuineness of the body of Christ. Churches across this nation are taking people into their homes, their family life centers and their gymnasiums. I’m learning that the body of Christ can really come together when the need arises.”

Luter said he remains perplexed about the disaster itself: “I’ve got some questions for God He hasn’t answered yet, you know, the ‘why?’ of it all. I don’t know…. But His grace is sufficient, and I’m gonna make it.”

Welch and Hankins assured Luter that the Southern Baptist Convention and the Louisiana Baptist Convention would do everything possible to enable Franklin Street Baptist Church and others like it to come back even stronger.
New Orleans pastor Fred Luter will be featured on a half-hour FamilyNet special, “Katrina: Restoring Hope” on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 18, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. Eastern. The special also will include on-the-scene reports on Southern Baptists’ unprecedented efforts to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina. FamilyNet, a 24-hour values-based television network owned by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, is on the Web at www.FamilyNet.com; it can be reached toll-free at 1-800-832-6638.

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  • Norm Miller